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'Reflections on Democracy'


29 Jan 2010 02:1412 Comments
MajlesehSheshom.jpgReflections on Democracy, Non-Violence and Political Change in Iran

[ analysis ] Struggles for democracy generally require three critical ingredients for success: effective and incorruptible leadership, a strategy for mass mobilization and a sense of hope that engenders sacrifice. Last year at this time, none of these existed in Iran. The clerical oligarchy was firmly in control, the Reform movement was in disarray and political apathy reigned supreme. Today, eight months after the disputed presidential election, all three key ingredients are now firmly in place. Defying expectations, Iran's Green Movement (Jonbesh-e Sabz-e Iran) soldiers on in the face of an authoritarian regime whose brutal suppression has failed to intimidate or subdue it. Whether this movement will be triumphant is unknown but what is clear is that an indigenous movement for democracy has delivered a major blow to the Islamic Republic: Iranian politics henceforth will never be the same. How did these three elements come together?

Understanding the origins and the defiant posture of the leadership of the Green Movement requires returning to an event in August 2000 that marked a critical denouement for the reformist-conservative struggle in Iran. At this time, the Reform Movement was in its prime, winning landslide elections at the presidential, municipal and most recently the parliamentary level. Hope for democratic change was in the air as Reformers captured all of the key democratically-contested institutions of the state in quick succession, to the shock and bewilderment of their conservative rivals.

The first item on the legislative agenda of reform-dominated 6th parliament (2000-2004) was to overturn an illiberal press law passed in the final days of the outgoing hard-line parliament. The print media in Iran had flourished during President Khatami's first term and quickly became a bastion of support for pro-democracy activists. Courageous journalists and editors were breaking political taboos by transcending the narrow ideological confines of Iran's post-revolutionary elite consensus. A public sphere was created whereby Iranian society was in full scale debate -- to the mortification of the ruling clerical establishment -- about the relationship between tradition and modernity, religion and democracy and the moral basis of legitimate political authority.

As parliamentary debate on the press law began with the eyes of the nation upon it, the speaker suddenly intervened to halt the proceedings. He announced that he had just received an important summons from the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei demanding that the existing (illiberal) press law not be revised and that all debate on this topic cease immediately. Khamenei's letter -- which angry MPs forced the speaker to read into the parliamentary record -- specifically warned that "should the enemies of Islam, the revolution and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity and the faith of the people....The current [press] law ... has been able to prevent the appearance of this great calamity, and [therefore], its amendment and similar actions that have been anticipated by the parliamentary committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country and the system."

Scuffles and fistfights broke out among rival members of parliament. Several deputies walked out in protest as chaos soon enveloped the parliamentary chamber. The speaker tried to restore calm by reminding everyone that the Supreme Leader's actions were legally permissible. "Our constitution has the elements of the absolute rule of the supreme clerical leader [velayat-e motlagh faghih] and you all know this and approve of this. We are all duty-bound to abide by it." The speaker at the time was Mehdi Karoubi, a 2009 Reformist presidential candidate and today one of the courageous leaders of the Green Movement, famous for exposing a policy of systematic rape in Iranian prisons. His defiance of Khamenei today, in contrast to his deference nine years ago, is worth noting.

After the June 2009 election, and following a week of demonstrations that brought three million people into the streets of Tehran, Khamenei delivered his much anticipated Friday sermon. He publicly endorsed Ahmadinejad as president, declared the election to be free and fair on balance and then went a step further. Similar to his August 2000 intervention, he forcefully demanded a halt to all debate on the topic, declaring the issue resolved while threatening the opposition with violence if their defiance persisted. This time, however, the senior leadership of the reform movement stood firm and boldly defied the explicit wishes of the Supreme Leader. This marked a critical turning point in the relationship between reformers and the Islamic Republican establishment. Their disobedience inspired millions of Iranians and provided Iran's democratic forces with the internal leadership it desperately sought and previously lacked.

By all measures, the leadership of the Green Movement comprised of the troika of Mir Hossein Mousavi (former Prime Minister), Mehdi Karoubi (former Speaker of Parliament) and Mohammad Khatami (former President), can be characterized as relatively mild and measured in their speeches and political statements. All remain loyal to the Islamic Republic, its current constitution and the political theology of Ayatollah Khomeini, albeit emphasizing a democratic and humanistic reading of this legacy. Nonetheless, despite repeated warnings from the Supreme Leader and a growing chorus of hard-line opinion demanding their arrest -- and more recently their execution -- the leadership continues its defiance of established power and its steadfast support for the civil and human rights of their fellow citizens. The future of the Green Movement and any hope for an eventual democratic transition in Iran will be dependent on the ongoing resistance of these leaders.

The strategy of mass mobilization and street protests has at best a tenuous link to Iran's Green leadership. It has been accurately reported that leaders are responding to and being led by society and not the opposite. In his most recent statement to the nation, (No. 17, January 1, 2010), Mousavi explicitly acknowledged the point that protests are occurring not because he has called people into the streets but rather due to the prevalence of "widespread social and civil networks that were formed during and after the election through the people themselves and which continue to self generate." This fascinating development suggests the extent to which the Green Movement has penetrated key sectors of Iranian society based on the existence of underground networks of activists scattered in major cities who rely on the internet and mobile phone technology to spread their message. This also explains why the movement has been hard to crush, notwithstanding the best efforts of the regime.

And finally there is the issue of hope. In a recent in-depth report on the state of human rights Iran after the June election, Amnesty International noted that "human rights violations in Iran are now as bad as at any time in the past 20 years." To date, the Islamic Republic has imprisoned almost every leading opposition figure, human and civil rights activist, student leader and dissident journalist. In fact, it is hard to think of the name of prominent Iranian pro-democracy activist that the regime has not arrested. In its desperation, it even picked up the sister of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, an apolitical figure, with the sole intention of intimidating her more famous sibling.

Yet notwithstanding this repressive atmosphere replete with show trials, torture, rape, death and threats of mass executions, Iranians who sympathize with the Green Movement today are experiencing a deep sense of hope, cautious optimism and at times exhilaration about the prospects of a better future. There is a general appreciation that a transition to democracy will not emerge without significant sacrifice and a long-term commitment to oppositional activity. A rejection of violent revolution and a commitment to a strategy of nonviolence resistance by necessity demands patience, prudence and time. In the words, this is not sprint but a marathon.

A realization that there are no quick fixes to the problem of political authoritarianism in Iran is informed by the fact that the Iranian regime, despite being shaken and confused, remains firmly in control of the key institutions of violence, the administration of justice and economic production (largely oil). Evidence that this control has weakened is shaky at best. Moreover, the Iranian regime, in part due to its control over the media, retains significant support in rural and poorer areas of the country including a core group of loyal devotees who dominate the upper echelons of the security forces, many of whom believe that Ali Khamenei is God's representative on earth.

The next stage of confrontation is set for early February and the date could not be more symbolic -- the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Expectations are for a similar repetition of defiant street protests, a harsh government crackdown and then a wave of mass arrests. Meanwhile Iran's Green Movement continues its nonviolent resistance. Its future success will depend on whether the three key ingredients for democratic change -- effective leadership, a strategy for mass mobilization and hope -- remain in place and grow stronger with time.

Nader Hashemi is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies.

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Pragmatic, yet hopeful...good article.

Bahman / January 29, 2010 3:44 AM

Mr. Hashemi
Thank you for your article. But I think you are oversimplifying the "society":

"to which the Green Movement has penetrated key sectors of Iranian society"
"It has been accurately reported that leaders are
responding to and being led by society"

In fact, I think the divides that have been created in this very "society", and the way the movement in Iran addresses these very deep, very real and very threatening divisions will - in part - define the future of the movement.

Pedestrian / January 29, 2010 4:09 AM


There are many nations containing a wide range of different parts of society - despite their political, cultural and religous beliefs.
The point is - you think there are no common aims/ goals with adhesive force - to assemble the majority of the iranians behind them ?

gunni / January 29, 2010 5:44 PM

Does the movement necessarily need to capture 100% of "society" on board? A majority is sufficient - technically, 51%. The point is how to sustain the mobilization of that majority into a powerfully-organized and unified force that can drive the current tension to a tipping point that paves the way for "transition to democracy."

It seems evident that no one has a roadmap for getting to that point.

Amir / January 30, 2010 12:06 AM

It seems evident that Iranian community outside Iran extremely overestimates the number of Iranians who are "for" change - be it just a change of election laws or the system all together - and, at the same time optimistically presumes that those who are for it, are more on the "complete change" side when a good number who associate themselves with the movement are only demanding small changes within the system.

But I agree mobilization is the key, no matter what the numbers.

Pedestrian / January 30, 2010 12:41 AM

Not quite certain when Mr. Hashemi has drafted the article. We are at a different moment than when certain fundamentalists were calling for the arrest and even execution of the reform leaders. EVERYTHING CHANGED SINCE THE EVENTS OF 'AHURA.' Yes, in its immediate aftermath the ultra conservatives made a lot of threats. But soon many, even among the reform leaders, especially Mr. Khatami, began to find 'the middle' by attacking the extremists of the left and the right. The recognition by all that after the Ashura uprising, which lead to violent clashes in the streets, we reached a 'turning point,' has caused a thaw in relation also with the Supreme Leader. Even Karroubi has now tacitly acknowledged that Ahmadinegad, while not legitimately elected, is the de facto President of the country, and as such, responsible towards the people. Many believe that the shift towards a 'middle' began with Mr. Mousavi's #17 statement, which calls for minimum demands, and does not renew the debate on the nature of the last election but, instead, looks ahead to institutional safeguards in subsequent elections. Would it be too far fetched to state that when the people really take matters into their own hands, that is, when everyone begins to sense the coming of a REVOLUTION, that's precisely when we start to see political shifts in alliances? Isn't that why, suddenly, Mr. Rafsanjani has reemrged as 'the' deal-maker par excellence?
It is above all those who have acted as super revolutionaries that hate see Iran undergo a democratic revolution, even as they brand it 'counter-revolution.' All eyes are now on the upcoming anniversary of 1979 Revolution.

ALI JAVAHERIAN / January 30, 2010 3:33 AM


I went to Iran due to death in my wife's family and I had a chance to take a survey of my own. You are wrong. Very very very wrong.Peaple want change as in REGIME CHANGE.The average Iranian has nothing to look forward to in life.What can a backward barbaric system of government offer them and their families? People don't believe Mousavi either since he is pro Islamic Republic.It does not take a genius to figure out this government is beyond reform.It is too murderous, corrupt and especially backward looking for the 21st century.You can not make a simple plan without having to bribe someone.Life is increasingly coming to a stand still economically.
It is quite apparent the people out in the streets represent all segments of society and that alone made me a believer this regime is on its way out.What has remained for these murderers as a support base are those directly involved due to financial gains and ties.People hate the religious community.I am confident by my own observation, if people play it right this regime is history within a year at the most.However, outside support is essential. The more people are put to death publically, the more threats heard from their public figures and the more their outside supporters such as some on Frontline try to scare off people from taking action against this truly barbaric regime, the more I personally gain in confidence that we are on the right track and victory is at hand.Islamic Republic has one destiny and that is the garbage of history where it truly belongs.

Faramarz / January 30, 2010 4:18 AM

I have been living most of my life in Iran and I have been present in nearly all post-election major events. I agree with Faramarz that the strong majority of Iranian people want nothing of the Islamic Republic and just wish to get rid of it. The fact that some groups or cities have not yet entered into active struggle should not fool us. People hate this regime but they are also afraid of disorder and chaos that a revolution will bring. Some groups are not educated enough to appreciate civil rights movement and I am sure if the green movement were to overthrow the regime by any means, the masses of people would violently topple down the system very quickly. However, the point is that the wiser and more knowledgeable people favor gradual non-violent shift in the system which will make the outcome more sustainable

Arash Aryan / January 30, 2010 11:16 AM

@Arash Aryan

Very interesting comment.

Personally I hope the Green Movement will cause a big shift of power within the regime and at least change the supreme leader. Then open up for free press and a fair election. I'm convinced that after a few years of freedom of expression people are ready for a referendum for the removal of the velayat-e-faghih. If this kind of "shift of power" is possible, I'm not sure. The revolutionary guard may do a military coup in order to prevent this?

Nonetheless, as many others, I think a bloody revolution is far from the best solution. I hope the majority of this movement understand this.

Heidar / January 31, 2010 2:30 AM

"I am sure if the green movement were to overthrow the regime by any means, the masses of people would violently topple down the system very quickly."
To be honest the above statement does not make sense. Could you rephrase it? M.S.

"the point is that the wiser and more knowledgeable people favor gradual non-violent shift in the system which will make the outcome more sustainable."

The Iranian people have waited 31 years to no avail. This regime in Iran is BARBARIC. Are we to assume through patience we can take a blood thirsty wolf and transfer it into a harmless kitty? To start with, they are two different animals with two distinct characteristics. This is not a wise and knowledgeable proposal, but a foolish one based on the assumption that we the people are unable to differentiate between fact and fiction. Time after time, administration after administration and event and event this regime has proven it is incapable of change, incapable of logic, incapable of the most basic fundamentals of human rights and on the contrary very capable of murder, torture, rape and social abuse. Yet, we see the supporters of the Islamic Republic under the cover of gradual non-violent shift or by means of exaggerating the position of certain characters in the Islamic Republic i.e. Jafari as in "men like General Jafari will win the confrontation" when history has taught us the exact opposite, are trying hard to buy time for the Barbaric Republic to survive. Lengthen the struggle by means of advocating resistance only on certain days/dates rather than a continuous effort to weaken the resistance and buy time for Barbaric Republic to build an offensive nuclear capability to force the West to the negotiation table.

This strategy is subject to failure since the Barbaric Republic is incapable of providing for the most basic needs of the Iranian people. In the eyes of the Iranian people and in the words of our friend Faramarz, "Islamic Republic has one destiny and that is the garbage of history where it truly belongs," along with her supporters on the outside.
Long live the United States, my home. Long live Persia, the country these barbarians took away from me.

Sohrab / January 31, 2010 11:02 PM

Pedestrian talks a lot of nonesense. She doesn't know if she hates or loves the IRI.

Arash / February 1, 2010 6:37 AM

The green movement is for real and this saitanic goverment will fall,if you recall 1979 how many percent of iran was involved,only differnce is today,no western countury nor russian or any other powers want rejim change,execpt iraninan.
time has changed today iraninan are tired of living in dark ages,today we have more and more people educated and belive in themself and they want built the better future and realy these leaders they should stop supporting saitanic leader otherwise misleading the people and public want clear goal and clear vision.

jam turk / February 1, 2010 11:03 PM