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79/11, Tehran or Tunis | Part 3: The Abandonment of Democratic Principles


29 Oct 2012 22:14Comments

Part 1: The Fork in the Revolutionary Road | Part 2: The Long Shadow of Iran's Summary Executions

Establishment of theocracy in Iran facilitated by disoriented democratic leaders.

Dr. Iraj Omidvar teaches English at Southern Polytechnic State University, Marietta, Georgia. All opinions are his own.
[ series ] Seen through the lens of the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the constitutional transition period in Tunisia has been marked by integrity. Tunisians did not permit anyone to rush them to vote on a new system of government before having a chance to scrutinize the ideas of the various parties. Moreover, they maintained their existing constitutional order and elements of its power structure (for example, the military) while working to reconstitute it, by gradually shaking off the discredited regime players at the top and carefully planning for constitutional assembly elections. As demonstrated in their actions during and after their revolution, Tunisians and their political leaders have shown that they have absorbed the lessons of the Iranian Revolution in ways that Iranians in Iran and abroad have not begun to.

Ultimately, Iran ended up with a Shia version of the caliphate -- Velaayat-e Faghih, the rule of the jurisprudent -- due to failed democratic leadership, a failure that continues to the present because Iranian political groups on the whole continue to see themselves as innocent victims and other groups as traitors. But just about every group bears a heavy responsibility and must clear the air if Iran is to avoid a repetition of the errors that landed it in a theocracy. In this section, my focus will be on the pivotal and utterly destructive role played in the establishment of the Islamic Republic by the groups I have most respected: the democrats of the National Front, and especially its Islamist offshoot, the Freedom Movement, which was led by Mehdi Bazargan until his death in 1995.

Iran became a theocracy in February 1979, long before the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was put to popular vote in a flawed election that December. The path was paved earlier, in 1978, as the Shah used deadly force in response to the unrest in a country that was on the verge of explosion. A generation-long period of repression had gutted the political system of intelligent, experienced politicians and withered the democratic institutions that were supposed to permit the application of social intelligence to solving difficult national problems.

Finally, after a series of prime ministers came and went, the Shah was ready to compromise and approached the secular National Front, the only moderate, democratic political grouping to enjoy widespread respect and support in the country. But on November 5, 1978, Karim Sanjabi, the leader of the National Front, met with Ruhollah Khomeini in Paris and issued a declaration that utterly confused and demoralized Iranian democrats and represented the first of the monumental political blunders that have in effect removed the National Front from Iranian politics.

The declaration labeled the "monarchical system" without any "legal or sharia" footing and promised that the "National Front while this monarchical system remains will not accept any form of government." This statement, which was a call for the collapse of the constitutional system by a political body whose signature principle had always been constitutionalism and adherence to the rule of law, evidenced a breathtaking moral and political disorientation. And the declaration went even further, stating that "Iran's national government must be based on" three principles, the first being Islam and the other two, as an afterthought, "democracy, and independence." The declaration threw the National Front into disarray, and drastically limited its ability to take the initiative until it was too late. In fact, during the critical three months following the declaration, a divided National Front collaborated with Khomeini, following the lead of its offshoot, the Freedom Movement, led by Bazargan.

On January 12, while still in Paris, Khomeini formalized the activities of his partisans, which included moderate Islamists like Bazargan, by creating an all-male, pointedly nonsecular body called the Islamic Revolutionary Council. The National Front tacitly accepted the authority of this council even though it excluded the entire spectrum of political groupings in Iran aside from Khomeini's circle of close allies.

Then in February, Khomeini appointed Bazargan interim prime minister on the basis of the recommendation of his own partisan Islamic Revolutionary Council and of what Khomeini claimed was his "sharia right." The day after this unconstitutional appointment, he not only elaborated his political philosophy in unambiguous terms -- he had "guardianship of the sharia" and could appoint rulers -- but also what that guardianship meant politically -- "In Islamic jurisprudence, rising up against the divine government is rising up against God."

It was not the appointment itself that turned Iran into a Shia caliphate, however, it was Bazargan's acceptance of the appointment, also endorsed by the National Front, which agreed to join Bazargan's government. What Bazargan and the National Front conceded when they accepted the appointment decree was its ideological terms: Khomeini's theocratic vision.

In Tunisia, after the departure of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the remaining political leaders in the discredited, but constitutional, interim government as well as respected politicians outside of it were under enormous pressure from a public deeply concerned with issues of democratic integrity and representativeness as plans were made to transition to an elected government through a credible process of drafting a new constitution. The interim government did refuse to permit theocrats who aggressively rejected the rules of the democratic process to run for office, but otherwise, all groups, secular or Islamist, were encouraged to -- and did -- participate. Tunisians were also concerned not to rush momentous national decisions. And the interim government postponed the voting to give time for civil society to organize itself -- for newspapers to be established, for example, and for political campaigns to coalesce -- but also to give itself time to prepare for the extremely difficult task of running a credible election.

Bazargan's draft constitution and the judiciary

Iranians now know that issues of representativeness, democratic integrity, and time and resources for careful deliberation were no concerns of Khomeini. But many have not quite appreciated the fact that these issues were also no concerns of Bazargan, whom they trusted to navigate the country to democratic rule.

Khomeini's theocratic vision was powerfully reinforced in March when Bazargan conducted a referendum that presented Iranians with the false choice of voting yes or no to an Islamic Republic before they were given an opportunity to understand what they were voting for. It was not until June 14 that Iranians finally got their first look into key details of Khomeini's theocratic vision. That's when Bazargan presented to the public a draft constitution, which moderate Islamists in Iran, to this day, misrepresent as democratic.

In Bazargan's draft, which was composed secretly by people handpicked by Khomeini and his closest partisans and later approved by Khomeini himself, the judicial branch was to be "established according to the standards of Islam" in order to dispense "Islamic justice" (chapter 3, article 18). The draft constitution left no doubt that by "Islam" and "Islamic" were meant Jafari Shiism, which the draft declared to be the country's official school of interpretation. The social reach of the other four traditional Sunni schools of Islam were explicitly limited not only to private affairs and religious training but, significantly, to governance in "local assemblies" in places where adherents of such schools were in a majority.

Thus, since the draft declared that Islam was to be involved in governance and that official Islam is Jafari Shiism, the draft in effect restored the judicial branch to clerics, that is, Jafari Shia legal experts. In Iran's preconstitutional period (and for some years afterward), the judiciary was a pillar of clerical power in part because clerics derive their religious authority juridically, that is, from claiming to be privileged interpreters of the sharia, the sacred law of Islam.

By the time the draft constitution was presented to Iranians, Khomeini's intention of establishing a fully theocratized judiciary was hardly a matter of speculation. In March, Khomeini had unconstitutionally swept aside the country's existing professional judiciary and created the Islamic Revolutionary Courts, whose judges were clerics like "Chief Justice of the Sharia" Sadegh Khalkhali, directly appointed by Khomeini, who by June had already sentenced hundreds of people to be executed in proceedings that define lack of due process. By then, it was also clear that the jurisdiction of this new Islamic judiciary extended to all areas of social life, not just religious ones.

Bazargan's draft constitution and the Guardian Council

However, the most lethal attack on democracy in the draft was the provision of a Guardian Council of legal experts and mojtaheds, clerics of a rank high enough to interpret sharia, in order to make sure no law in the country would go against the principles of Islam -- again, understood as Jafari Shiism.

The draft included some limitations on the power of the clergy on the council. The parliament was to select the clerics from a list offered by the grand ayatollahs (the highest-ranking mojtaheds in Jafari Shiism); the clerics would constitute a minority of five members out of a total of 11, and council decisions would require a two-thirds vote.

Nevertheless, the granting of clerical oversight in the council codified an explicit rejection of democratic principles: political legitimacy as grounded in people's sovereignty -- that is, their ability to think and act independently, and the sanctity of the person instead of a particular interpretation of the purported will of God or of some religious text by a group of privileged "professional" interpreters. In other words, the draft constitution gave a class of self-authorized monopolist interpreters of a particular current of religious thought the right, in principle, to act as the guardians and betters of Iranians.

However, the draft also gave clerics the power to exercise that right because three of the other six members of the council were to be selected by the parliament from among the chief justices of the country's judicial branch, which was restored to Jafari Shia legal experts -- which is to say, clerics -- who presumably would model themselves after Khalkhali, who was working hard to realize Khomeini's vision for an Islamic judicial branch. In short, Bazargan's draft constitution gave clerics eight of the 11 council seats, surpassing the two thirds needed to veto acts of parliament.

The idea of the Guardian Council and Iran's democratic heritage

bazargan-mehdi.jpgIn addition to being profoundly antidemocratic, the Guardian Council in Bazargan's draft also dishonored Iran's democratic heritage. It was a throwback to a similar one supplemented in 1907 to Iran's original constitution in a reactionary wave following the accession to the throne of the autocratic Mohammad Ali Shah of the Qajar dynasty, who even before his accession had worked to get rid of the constitution. He had a powerful ally in the ultra-traditionalist Fazlallah Nuri, a high-ranking cleric and Khomeini role model, who had correctly understood that the original constitution was taking the axe to the traditional source of clerical power: the clerics' supposed privileged link to the divine, which ultimately helped legitimize the rule of the shahs. By mid-1907, Nuri was the most outspoken ideologue behind the Shah's opposition to constitutionalism and democratic rule, and he openly decried such basic principles of democracy as "equality before the law and freedom of the press" for being "contrary to Islam."

It is of tremendous significance for understanding the history of democracy in Iran to note that Nuri's sermons and pamphlets received extensive public responses not only in the democratic press of the time, but also from constitutionalist clerics of equal or higher rank in Tehran and Najaf. Nuri pointedly failed to sway the democrats or the most influential clergy.

With Nuri's proactive and very public support, in mid-1908, the Shah annulled the parliament, executed constitutionalist leaders, and had Russian Cossacks bombard the parliament building. These actions ushered in the most acute stage of the Constitutional Revolution, the civil war and the horrific siege of Tabriz, whose citizens fought the forces of despotism for a year before constitutionalists around the country were able to mobilize and in 1909 march on Tehran. The Shah was exiled ignominiously to Russia. And Nuri, seen as the chief ideological enemy of constitutionalism and democracy, was tried in a court that included clergy, and hanged.

Thus, by the end of the Constitutional Revolution, Nuri's reworked traditionalist argument for heavy-handed, direct clerical oversight of the parliament was lost. Afterward, the mainstream clergy as a class -- including the highest-ranking clerics who enjoyed the widest acceptance among both peers and followers -- occasionally talked about the issue, but never seriously pressed it.

Clerical support for the Constitutional Revolution is sometimes said to reflect ideological confusion or fear of reprisal from secularists. Both factors were influential, but so were others of greater importance. During the decades leading to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, the highest-ranking Jafari Shia clerics were concentrated in the cities of today's Iraq, then under Ottoman rule. These clerics were shaken out of their insularity in part as a result of the intellectual and physical battles that Ottoman reformists and democrats were waging against their sultan, who justified his absolute rule by reference to his religious role as the caliph. In this environment, Shia clerics were reexamining their long-standing subjection to religious intolerance under the Sunni Ottomans in terms of the political arguments for freedom being made by Ottoman reformists.

But perhaps more important, Shia clerics also understood that the few remaining independent Muslim-ruled states were on the verge of collapse, occupation, and dissection in their confrontations with European colonialists. Economically and militarily, Muslim states had repeatedly proved unable to meet the challenge of European countries, which through their own earlier democratic revolutions and reform movements had freed human capacities that had not begun to be tapped in countries like Iran.

Thus, many clerics of the period not only understood the need for, but were engaged in ideological and political reform. Some left the ranks of the clergy altogether -- some even abandoned their religion -- and some attempted reforms of Shiism from within. Clerics were integral to the Constitutional Revolution and after 1906, when Iran became a constitutional monarchy, many clerics participated in elections and parliamentary deliberations. Had conditions been conducive to continued democratic practice (free exchange of ideas in the press, free deliberations in the parliament, and so forth), Iranian clerics might well have been able to use the opening created by the Constitutional Revolution to engage more fruitfully with democratic ideas.1 At the very least, the public would have been educated about the range of clerical opinions on important political issues and about the precise philosophical and scholarly expertise that clerics claimed for their views.

At any rate, Iranian democrats -- in part out of deference for the clergy, especially the constitutionalists among them -- also did not make a production out of their rejection of Nuri's patently antidemocratic Guardian Council article, especially given the fact that clerics were already present in the Iranian parliament as elected members. In practice, that article was gradually ignored by subsequent governments, some of which were not only democratically elected but led by the country's champions of democracy, such as Mohammad Mosaddegh.

In parliamentary systems, this history establishes a constitutional precedent. In legal documents of parliamentary systems, people may be referred to as "subjects" to some monarch, but only in deference to cultural tradition. It is understood that people are persons, that is, sovereign citizens, not because it is written in legal documents but because it is written in the country's history, which shows debates were had, battles perhaps were fought, and an issue was resolved.

Likewise, in the parliamentary system of Iran, the Constitutional Revolution, as well as the long history of desuetude of the patently antidemocratic Guardian Council article in the supplement by progressive and mainstream clerics as well as by legitimate democratic governments, represented a constitutional precedent and a landmark of Iran's democratic heritage.

Khomeini belonged to a group of particularly insular clerics who followed Nuri's lead, never digested this democratic, constitutional precedent, and were determined to discard it. When Bazargan accepted Khomeini's appointment to run the unconstitutional parallel government, he did not discard just the constitution; he also discarded all the historical precedents surrounding it. In other words, he accepted Khomeini's Nuri-based, ultra-traditionalist legal argument for the appointment and conceded nothing less than the right to rule and to appoint rulers to clerics. By exhuming the idea of the Guardian Council in the draft constitution, Bazargan codified that antidemocratic concession and profoundly dishonored Iran's democratic heritage.

Back to Tunisia

By the time Bazargan's draft constitution was presented to the public, the National Front had left his interim government, reorganized itself, and was opposing the draft. But of course it had already conceded too much, having publicly declared its rejection of the country's constitutional framework and its own secular principles, then acted on those declarations by expelling Shapour Bakhtiar when he accepted the premiership from the Shah, joining an unconstitutional interim government appointed by a cleric who claimed to have a divine right to appoint rulers, and finally dignifying with its presence in the interim government the inane yes/no referendum on an Islamic Republic. In other words, it had emerged from its long post-Mosaddegh hibernation unequal to the task of protecting the people's most fundamental democratic rights. It was out of practice, disoriented, and poorly led. But unlike Bazargan's Freedom Movement, the National Front was not part of Khomeini's core team of partisans who planned and executed policies designed to manipulate Iranians into adopting an Islamic theocracy.

And perhaps it is this absence of a concerted and carefully planned effort to manipulate Tunisians that marks the greatest difference between the Tunisian and Iranian revolutions. Moderate Tunisian Islamists of course have their ideological goals, but they are not subverting -- and have not been permitted to subvert -- the rules of democratic practice in order to impose their vision on the people. They are making their case and have to respond to weighty countervailing arguments. The result is a better-informed Tunisian citizenry.

In Iran, Bazargan and Khomeini had different Islamist visions, but they shared the goal of maneuvering their political and ideological opponents out of the most important decisions of which all Iranians needed to be a part.

In Part 4, I will recall the conclusive manipulations -- again led and facilitated by moderate Islamists -- that ensured Iran would be a theocracy.


1. Of course, conditions were anything but conducive. Among the factors that made conditions inimical to the practice of democracy in a society that had just emerged from despotism were World War I, foreign territorial occupation and political intervention, a weak central government in financial disarray, widespread lawlessness, and then of course the autocratic rule of Reza Shah that undermined civil society and insulated the clerics in their conservative seminaries.

End of Part 3 | Part 4: The Final Capitulations to a Clerical Takeover

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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