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Iran: theocracy versus democracy

By Naser Ghobadzadeh - posted Friday, 7 August 2009

Now that the most violent episode of the series of post-election events seems to have calmed down in Iran, it is time to dig one layer deeper into an analytical survey of events regarding this non-Arabic Middle Eastern country. The very core of these recent occurrences may be traced to a century of conflict between theocratic and democratic ambitions. From the very beginning of democracy-seeking attempts through the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, the political desires of the religious body have continued to pose a significant challenge to these efforts.

There is little need to mention that democratic efforts have seen no notable achievement, but politico/religious ambitions have also never been able to deliver a solely theocratic regime in Iran.

The recent disturbing events that have plagued the latest presidential election are not just about the next four years of presidential incumbency. They are part of the aforementioned long lasting conflict between democratic and theocratic ambitions in Iran’s political history.


In fact, a clearly fraudulent election result and its aftermath have transformed Teheran into a battlefield, whereupon the theocratic components of the Iranian political system have undertaken to eliminate - or in precise words - to nullify all democratic components. Iran enjoys neither a democratic political system nor a theocratic one. In the simplest of terms, it may be said that Islamic Republic of Iran manifests paradoxical democratic and theocratic features.

The regime that emerged from the 1979 revolution has always suffered from the tensions between the two antithetical components, theocratic and democratic, that make up the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The 1997 presidential election was a milestone in this troubled relationship. The Supreme Leader and Guardian Council as the leading theocratic bodies backed the conservative candidate, Nategh-eNoori, but the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami gained more than 20 million votes, and it seemed an overwhelming majority of Iranians were urging the theocratic powers to bear with a reformist state for the next eight years.

But this apparent success deceived the reformists, who thought that a high turnout in the most recent presidential election would leave the theocratic component with no choice but to accept a reformist government - at least for the next four years. In contrast, the theocratic bodies came up with a plan to fight back after the high turnout in the election.

In other words, while the 1997 experience misled the reformists and left them shocked by the fraudulent election result, it forced the theocratic component to have a plan on the table in advance. Two preceding instances showed the theocratic component did not bear with democratic inclinations: in the seventh and eighth parliamentary elections (2003 and 2007), almost all of the reformist candidates were rejected by the Guardian Council, which has the authority to approve the expediency of candidates who run in any form of election. The Iranian people were disappointed with the reformists’ constant failure to fulfil their wishes; thus, the turnout rate was not very high and did not cause any serious trouble for the government.

These two parliamentary elections could be seen as the starting point for the theocratic trend to nullify the democratic process of the political system - a trend that reached its high point in last month’s presidential election. Eighty-five per cent of the eligible population turned out to vote in the June election. Many inactive voters took part in the election to say “no” to Ahmadinejad. Thus it is very difficult to justify the results announced by the government.


Possibly less than surprising was the fact that neither the government nor the theocratic bodies made any concerted effort to at least make it look like a clean and fair election. The Supreme Leader, surprisingly, endorsed the results in a broadcast announcement made just a few hours after voting closed. This was indeed very strange, given that he is not in a legal position to endorse the election. Endorsement is the Guardian Council's territory: it takes about ten days to endorse every election.

Even more interesting was the fact that the voting papers shown on TV and on the government official news agency IRNA were not folded: they were written in single handwriting with a single pen. There are also many problems with the official statistics that have been announced. According to these statistics, there was more than a 100 per cent turnout in 170 cities.

I read all these as representing a message to the reformists and especially to the people at large. The Iranian government wants it understood - specifically by those who voted against the theocratic bodies - that there is no point in taking part in any future election. Therefore, the plan is not just about this recent presidential election. The plan is to continue to thwart all and every democratic component of the political system in Iran.

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About the Author

Naser Ghobadzadeh worked as editor-in-chief of foreign policy service of Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). He has also published a book about value changes in Iran and its impact on political climate. He is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and I.R., University of Sydney.

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