June 17, 2005


A new era for Iran’s democracy: Iran’s presidential election is a stage in the renewal of Iranian politics towards secularism, democracy, human rights and non-violence. Mehrdad Mashayekhi tells the story of an epoch-making shift. (Mehrdad Mashayekhi, 16 - 6 - 2005, OpenDemocracy)

Iranian society is in the midst of an epoch-making renaissance in its political culture and discourse. This transformation in political values, norms, symbols and everyday codes of behaviour is most evident in educated circles, especially amongst the opposition political elite.

Since the “Islamic” revolution of 1978-79, two distinct political models have assumed hegemonic positions in the opposition movement; first, the anti-imperialist/revolutionary paradigm, dominant in the 1970s and early 1980s, which I have elsewhere referred to as “the problematic of dependency”; and second, the Islamic-reformist paradigm, assuming prominence in 1997 and leading the challenge to the clerical establishment from within the system until 2003.

Since 2003, there are strong indications that a new political paradigm is emerging. The new model of political dissent is democratic, secular and characterised by republican values.

The purpose of this essay is to explain the political and intellectual context within which the new democratic framework is emerging in Iran. [...]

Iranian history since the mid-19th century has witnessed sporadic attempts by political elites, intellectuals and circles of activists to introduce the idea of jomhouriyat (republicanism). Although the 1979 revolution ended 2,500 years of monarchy and formally introduced an “Islamic republic,” the fundamentalist Islamist faction within the regime made incessant assaults against the “republican” dimension of the new system. Since 1997, its core idea of an “Islamic government” has circulated widely in Iran.

In response, the reformists tried to revive the system’s republicanism, but they failed to embody in practice what they promoted in public discourse. After eight years in office, Khatami sarcastically dubbed himself the system’s “office coordinator” (tadarokatchi) – a system that continues to operate around the supreme leader (vali-e faqih) and all the (parallel) clerical institutions tied to his office.

In this light, the recent emergence of secular and democratic republican ideas in opposition circles is highly significant. It derives broadly from six developments:

• the strengthening of the institution of velayat-e-faqih and the concomitant weakening of the system’s republicanism, symbolised by the ineffective role of the president and other elected officials in the political process.

• an explosion of secular trends in Iranian society and culture, most evident in arts, literature, gender relations, the media and intellectual discourses, entertainment and the decline of religious values and practices.

• the failure of the Islamic reformists’ project to democratise Iranian society and politics, which led to the search by young people, student activists, intellectuals and other civil society forces to seek political alternatives.

• the 2002 publication of ex-reformist Akbar Ganji’s Republican Manifesto represented a break with the reformists’ camp; he urged Iranians to fight for a democratic republican system by boycotting the political process and its elections.

• the impact of the post-9/11 international context on Iran was evident in a more aggressive American foreign policy that attempted to destabilise the Islamic republic. Iranian monarchist circles in the US, encouraged by the new American mood, intensified their efforts to exploit the new international climate. Their messages, regularly broadcast to Iran through satellite television programmes, also alarmed many republicans.

• the establishment in May 2003 of Ettehad-e Jomhorikhahan-e Iran (Unity for a Democratic and Secular Republic in Iran, EJI), the largest expatriate anti-regime Iranian political organization, represented an advance in the ideas of secular republicanism. These ideas have since gained more support on Iranian college campuses and among intellectuals.

The new secular republican paradigm is still in the making. It can be characterised as both “post-revolutionary” and “post-reformist”. In a sense, what has happened is that the failure of the earlier two paradigms in Iran has resulted in a new synthesis: non-violent and civil in its methods of creating social change, while seeking fundamental structural changes in the system’s economic, political and (some) cultural institutions.

The aim of this combination could be designated as “structural reform”, “velvet revolution”, or (in Timothy Garton Ash’s formulation) “refolution”. Whatever term is most apposite, it is evident that the new paradigm is attempting to define itself distinctly and overcome the intellectual and programmatic weaknesses of its predecessors.

Open Democracy has an Iran election blog too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2005 2:39 PM

I hate to be Captain Bringdown here, but isn't this pretty much what they said about the last Iranian elections? They elected a "reformer" who ended up changing nada.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 17, 2005 5:29 PM

That appears to be the consensus of opinion.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 17, 2005 5:47 PM


No. The consensus is that quite a bit has changed, but that the final steps will require a showdown with the Guardian Council.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2005 6:09 PM

So why hasn't the statement from Bush yesterday slamming the elections as a sham and supporting the Iranian people's desire for liberty been posted here yet?

Posted by: b at June 17, 2005 6:24 PM

It's mentioned in one of the stories.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2005 6:28 PM

Sorry, I thought he meant the consensus of what everybody else thinks, not the consensus of what OJ thinks.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 17, 2005 10:13 PM

Go to Iran in the Categories and click on the first ten stories you come to--each will repeat the rather obvious view that Iran has liberalized significantly from where it was in the immediate post-Revolutionary 80s-early 90s, but that until the power of the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader is finally curtailed the liberalization won't be completed.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2005 10:22 PM