A new era for Iran’s democracy

Mehrdad Mashayekhi
15 June 2005

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.

Also in openDemocracy's debate on Iran's elections, politics and democracy:

IranScan - a lively multi-authored openDemocracy blog by Iranians from Tehran to Los Angeles

Hossein Derakhshan & Solana Larsen, "Blogging Iran's wired election" (June 2005)

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The purpose of this essay is to explain the political and intellectual context within which the new democratic framework is emerging in Iran. This requires first a brief look at the two previously dominant political models: the anti-imperialist/revolutionary paradigm, and the Islamic reformist paradigm.

The anti-imperialist / revolutionary paradigm

Several groups and ideologies were active in the Iranian revolution of 1979, but I would argue that all these political currents operated within a common paradigm and shared a range of concepts, values and norms of political activism. In particular, the dissident opposition movement – comprised of revolutionary socialism, political Islam and liberal-nationalist subcultures – was primarily defined by the notion of national independence.

This theme of anti-dependency clearly dominated Iranian public discourse, especially among the intellectuals, political activists, students, low-ranking clergy and even sections of the new middle classes. As early as 1971, one observer remarked:

“Perhaps the single most salient political issue in contemporary Iran is the evaluation of … instances of foreign encroachment on Iranian sovereignty and their relevance for domestic politics.”

This way of thinking blamed most of Iran’s problems on western imperialism, particularly the United States. Its arguments were fuelled by phrases like “dependent capitalism,” “dependent regime,” “comprador bourgeoisie,” “westoxication,” and “return to Islamic roots”. The anti-dependency notion was underpinned by other ideas: populism, anti-intellectualism, the necessity of revolutionary violence, martyrdom( shahadat ), cult of personality, rejection of liberal democracy, romantic utopianism, and an affinity with totalistic ideologies.

For a period in 1978-79, revolutionary socialists, radical Islamists and liberal-nationalists united against the Shah’s dictatorship. But the victory of clerical forces inevitably led to the disintegration of this “populist bloc”. Radical clergy, after capturing power, also appropriated the anti-imperialist paradigm. They successfully outmaneouvred the bloc’s components with a series of combative forays: occupying the American embassy in Tehran, executing many high-ranking officials of the Shah’s regime, and prolonging the war initiated by Iraq in 1980. Their small base of support and lack of political-cultural roots among Iran’s people also handicapped the secular opposition forces.

As a result, these forces could not challenge the clerical establishment from within the paradigm they shared with the dominant Islamists. In particular, their preoccupation with the radical, nationalistic anti-dependency perspective prevented them from placing a high premium on the democratic demands of women, journalists, intellectuals, and modern urban professionals.

The inability to articulate the needs and interests of the urban middle class – in conjunction with the revolutionary regime’s repression and the harsh conditions of the war with Iraq (1980-1988) – combined to undermine the anti-imperialist/revolutionary model. The collapse of “really-existing socialism” in 1989-91 hammered the final nails into its coffin.

The Islamic reformist paradigm

The 1990s were an era of political crisis in post-revolutionary Iran. The Islamic regime suffered from three major losses: the demoralising defeat in the Iran-Iraq war; the death of the revolution’s charismatic leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989; and a significant decline in the regime’s social base. As a result, the power-elite during Hashemi Rafsanjani’s consecutive presidential terms (1989-1997) became polarised between conservative and reformist factions. Mohammad Khatami’s election as president in May 1997 inaugurated a new, Islamic reformist movement and project.

The ultimate roots of Islamic reformism can be traced to the post-revolutionary era. The paradigm was shaped by five processes:

  • after a few years of revolutionary government, the Islamic political elite was overwhelmed by mounting social problems: the war, population explosion, confrontation with the United States, containment of diverse opposition forces and the consequences of Islamisation of the educational system and other institutions. Strict ideological “solutions” sought by the socially conservative and politically radical Islamists most often exacerbated the problems, generating the need for a more flexible approach.
  • the Islamic republic from its very inception had assumed a fragmented and heterogeneous form – a reflection of its diverse economic, political, religious and generational interests. Various state factions, while recognising the sanctity of the system’s operating rules, shared an overlapping relationship in a semi-pluralistic fashion. The Islamic system, by avoiding an exclusionary policy towards these “insiders”, channeled most of them into non-revolutionary and moderate forms of opposition. The remaining dissidents were forced into a non-violent, reformist approach. Once the state had routed opposition forces in the early 1980s, any challenge to the ruling elite could only come from within the power bloc.
  • the reform movement was an intellectual as well as a political phenomenon. From the late 1980s, a new generation of Islamic thinkers – such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari -undertook modernist and liberal readings of Islam, strongly influenced by liberal philosophers like Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos. Their criticisms targeted “traditionalist jurisprudence” (feqh-e sonnati) and gained wide influence among students.
  • almost two decades of living under a revolutionary-theocratic state created immense weariness amongst most Iranians. The first generation of the revolution experienced incessant revolutionary mobilisation, eight years of war, armed uprisings by secular leftist parties, coup attempts, urban riots, and mass destruction of life and property. Thus, the non-violent, non-ideological, and non-revolutionary attitude of “the second generation” provided a welcome foundation for the new reformism. On 23 May 1997, the Iranian people expressed their deep resentment of all this by voting for a new president and a reformist administration.
  • the demise of Soviet socialism and the Marxist left in Iran weakened the intellectual legacies of socialism – including glorification of revolutionary violence, the one-party system, rejection of “bourgeois democracy”, and highly ideological approaches to politics.

A critique of the reform movement

The major goals of the reformists, based on Khatami’s 1997 campaign speeches and the writings of leading reformists such as Saeed Hajjarian, Abdul Ganji, Abbas Abdi and Alireza Alavitabar, included political development, the rule of law, the expansion of civil society and democratic freedoms, fighting political violence and ultimately establishing a democratic-religious system (mardom-salari-e deeni). By the end of Mohammad Khatami’s first term, it became increasingly evident that the reformists had not achieved any of these objectives.

After 2000, a systematic assault by the regime’s authoritarian faction reinforced the reformists’ mistakes and inactions to demolish the effectiveness and popularity of the reform movement. There are six major reasons for its failure:

  • the movement lacked authoritative and seasoned leadership. Khatami, though in some ways a charismatic and principled politician, could not exercise the political will and leadership role expected of him.
  • the movement failed to design a strategy for action and to link its tactical moves to that strategy. Some critics also accused the reformists of exclusively basing their programme on the constitution of the Islamic republic. This lack of long-term vision inevitably limited them to small moves and wasted much of their energies on factional disputes.
  • the reformist movement’s relation to the popular forces was elitist and instrumentalist. While the leadership was capable of mobilising millions on election-day, it refrained from more permanent types of political mobilisation (political parties or social movements). Thus the Islamic Participation Front (IPF), the largest reformist grouping in Iran, now reportedly has only a few hundred members. In their reliance on negotiations “from above” and bypassing grassroots, the reformists increasingly distanced themselves from the 20 million people who enthusiastically supported them in 1997.
  • the Islamic reform movement comprises extremely diverse circles, groupings and constituencies – from traditional conservative clerics organised in Majma-e Rouhanioun-e mobarez (Militant Clerics’ League), to progressive secularist intellectuals in the IPF. This diversity helped to maintain their unity against the conservatives, but was also an obstacle to a unified approach to reform.
  • despite the fact that the IPF’s central slogan was “Iran for all Iranians” – implying their rejection of the infamous insiders/outsiders divide, in practice it did very little to establish a democratic and cordial partnership with secular pro-reform forces. Instead, it systematically used the latter’s support during critical conjunctures without reciprocating in any meaningful way.
  • since 2000, the reformists have failed to create innovative methods of confronting the conservatives’ systematic assault against their forces. Vague and meaningless sloganeering such as “resistance through active calmness” or “active deterrence”, requiring no active involvement by the popular forces, only reinforced the status quo and ultimately strengthened the authoritarian-fundamentalist alliance.

Democratic and secular republicanism: a new paradigm

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.

There is common agreement among secular republicans that the main contradiction in contemporary Iran is the one between authoritarianism and democracy. This implies that the resolution of other social contradictions – class, gender, ethnic, generational and religious – are to a large extent dependent on major progress in democratisation in Iran.

While a substantial number of Islamic reformists argue that the first stage of democratisation is more or less equivalent to what Hajjarian calls “Islamic constitutionalism”, the majority of secular republicans increasingly identify the greatest potential in the emerging “civil society” forces. These include non-government forces and movements across a wide social spectrum.

If the reformists still invest some hope in the “latent capacities” of the existing constitution, secular republicans focus on the untapped capacities of civil society as a way out of Iran’s political impasse. This strategy implies the need to form broad democratic fronts (combining civil society forces, intellectuals and democratic parties) – an approach tested in practice in some east-central European and Latin American countries.

By contrast, a small number of secular republicans have more recently joined what is known as the “referendum movement”. They emphasise the pivotal role of the Islamic republic’s constitution and the need for its replacement by a democratic constitution in a national referendum imposed on the regime. The majority of republicans find this strategy populist, naïve, and impractical; it could only become effective in conditions of widespread political crisis, when the regime can no longer rule.

For more debate in openDemocracy on the campaign for a referendum in Iran on a new constitution, see the debate sparked by Mohsen Sazegara's article "Iran's road to democracy") - including responses by Afshin Molavi, Kaveh Ehsani, Mansour Farhang, Farideh Farhi, Bezhad Yaghmaian and Bahman Kalbasi

See also David Hayes’s introduction to openDemocracy’s debate, “Iran between revolution and democracy”

This judgment implies that true democrats should make a distinction between two kinds of activity: political change for democratisation and projects in search of “regime change”. The latter falsely assume that any method of change in Iran will inevitably lead to democracy. Hence, they skip the vital task of connecting with civil society forces, and instead attempt to mobilise the faceless “people” for a national referendum. Some referendum supporters even go as far as inviting American military intervention for the sake of “regime change” in Iran!

The 17 June 2005 presidential election in Iran, however, has brought almost all secular republicans together. For the first time, most secular political groups and parties have united to call for a boycott of the elections. The Islamic reformists, on the other hand, are still participating in the elections by nominating two candidates: Mostafa Moin, a progressive reformer, and Mehdi Karrubi, a clerical conservative reformer.

Iran after the election

Thomas Kuhn stated in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that a new paradigm – including its new set of standards of validity, theoretical concepts, and methods of testing reality – emerges only when the old one can no longer resolve the puzzles and anomalies specified by its own terms. Post-revolutionary Iran has experienced the failure of two major political paradigms in the last twenty-six years: anti- imperialist/revolutionary and Islamic reformism. They each failed in practice as well as in theory, and Iranian people no longer trust the groups associated with them.

The emerging republican model – associated with secularism, democratisation, human rights, non-violent resistance, non-ideological politics, emphasis on civil society forces, pragmatism, the right of self-determination for nations and ethnic minorities, and resistance to sexism – provides the clearest guideline and vision for Iran’s transition to democracy.

Further links:



Iran Institute for Democracy

Iranian Election

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