7. Iran’s government likes to describe itself as an “Islamic democracy.” Is this a fair characterization? What features of its political system are—or are NOT—democratic? In your opinion, can democracy and theocracy be blended? Is it reasonable for foreign governments to think that they can push Iran towards embracing democratic reforms? If yes, how? If not, why not?
Traditionally, the debate on whether or not religion and democracy can be blended is not unique to Iran, nor to Islam. More often than not, history has taught us that these two aspects of society cannot not be blended, and sometimes it has been suggested that the two are mutually exclusive. In the context of Iran’s history and reality, I will argue that the Iranian interpretation of Islam is incompatible even with a minimalist definition of democracy which presumes “fully contested elections with full suffrage and the absence of massive fraud, combined with effective guarantees of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, assembly, and association” (David & Levitsky, 1997).
Let us examine each of the elements of the definition above and its relationship with the “Islamic democracy”:
Contested elections with full suffrage
Absence of massive fraud
Guarantees of civil liberties: freedom of speech, assembly and association
In Iran, for every democratic institution, there is a parallel institution dominated by the clergy. So rather than democracy and religion blending, the religious institution supersedes the democratic one, rendering in effect “undemocratic”. This is easy to see in just a few example. The people elect the President, but he “would not be president if the Guardian Council had not approved his candidacy ahead of time; he would not be able to take office if the council and the Supreme Leader had not certified his election; and he would not be able to form a cabinet without the confirmation process of the Parliament. And then, if he is able to get legislation passed by the Parliament, he has to await the Guardians’ approval, and if it is not forthcoming, await the Expediency Council’s arbitration of any dispute.” (Majd, 2010)
This is one of many examples where we can see that Iranians (all of them, there is universal suffrage) can certainly elect a number of the institutions (like the Parliament, and the President, among others), but these have very little authority and freedom, ultimately with the Supreme Leader having the final say.
In a country like Iran, where the system is designed to keep a specific group in change, despite aspects of democracy being present; the question about fraud is not about whether it is present or not, but rather a question of how much. There are still allegations that the 2009 Presidential elections were rigged to keep Ahmadinejad in power, when in fact it had been Mir-Hossein Mousavi who had won (Erdbrink, 2009). That can be compared to the 2013 elections where in a turn of events Hassan Rouhani cleared 50% in a 6-way race. Rouhani ran real campaign, engaged those who were repressed 2009 Protests and appealed to the public, all without major involvement of the Supreme Leader.
As for the final part of a democracy; freedom of speech, assembly and association is not even a factor that is to be considered in a country where there are institutions the Revolutionary Guards, whose role is the suppression of dissidents. These organizations arrest, torture and abuse those who are a threat to the Islamic system. By principle, any country who consideres itself democratic is one that listens to their people and implements their demands (Abdo, 2011), which is completely at odds with the nature of multiple Iranian institutions.
Many, like the US and the EU, have been carefully watching over Iran; not only watching but imposing heavy sanctions against the regime, hoping to drive the system to the edge and finally tumble it. While these efforts have had a significant effect on the