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Government from the Ground Up


09 Aug 2010 23:1111 Comments
tehran+board.jpgThe prospects for city-centric democracy in Iran: Part I.

[ IDÉ ] Last month a group of young Iranian academics got together in New York to initiate Iran 21, an effort to envision Iran's governance structure, economy, and global relations in the first half of the 21st century. The group comprises a dozen academics with expertise in economics and other social sciences, public administration, public health, international affairs, management, and political science. Given the wide range of views represented, the idea was not to converge on a particular vision for Iran, but rather to identify the critical choices facing the country that will define it for the next generation. The initial results of the effort will soon be made public for feedback and broader discussion among all those with an interest in Iran's future.

In a series of articles, of which this is the first, I will focus on one aspect of Iran's future government structure that was discussed by the group: the degree of centralization, specifically the optimal distribution of authority between national, provincial, and local governments. Three basic approaches were discussed: (1) strong, centralized national government, the dominant model in Iran for the past three centuries; (2) federal government, combining national coordination with provincial semi-autonomy; and (3) strong, city-centric local governments. Evaluating the pros and cons of each, the group did not prefer one option to the others, but decided to look at them all in detail over the next two years. However, as there is a growing focus elsewhere on federalism as a preferred option, I believe alternatives need to be brought to the fore of public discussion. This series of articles will make the case for city-centric local democracies as an alternative to centralism and federalism.

The Case for City-centric Governance

The transition to democracy is fraught with challenges for multiethnic, multicultural, multifaith societies such as Iran. City-centric governance is a promising model that can address the country's diverse character and its rich, complex historical legacy.

The idea of city-centric states is certainly not new. The city-states of Greece maintained different types of governance structures for centuries -- Athenian democracy is now the most recognized. Adapting the democratic city-state concept into a modern alternative to a centralized or federal system is no simple matter, but it offers potentially great advantages for countries with diverse populations. It is thus worth exploring as a model for good governance, not only for Iran but for similar nations, as well.

As one of the earliest sites of recorded civilization, Iran has a rich urban history. Yet until very recently most of its population was rural. It was not until the 1980s that the majority of Iranians resided in urban areas. Since then, due to the aggregation of resources at the urban level and the decline of the agricultural sector, migration has driven further urbanization. Within the next 15 years, it is estimated that four out of five Iranians will live in urban areas, a fact that makes cities a suitable level for policy-making.

The main motives for a city-centric national democracy in Iran are fivefold: (1) the prominence of cities; (2) the country's diverse nature; (3) decentralization of power and direct participatory democracy; (4) cities as centers for competition and collaboration; and (5) exposure to multiple models of good governance. I will discuss each of these separately.

The prominence of cities

Based on the 2006 census, Iran currently has six cities with populations over one million and 70 cities with populations between 100,000 and one million. An additional 202 cities have populations between 50,000 to 100,000. In 2006, urban areas accounted for 67 percent of the nation's population. By 2021, according to U.N. projections, 82 percent of the population will be urban. The majority of social problems plaguing the lives of Iranians, such as drug addiction, poverty, crime, and ethnic and class conflict, are now substantially urban in nature.

The country's diverse nature

Iran is multiethnic (51 percent Persian, 24 percent Azeri, 8 percent Gilaki and Mazandarani, 7 percent Kurd, 3 percent Arab, 2 percent Lur, 2 percent Baloch, 1 percent Turkmen, and 1 percent other), multifaith (Shia, Sunni, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i), and multilingual. With the exception of the Gilaki/Mazandarani population, there has been substantial discontent among non-Persian minorities over the restriction of their social, political, religious, and cultural freedom, during both the current regime and the Pahlavi dynasty. Separatist sentiments, although suppressed by the central government, are strong among many minorities. The ability of city-centric governments in minority areas to make important decisions based on the local cultural context can go far toward easing such sentiments.

Decentralization of power and direct participatory democracy

A shift from a centralized resource system to a city-centric power structure can result in the strengthening of direct participatory democracy, increased accountability among local governments, and a shift from highly ideological to more practical politics. City governments will be directly responsible for the everyday well-being of their citizens, while the national government will deal with issues of national defense and other large-scale policy matters. This will allow citizens to get involved more directly with issues of immediate interest to them. It will also lead voters to judge competing political parties more by their performance on specific, practical matters rather than by their promotion of abstract ideologies.

Cities as centers for competition and collaboration

The cultural and geographic diversity of Iran's cities provides a unique opportunity for social and economic competition and collaboration to encourage sustainable development. In more industrialized areas, local governments can focus their resources on attracting more industries or enhancing services. Other city governments may focus more on tourism or services; still others may look to attract educational and research centers. The history of rivalry between cities in Iran is as old as the country itself, as the examples of Tabriz and Ardebil, in the Azeri region, or Sanandaj and Mahabad, both with Kurdish majorities, illustrate. Turning historical rivalries into drivers of sustainable development will spur mutual prosperity for the citizens of these cities and result in greater prosperity for the country as a whole. Collaboration between cities on particular issues can also produce mutually beneficial results -- cities can pool resources, share information, and create competitive blocs to compete with other cities around the nation, the region, and the world.

Exposure to multiple models of good governance

Enabling more than 500 city and town councils to explore different policies will provide the nation with unprecedented access to best practices in urban governance. If every local council is able to experiment with various policy approaches for a four-year period, the country will benefit from the equivalent of 2,000 years of governance experience. Making the knowledge gleaned from this experience accessible to all cities will be a crucial responsibility of the national government in coordination with the councils. Such an approach would also allow more radical and experimental policies to be explored in smaller cities and towns, given the limited risks involved compared to national or province-level policies.

Basic Governance Structure

The city-centric democracy model shifts many of the current responsibilities of the national government to the local level, bypassing the province (ostan) and providing direct budgetary and policy authority to the county (shahrestan).

Shahrestan as principal governance unit

The major governance unit for a city-centric democracy in Iran already exists in the form of the shahrestan, which is an agglomeration of villages, smaller towns, and a city, customarily with a population of 50,000 or more. The 324 current shahrestans already have some discretionary authority on local issues. City and village councils, constitutionally mandated to encourage participatory democracy, can also make important contributions. While much less effective at the level of the megacity -- those urban agglomerations with populations over one million -- due to national political interference, such councils have generally been very successful in encouraging local participation in decision making, especially considering their limited resources.

City as decision-making hub within the shahrestan

The largest city within a shahrestan can serve as its capital, with representation from town and village councils in the budgetary and other policy processes. The city council can serve as the main policy hub for the city, electing the mayor and supervising the execution of urban and rural policies within the shahrestan. City council members would be freely elected to four-year terms.

A Call for Discussion and Collaboration

This introductory essay is intended as a discussion starter on city-centric democracy as an alternative to a centralized or federal democratic system. I foresee three subsequent essays that will focus on topics such as the division of responsibilities between national and local governments; local and national government income and budgetary allocations; national constitution versus local law; city-centric democracy as a catalyst for secularization, social progress, economic prosperity, and global integration; and the challenges in transitioning to a city-centric democracy.

The content of these forthcoming articles will develop based on the feedback I receive from readers, as well as the discussions of the Iran 21 group. Rather than proposing a finished thesis, I view this as an invitation for analytical and critical discussion on the future of Iranian governance. In that spirit, I welcome all comments and also extend an open invitation for collaboration to those with relevant expertise.

Dr. Ali Mostashari is Director of the Center for Complex Adaptive Sociotechnological Systems (COMPASS) at Stevens Institute of Technology, where he also serves as Associate Professor at the School of Systems and Enterprises. Together with Prof. Matthias Finger (EPFL, Switzerland), Dr. Mostashari is the co-lead of the Intelligent Governance of Large-scale Urban Systems (IGLUS) Project, a consortium of 16 universities in 16 megacities across five continents studying the future governance models of urban systems. From 2004 to 2008, Dr. Mostashari served as a strategic advisor to the Assistant Secretary General for Africa at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He received his Ph.D. in Engineering Systems/Technology, Management, and Policy from MIT; an M.S. in Civil Engineering/Transportation from MIT; an M.S. in Technology and Policy from MIT; an M.S. in Chemical Engineering/Biotechnology with a minor in Business Administration from the University of Nebraska; a graduate certificate in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution from Harvard University; and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering/Energy Systems from Sharif University of Technology.

IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine. Photos via Flickr.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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KhudiPakistan.com has developed and is implementing a social movement that aims to accomplish similar goals. I suggest checking out the website. Their model is excellent.

Stephanie Rudat / August 9, 2010 9:09 PM

Dear Stephanie Rudat,

Thanks, but no thanks!

You are certainly aware that KhudiPakistan is run by your good friend, Maajid Nawaz, director of the pro-Israeli, neoconnish Quilliam Foundation, funded by the British Government.

Ali Mostashari's "Iran 21" initiative is a laudable one, seeking effective tools for cultivating civic democracy and good governance in Iran, quite unlike the bubblegum drivel featured on the KhudiPakistan website, most of whose staff and contributors are anonymous.

For those curious about Ms. Rudat's concept of excellence, I suggest consulting the SpinProfiles overview of Maajid Nawaz's Quilliam Foundation:


Ali from Tehran / August 10, 2010 1:03 AM

Thank you very much, Dr. Mostashari, for your inspiring introduction to a future-oriented topic, which is so necessary in this mainly backward oriented transitory situation.
Being no expert at all, I would only ask you to consider the bureaucratic side effects of 324 distinct administrations in a country, where offices are already notorious for their inefficiency and idleness.

Although I highly welcome the idea of a decentralized administration giving more autonomy to Iran's multi-ethnic and geographically diverse rural and urban entities, such a radical shift appears not very suitable to a society, lacking basic knowledge of democracy and democratic procedures, i.e. it would require a very stable government, which is not at sight in our deeply divided Iranian society.

A federal government, combining national coordination with provincial semi-autonomy would already be a big political step forward to more local self-reliance.
My other reasoning against your proposal is of financial nature, especially at a time, when the idea of "lean government" is widely discussed in western countries. I am not defending the right-wing concept trying to reduce governmental interference, but your proposed huge governmental apparatus would surely slow down the pace of necessary political decision-making. The alleged 2000 years of governance experience could thus turn easily into 2000 years of fruitless conflicts and stagnation.

The right place for such experiences are imho political parties, the establishment and promotion of which appear much more urgent to me.
Regards, Arshama

Arshama / August 10, 2010 3:59 AM

These are certainly fascinating ideas worthy of investigation (and since the project is being carried out in the U.S., why not a discussion about how to turn America from a quasi fascist corporatist state to a democracy as well?)

I'd like to know more about the logistics: who is funding it? Who are the people involved? (aside from Mostashari) What sort of discrepancies arise when a group of people (no matter how well trained or educated) sit around a table in NEW YORK and outlines plans for a place that is millions of miles away geographically, politically, culturally, etc?

Still fascinating nonetheless.

Houshang / August 10, 2010 6:23 AM

Good points by Arshama that would need to be addressed, and some of which I will address in the next articles in the series. Just a quick thing that we already have the bureaucracy in place in the form of city and town councils in Iran. They have the bureaucracy but not the money or authority. This would actually make government rather lean on the national and provincial levels. But as you indicate the discourse needs to address all of this.

Houshang, it would be foolish to draw up plans in NY for Iran, thats not what Iran 21 was about. It's essentially an effort to identify the important questions that need to be asked and studied before emotions flare high and inhibit any kind of rational thought. So more than anything else, very much similar to this article, everything else is a discussion topic. Once the site is up, you'll see the entire process. I suspect at least 5-6 people will ask to remain unidentified due to personal preferences, but the entire initiative is very transparent and was also very well documented. Actually changing the process of professional expertise-driven discourse among people with different perspectives is the actual goal of the initiative which will take at least the next two years. I'll post the website information here once it's up.

Ali Mostashari / August 10, 2010 8:23 PM

This model may work for most of Iran. Yet, there are regions like Kurdistan that want total Independence now.

Qumars Hojjaty / August 10, 2010 10:45 PM

Iran is A LONG WAY from a FEDERAL model of government. It FIRST needs to INSTITUTE Freedom & Equality! Freedom, defined by its limits, limits being freedom of others. Equality as in EQUAL RIGHTS for all Iranians. Iran will need every OUNCE of its natural resources to create a level field for its citizens, long before it can turn to local & federal tax model to finance its local & central governments.

The author is INCORRECT when stating that Iran had a strong central government for the last 300 years. Iran did not have a strong central government UNTIL Reza Shah instituted it some 80 years ago for the first time since Arab conquest (or even earlier?).

Maziar / August 11, 2010 2:27 AM

Greek City-States were always fighting and if there is an inter city-gov how is that so different then Federalism. One other thing I live in NY State...Upstate no one identifies with NYC its like 2 different worlds and in the way of politics its like black and white red and blue NYC has rich and booming economy and upstate is called the Rust Belt and policies never aline but the city is bigger. And no one thinks the ethnic separatist will not see this as ther chance to join Kurds to the north and East Balochs to the West and south

Nate Riley / August 11, 2010 7:41 PM

Another article writen to create a philosophy behind dividing Iran up into separate nations. Iran's minorities don't want separation like the author claims. That is a big give-away what the article attempts to do. And these animals think they are from Iran.

Pouya / August 12, 2010 11:14 AM

Great article, Dr. Mostashari. Looking forward to the others in the series as this is still more of an outline. There is extensive literature on new urbanism and urban democracies if you haven't already.

Reza / August 13, 2010 10:20 AM

Just thinking how the resources will be distributed between different cities. Like, in Iran, who will take care of the oil income, and how it will be divided between different cities? Is it based on their populations?

Mohsen / August 27, 2010 10:47 PM