Some analysts believe that there are no elements of democracy—such as liberalism, individualism, and pluralism—in Iran and that Iranian society could not accept democracy so far without those elements. While these factors are important in a democratic society, it is important to know that Iranian society also does not accept oppression, the suppression of ideas, self-indulgence, and other aspects of dictatorship. In fact, Iranians have fought against despotism throughout their history.
The history of democracy in Iran began in 1906 when the Iranian constitutionalists pushed the government to accept modernity and democracy. For the first time, the government formed a parliament and recognized the freedom of speech. At that point, civil society was shaped by the establishment of various new non-governmental organizations, such as the Iranian Journalists’ Union. After going through many conflicts, the 1979 Revolution happened with the resolution of having a democratic government instead of a Shah’s semi-monarchy. At that time, all the opposition groups—secular, democratic, religious, communist, and the student movements—formed a coalition under Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership, who was influential and charismatic as a revolutionary leader. At that time, Khomeini believed that the clergy should not take power as government leaders. He seemed to support democracy. He had emphasized that there should be checks and balances between the leader and the people in the Islamic republic.
However, after the referendum in which the people voted for the Islamic Republic, things changed. Clergy took power in many ways and religious leaders found new positions in the government. The corruption that contributed to the fall of the Shah’s government remade itself once the mullahs came to power. However, the expanding education system and higher literacy decreased the effectiveness of the mullahs since the new generation did not readily accept the mullahs’ rhetoric. Instead, they learned from reading books, newspapers, watching television, and listening to the radio. New technologies such as the internet and satellite receivers transformed the availability of knowledge. This shift weakened the influence of local religious rules and traditional social principles, diminishing the conservative mullahs’ effect on Iranian society. These changing social dynamics have created a suitable time for the development of democracy.
In 1997, when Mohammad Khatami became the president, the new chapter of democratization has begun. He was the first who initiated the “Reform Movement.” He achieved distinguished success in two cases. First, with more freedom given to the press, writers, book publishers, and film producers, Iranians were better able to express their liberal ambitions; this helped infuse these democratic thoughts into society and strengthen progressive demands.
Second, the formation of councils and local elections during Khatami’s term was an important step towards the establishment of democratic institutions in the country. The next step, which in my opinion is critical, is to develop strong political parties. When there are political parties which can mobilize the crowds to obtain their purposes, liberal forces can better line up against authoritarian forces. However, during his eight years in office, Khatami failed to fulfill many of the liberal and democratic plans he had used as slogans, and that failure became a toll on his activities, resulting in the diminishing of his democratic legacy and, influence on the society after he left office.
Amidst it all, United States has worldwide influence, serving as a beacon of freedom and democracy throughout the decades and it has always affected the democratization procedure in Iran. Next week, in Part II, we will look more closely at examples of this influences and the importance of the current election and its widespread effects on Iran’s struggle for democracy.
By Shervin Abachi