Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed
Harvard University Press, 2016, 416 pp., $46.50
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” — John F. Kennedy
Democracy in Iran, by Misagh Parsa, is the most authoritative book on the state of dissent inside Iran. Originally published on November 7th, 2016, the book—reviewed by Iran experts including Haleh Esfandiari for Foreign Affairs and Abbas Milani for Stanford’s Program for Iranian Studies—was otherwise lost in the news cycle of the 2016 elections. It argues that another “disruptive revolution” in Iran is inevitable, even if in 2016, when the book came out, the prospects of a mass movement for change in Iran were dimming. President Hassan Rouhani had delivered on his election mandate to reach a nuclear deal with the P5+1. Relief from sanctions promised foreign investment. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was becoming the most popular figure in Iran, and Rouhani would wind up winning re-election in a landslide that spring.
In the West, frustrated with the hardline politics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, policymakers and commentators were encouraged by the more moderate Rouhani Administration and the potential for Iran’s opening to the West and normalizing relations with the United States. The Obama Administration’s ambitions for Iran certainly went beyond a nuclear agreement. It aspired to bring change through reform and engagement. Secretary of State John Kerry had become close with Zarif, a diplomat who had received his Ph.D. under Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, the father of Madeleine Albright, Kerry’s predecessor in the Clinton Administration. Zarif spoke fluent English. He also spoke fluent Western; he knew how to charm and deceive Western media and elites.
By 2017, the new U.S. President Donald Trump was attacking Iran rhetorically, threatening new sanctions and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). New York Times Tehran Bureau Chief Thomas Erdbrink reported that Trump’s tough rhetoric was uniting the people—in support of the regime. There were reasons for believing Erdbrink: By some measures, things looked like they had been improving inside Iran. This made Parsa’s book look foolish.
A month after Erdbrink’s reporting, violent and widespread protests erupted.
The jury is still out—the jury is always still out in considering the exact timing and terms of political change in Iran—but it is time to revisit Parsa’s book for a compass as we navigate the way ahead.
Parsa is an immigrant from Iran and a professor of sociology at Dartmouth College. He began the book as a survey of democratization in South Korea, but, after the 2009 Green Movement, his project became about Iran. He spent the next seven years working on this book (though his research was primarily conducted from afar).
His inspiration was the regime’s suppression of the Green Movement, the democracy movement that began in 2009 and died in 2011. A book that began as the study of the movement’s failure ended in a survey of the state of dissent in Iran. Parsa’s research discovered two inconvenient truths for those who still hoped for change through reform: First, there is a wide gap on every level—economic, social, political, and religious—between the people and the regime. Second, these differences are irreconcilable since neither the regime nor the people are willing to compromise on their demands and interests.
To prove this, Parsa examines the behavior of the Iranian people and how they defy regime orthodoxies. Using government surveys and public statements by the regime’s leaders, Parsa finds that the vast majority of Iranians have satellite TV, which is against the law. Similarly, the vast majority of unmarried Iranians engage in sexual activity—a form of what Parsa calls “passive defiance.” A small portion of the Shi’a population observes religious practices, and conversion out of Islam is very common, despite the threat of the death penalty. Parsa also explains how the politicization of the economy—in particular the regime’s increasing share of the economy—has led to an increase in corruption and diminished trust in the regime, never mind to economic decline. Politically, as the increasing number of protests shows, people have directed their anger away from the hardliners and towards the entirety of the regime. The 1999 protests, the first serious political protests since the revolution of 1979, began in support of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami and against the hardliners. The 2009 protests began with chants of “where is my vote?” but ended in chants of “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei.”
Parsa begins by examining two forms of democratization: Reform and revolution. His two case studies are Indonesia and South Korea. South Korea, Parsa argues, was able to democratize through reform because it was not an ideological dictatorship. The regime controlled power but had mostly left the South Korean people alone in religious, economic, and social matters. Accordingly, the dictatorship had not anathematized itself to the South Korean people. Parsa cites an example of how restrained the security forces were in restraining students who protested for democracy in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidential visit to South Korea.
Indonesia, by contrast, was an extremely oppressive dictatorship under Suharto, despised by Indonesians who eventually felt compelled to violently rebel. Iran looks like the latter case, a pressure cooker ever closer to boiling over. Historically, some ideological states have shown capacity for reform. These states, like Yugoslavia and Hungary, are usually clients of a greater power that guarantees their security, which is not the case for Iran. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic has had several opportunities for reform, especially under Khatami but also under Rouhani and former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but, every time, the regime created guardrails against such reforms, which led to the reform movement’s eroding legitimacy.
Perhaps the key to Parsa’s work is the idea that the nature of the regime matters. This recalls Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in which she characterized traditional autocracies as often less oppressive, always less intrusive, and frequently more capable of reform and change than their ideological counterparts.
The Islamic Republic is in essence an oppressive theocracy, deriving legitimacy from ideology. To reform itself toward liberalism and democracy, for the regime, would constitute on more than one level a complete unraveling.
During the Green Movement, someone inside Iran observed that this was not the existential crisis that would bring down the regime. It was a movement of intellectuals and students. The existential crisis, rather, would happen when barefooted, starving Iranians overtook the streets out of desperation. That’s exactly what began in 2017—and as things keep getting worse, those Iranians grow in number and desperation. Many inside Iran who participated in the November 2019 protests believe that if the government had not shut down the internet, the regime might have collapsed. Without the capacity to organize, protesters still managed to attack and, in some occasions, seize key government buildings, police stations, and even military bases. This was an unprecedented move, and there was a possibility that, if they were able to organize, they could have outmaneuvered security forces at police stations and military bases to arm themselves. What would come next is unclear, but there is a high likelihood that, in that case, Artesh, the regular and secular military which is still revered by the people and itself sympathetic to the democracy movement, would have joined the protesters.
There is reason to believe that the regime has lost what was once its traditional base of support. The term “mostazafin” means the weak and needy. Khomeini used the term for the first time the day that the Islamic Republic was announced in a 1979 referendum. Mostazafin quickly entered the regime’s political lexicon. Beyond its literal meaning, the term comes from the Quran and refers to the faithful who stand up to tyrants. Mostazafin were the revolutionaries and the regime’s base. They were religious, poor, rural, and inner-city Iranians. This meant that the regime was going to be populist. It made sense. The regime’s intellectual father was Ali Shariati. An intellectual at the University of Mashhad, Shariati was a Marxist who had replaced Marxism’s anti-theism with Shi’i Islamism. Regime security during the time of the Shah had never been threatened by the educated middle and upper-middle class. It was threatened by those who sparked change in 1979. Forty-one years later, the base—joining the intellectuals and middle and upper classes—has turned against the regime.
Parsa accounts for the different frictions between the regime and the people, and varying methods of civil disobedience. Drinking, premarital sex, and the use of banned satellite TV are the most visible ones. But what is missing is how fast Iranians of Shi’a lineage are turning away from Islam. Atheism is the most popular destination, but Christianity is also growing to the point that regime officials, including the Minister of Intelligence, have declared it a national crisis. Estimates suggest that between half a million to three million Iranians are secret converts to Christianity, mostly evangelicals. They have established secret churches in their homes, which are subject to regular raids by the security forces. Religious Iranian Shi’a make frequent donations to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a secular Iranian cleric in Najaf, Iraq, loathed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Sistani rejects the notion of velayat-e faqih (rule by the jurist), a doctrine which the Islamic Republic is founded upon. Mosques are empty. Random clerics are regularly assaulted by millennials on the streets. Women are now campaigning against the compulsory hijab and fight with men and women who tell them to properly cover their hair. Only ten years ago, authorities would confiscate a pet dog—dogs are considered “najis” (dirty by nature) in Islam—on religious grounds. Today, nearly everybody owns a dog, making confiscation impossible. The regime’s single most important point of legitimacy, Islam and the rule of God, is vanishing.
Even within the government’s own institutions, including the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), dissent seems to be rising. Following the suppressions of 2009-11, the regime was faced with the reality that many rank-and-file forces refused to carry out orders to attack compatriots. Even senior leadership and generals publicly criticized the suppressions. Those generals were either pushed out of the forces or executed.
A large portion of the clergy has also grown resentful of the regime. Again, mosques are empty, and donations are declining. Additionally, velayat-e faqih, in the regime’s absolutist interpretation that entails rule of a singular supreme leader, is a niche and controversial reading of Shi’i doctrine. Many clerics have always rejected the doctrine on religious and intellectual grounds. During the Green Movement, a majority of grand ayatollahs sided with the people. Some remained silent. Only one defended the regime.
Bazari merchants, another force for the 1979 revolution, also expressed support for the people in 2009, and that support has only increased during the recent protests. The economic downfall has hit them as hard as anybody.
The 2009 Green Movement failed because the leadership was always a step behind the people. The movement’s leaders were Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi. Both were reformist candidates who had been cheated out of their votes. More importantly, they were both revolutionary figures with deep roots in the regime and trusted—especially Mousavi—by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Karoubi was a former speaker of the house, and Mousavi was Khomeini’s lieutenant during the Iran-Iraq War as the Prime Minister (a position abolished after Khomeini’s death). Mousavi has in fact campaigned on having been “Imam Khomeini’s prime minister.” Both men, especially Mousavi, were wary of the protests, and their initial instinct was to limit the unrest. They were, after all, elements of the regime and did not want to see it collapse. Ten years of house arrest and declining health with no proper treatment might have changed their minds about that. Outside Iran, Alireza Nourizadeh and Mohsen Sazegara were the leading voices who used their platforms at Voice of American to caution against violence when there was momentum for the movement to succeed.
Equally as important, the 2009 protests were not representative of society. The working class and the poor mostly stayed at home. It was a movement of intellectuals, students, professionals, and educated women. After the protests died, the regime decided to contain those forces. Khamenei declared that the equality of the sexes was a Western concept, and that the role of the woman is being a housemaker. The regime’s influence over universities increased. Hardliners pushed Abdollah Jasbi, a figure close to former President Rafsanjani, out of his position of chancellor of the Islamic Azad University network, thus ending his three-decade tenure as its co-founder.
Such repressions and retaliations seem to have backfired. Not only have the targeted demographics not been contained, but their grievances have grown more acute. Worse for the regime, demographics that represented the regime’s base of support have overwhelmingly joined the protests.
Inequality has grown. According to the regime’s own figures and officials, a small portion of the society holds an amount of wealth that Western tycoons can only dream of, while holders of graduate degrees are homeless, and the country’s wealth is rapidly declining. To make things worse, these wealthy few show off their wealth through their luxury cars—cars in Iran are indicators of social status—large houses, and social media posts, and are all connected with the regime, having accumulated their wealth through corruption. There are no reliable data on inequality inside Iran, but it is something easily felt by ordinary people. They see their incomes failing to keep pace with the inflation rate, which ranges from the mid-20s to mid-50s at any given time. Their educated children remain unemployed. Yet, in the street and on social media, they observe the luxurious lives of the regime’s cronies in their mansions and villas. As inequality grows, so does resentment of the regime.
But those who are still hoping for reform within the regime are misguided. Throughout the tenures of the reformist Mohammad Khatami and the moderate Rouhani, there was a lack of resolve on the part of Khatami and Rouhani to bring meaningful reform. Parsa notes that the power disparity between the IRGC and the hardline camp on the one hand, and the Rouhani Administration on the other, effectively meant that the latter was powerless. Add to this the judiciary branch, the Supreme Leader, and the Council of Guardians, all unelected positions, which have been always controlled by the hardliner camp.
Reading through the book, a question keeps popping up: Is the Islamic Republic a theocracy, led by Khamenei, or a military dictatorship, led by the IRGC? It is a common mistake in the West to take the Islamic Republic at its word that Khamenei is the most powerful man inside Iran. Yet many of his decrees, some of which Parsa cites, have gone unattended after many years and are now forgotten because they were against the interest of the IRGC. For instance, Khamenei’s decree more than ten years ago to privatize a large bulk of the economy resulted only in an increase in the IRGC’s share of the economy. After all, the Islamic Republic is not obsessed with following the orders of its constitution and frequently ignores it, and the IRGC has more men, more bullets, and more money than the Supreme Leader, while Khamenei still has a cult following.
Parsa has provided us with a compelling account of Iran’s irreconcilable divisions. In 2009, the Greens were divided between those who were protesting against Ahmadinejad and those who were protesting against the regime. The reformist camp still had popularity and legitimacy. Today, they are as illegitimate as the hardliners, and the clergy is divided, as are the armed forces. The regime is not just facing a revolt from the people but also from within its own ranks. As time moves forward, one should expect the popular push for change in Iran to mount, and perhaps even explode.