Between democracy and theocracy

What is a vote worth in Iran?


Between democracy and theocracy
by Ahmad Sadri

Real change can result from elections in Iran as long as there is a home grown democratic heart beating within the theocratic Republic. But for how long will that be the case?

Iran may not be a liberal democracy but it is certainly a far cry from those fake Democratic Republics that littered the world before 1989. A representative democracy grafted onto a theocracy, the Islamic Republic is a unique specimen in the menagerie of political systems from Uruk, Constantinople and Geneva to Athens, Philadelphia and Moscow.

The Iranian parliamentary elections of 14 March 2008 perpetuated the fractious pattern of the presidential elections of 2005, with splinter groups growing within both "principalist" and reformist camps.

The "principalists" were unable to keep a powerful triumvirate of pragmatic conservatives (the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani and the former Revolutionary Guard Commander, Mohsen Rezaie) from leaving the strict conservative coalition that included President Ahmedinajad. The reformist camp was also cleaved into the eponymous followers of former President Khatami and the National Confidence party of the former Speaker of the Parliament, Mahdi Karrubi.

Given the good showing of the reformist camp, this group can choose to join forces with "independents" (candidates who chose not to affiliate themselves with existing camps) and pragmatic conservatives to shovel sand in the gears of President Ahmadinejad's polarising economic practices, management style and foreign policy.

The Iranian theocracy runs on the legitimating fuel of annual democratic elections. Of course the democratic component of the Islamic polity has to be kept in check. A theocratic Supreme Court (Guardian Council) vets the candidates before and selectively adjudicates voting irregularities after each election. During elections the state militias of Basij campaign for the personal choice of the theocratic Supreme Leader.

In the recent elections, the disqualification of reformers removed well-known challengers from more than one-third of the 290 seats at the parliament and replaced them on the ballot with less-known reformist candidates with little chance of winning. After the elections, both reformist factions vociferously objected to the results.

The question is why Iranians participate in a "manipulated" election. The answer is simple. Voting is a rational choice: the benefits of participation outweigh its costs. Procedurally speaking, participation in elections prevents total domination by the theocrats, increases transparency and ensures a modicum of circulation of elites at the lower rungs of the system.

Of course there is always an outside (but real) chance of a sudden upset. It is true that the system is altered to benefit theocracy, but a bit of luck and a huge landslide can overwhelm the theocratic stopgaps and lead to historical victories, such as that enjoyed by Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001.

Lack of alternatives is another factor in the calculus of voting in Iran. Revolution against the regime is out of the question for a nation that trod upon that perilous path a generation ago. Nor is it possible to deny legitimacy to the system by an electoral boycott – which requires a campaign that may never be allowed in Iran. In short, Iranians calculate that exercising their right to vote is worth imparting a patina of legitimacy to the system, at least for the time being.

But what about in the long run?

Trends in voting don't seem to favour the current symbiosis between democracy and theocracy. Natural democratic processes erode strict theocratic rule requiring ever-stricter legal and extra legal measures and "election engineering". An increase in such interventions will discourage mass participation, which currently hovers around 55 percent.

In the cities where voting is a political act rather than an expression of ethnic solidarity or procurement of cash for local projects, participation has fallen to 30 percent. It is true that low participation favours the right wing which relies on its steady 20 percent population base.

But the recent election shows that in the cities even the supposedly solid conservative base has been thinning. It is therefore possible to extrapolate that Iran is facing increasing voter apathy that will likely disrupt the delicate balance of theocracy and democracy, possibly unleashing a crisis of legitimacy in the Islamic Republic. This is a great liability in a nation that only three decades ago overthrew another powerful but unpopular regime.

Reason and recent regional experience suggest that sustainable political change cannot be dictated to the Middle East from without. There are two survival scenarios for the Islamic Republic and both of them are stories of slow transubstantiation: in one version reformers will prevail, and, having learned their lessons from the Khatami years, rigorously carry through their transformative democratic changes. In another, gradual democratisation, and its inevitable concomitant – the increasing ceremonialisation of theocracy – will result from the acumen of a Supreme Leader who finds reigning as the symbol of the unity of church and state preferable to radical destabilisation.

Ahmad Sadri is a professor of sociology and the Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College. This article was first published in Common Ground News Service (CGNews)


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How was Iran before, how is

by SarbazIran on

How was Iran before, how is it now?



by Ranapanah on

"Iranians should get rid of this regime,..."


That's a familiar sentence I read every time there is talk of Iran. but is that what the majority of the Iranians want? You all want democracy but no one really cares if a regime change is what Iranians actually want. It might be hard to believe for some of you but you forget that many Iranians abide by the values set by the government. We have 12 million basij force, at least 1 million khanevadeie shohada ( parents of the shohada), there are also people who want a Islamic government. I believe that majority of people in Iran want some sort of reform in the government, but that doesn't translate to a desire for a regime change.

Is regime change even a good choice for Iranians right now? Let see, the west wants Iran to abide by what they say, in Mr. Bush's own word, they are either with us or against us scenario. Now as an Iranian do I want my government to be something like the Saudi government? I mean they are the form of government that America calls an Alie. Do I want MEK that is now getting quite friendly with the administration to run my country? Obviously no.


Iran has been abiding by what the west, either England or America, wants for at least 150 years before the Islamic revolution. I think it is time we had a government that stood up for Iran no matter how hard it would be, no matter the amount of economical hardships that would be launched against us, no matter the name callings, no matter the lives that will be lost.


I mean sure, I do want "azadi" but "Esteghlal" comes first.


vote count

by MAZIAR58 (not verified) on

Doe's it counts as 1/2 versus 1 man vote ?

Kaveh Nouraee

The Value Of A Vote

by Kaveh Nouraee on

How can a vote in Iran be of any real value when the entire electoral process is rigged from the very beginning?

Of course, Iran is not a democracy, so it would be foolish to expect that the electoral process would be anythiing but corrupt.

In a civilized society the government is the servant of the people. In Iran we have a system where the people are the servants and the government is the master. As we have seen for the past 30 years, the IRI governs in a manner once described as being like a "Spaghetti Western" film directed by Sergio Leone. If you are familiar with these films, you'll remember that the majority of the gunfights show the actors "shooting from the hip". This has been the manner with which the IRI has conducted itself since day one. Rather than serving the needs of the people and the nation with well planned long term goals and initiatives, the government is serving itself, ensuring it will stay in power through the arbitrary enactment and arbitrary enforcement of decrees and statutes that change with the weather.

There is no political system that is perfect, but it is clear that the better systems are open to debate and criticisms and opposition. In Iran, this clearly is not the case. There is no difference between the situation today, where Khamenei has the final say over who may be a candidate for public office, and the time when the Rastakhiz Party was the only one allowed. At least there were civil liberties back then that no longer exist today, nor was there a threat of attack (real or rhetorical) by other countries.



by Dariush (not verified) on

A new democratic government seem idealistic for Iran. But there are some questions we need to answer before choosing the right path to change it or improve it.
What should this new government position be toward west and east policies in region and their crimes toward Iran and others?
What should this government position be for our scientific and technology and other improvements such as nuclear energy? If we are against it, it will result in a weak structure for our country.
Should we accept the western "Do as we say" policy and obey them or the IAEA. If we obey, them we will go back to 100 years ago.
Will even Iran be allowed to have an independent democratic government? Look at the history!
Democratic maybe, Independent no way!


I suggest the author watch

by Anonymousmm (not verified) on

I suggest the author watch last night's episode of "Boston Legal" to understand the voting and elections even in America do not translate into economic, social, and political justice and democracy.


I wish the author was right

by Anonymousmm (not verified) on

I wish the author was right but alas this assessment is either the result of massive cognitive dissonace (given the Islamist background of the author's past) or pure propaganda to keep the myth of "refrom" alive in perpetuity. It is so devoid of realties that it would be an exercise in futility to try to debunk it. The author's arguments collapses under the heavy weight of factual and historical data.

This author and others who believe in delsional dream of brutally repressive theocractic oligarchy metamorphicizing into a economically and socially reasonably just and fair democracy are giving aid and comfort to both bigotted Islamist and neocon warmongers. War for these two vile entities is power and money.

Today, in an article by BBC, doctors in Afghanistan said that the rates of some health problems affecting children have doubled in the last two years. They attribute the rise to use of weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) by the US-led coalition that invaded the country in 2001.

If the author and those who agree with him continue to prescribe nonsensical "reform" and refusing to see that the world is not going to sit idly by and allow the Islamic Republic to continue to pose a threat to their national and geopolitical security. The so called "enemies" of Iran can't wait for Iran to "reform". They are not interested in democracy or welfare of IRan or Iranians. Why should they? Why do you think Hillary wants to obliterate Iran??? I can assure you it's not because she wants democracy and prosperity for future Iran. Her choice of word was redneck speak, which shows deeply ingrained racism, which people like HIllary and McCain will exploit and pander to in order to shore up support for an attack on Iran.

If they attack Iran, it would not be to liberate Iranina from the the mullahs, it is because they can't allow the Chinese and the Russians to rule the Middle East and to prevent Russian and China using Iran as their proxy to wage a war against the US, period. Why is this so hard for some to grasp this concept!!! These are facts and fairness, justice, and other moral arguments have hardly anything to do with realities on the ground...

Iranians in Iran need to know the truth of what awaits them, if they don't get rid of this government themselves...


Add to this a possible party system

by Abarmard on

It's about time that more and more Iranians begin to analyze the IR in a detailed manner rather than one dictator style analysis! It's a system that has voices within and a parallel power structure.

One point here is the importance of a party in the Iranian system. For this reason we see that the Guardian Council would disqualify the candidates, while in a party system, the party would do that.

The creation of a party system in the current Iranian regime would boost the democratic front and make candidates more responsive to the public demands. I think Iranians are ready for the evolution of IR to a party based system.


Khatami redo all over again!

by Fred on

Be careful what you wish for you might just get it, well the Westernized Islamist like the Sadries have got what they wished for and don’t like it. Now instead of working to get rid of this nightmare of a long sought wish they are in to hypothesizing about its reformability. This regime is an aberration and has to be done away with before anything resembling a democracy can be built in its place, the sooner the Westernized Islamist get it the less costly it will be. There is still a chance for the booting out to be done by ourselves; the alternative is others will do it with the Iranian lives and treasure cost irrelevant in their calculation.


Thank you for a very informative article

by Anonymous-2 (not verified) on

The complex nature of Iran's political system is difficult to really understand. On the one hand you have the reformists like the former President Khatami who seemed more embracing of a democratic system; and on the other hand you have multiple hardline factions which don't agree with one another and fall somewhere in between.

However, regardless of its deficiencies at least the Iranian people have learned to participate in the political affairs of the country. This is a big step forward.

I also see that Iranians are not afraid of raising their voices in disagreeing with the government policies, there are protests, women have become fearless in demanding greater rights, people in the villages and far off rural areas have taken an interest in going to the polls and voting for the candidate that they feel will meet their needs - combined I believe that eventually by the will and demand of the people those in power will be forced whether they like it or not to give in to demands of its citizens.

At least there exists a foundation upon which a true democracy can eventually be forged.

We don't have to start from ground zero!


I have always thought...

by Asghar_Massombagi on

I have always thought that an analogy to the Bonapartists’ participation in the second French Republic is apt vise a vise Iran's “representative democracy grafted onto a theocracy” as you've put it.  The Bonaprtists' parlimenatry participation was intended as a mockery but their very act of participation became a negation of the monarchy and hence indirectly gave legitimacy to the republic.  Even if those in power in Iran harbour a closet contempt for representative democracy, the existance of machinary itself can't help but legitimize the concept.  That's why I disagree with those on the Right who dismiss these elections as Soviet style elections.  As limited and flawed as they are, none of the so-called US allies in the region with the exception of Pakistan can boast anything close to what happens in Iran.  Democracy requires a culture and these elections, if not the real thing, may provide at least rough work for the real thing, which is more than one can say about nearly 50 years of Pahlavi rule.