Reading Jefferson in Tehran

Reviewed by Shaul Bakhash
Sunday, August 13, 2006


History and the Quest for Liberty

By Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr

Oxford Univ. 214 pp. $29.95

Few Americans will be surprised to hear that Iran has a well-established autocratic tradition. Shapur II, the 4th-century ruler of the Sasanian Empire, spoke of himself as "king of kings, partner with the stars, brother of the sun and moon." In the 20th century, the two Pahlavi monarchs, both modernizing autocrats, had little patience for political critics or real parliaments. In the 21st, the current Islamic Republic created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gives vast, virtually unchecked powers to the faqih , the Islamic jurist who is the theocracy's supreme leader, a post currently held by the hard-line Ali Khamenei.

But as Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr remind us, Iran also has a democratic tradition -- or, at least, a tradition of aspiring toward democracy. The 1906 Constitutional Revolution wrested power away from the ruling Qajar dynasty and vested it in the people. The few years immediately following World War II witnessed a brief interregnum of genuine parliamentary politics. And even the Islamic Revolution of 1979 resulted in part from a demand for accountable government and democratic rights and a loathing for the shah's autocracy. In the late 1990s, Iran experienced a remarkable, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, democracy movement led by the country's reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami.

Gheissari, a University of San Diego historian, and Nasr, a Middle East specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of the recent The Shia Revival , argue quite rightly that the aspiration for democracy in Iran has always been intertwined with the aspiration for a strong state. The constitutionalists of 1906 wanted to curb the powers of the monarchy both for the sake of democracy and because inept, corrupt rule had left Iran open to imperialist domination and denied it the benefits of modernity. In the 1960s and '70s, a host of talented economists, planners, engineers and technocrats willingly, if uneasily, served Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The shah was no democrat, but he created conditions that allowed his brain trust to build telecommunications networks, petrochemical plants and steel mills, grow the economy and expand the middle class. In addition, the shah spectacularly increased the country's oil revenues and transformed Iran into a regional powerhouse. "Democracy and development came to be viewed as mutually exclusive goals," the authors write in one of their many incisive observations.

The same tension, they show, characterizes the Islamic Republic. Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gave primacy to economic development but cared little for civil society -- the possibility for political parties, professional associations and an independent press to fill the space between the individual and the state and to create the rules of the political game that let a democracy endure. His successor -- the reformist Khatami, who wanted to build up civil-society institutions so long as they were Islamic -- tried to make Iran more democratic "while keeping the state in control of the process of change."

Iran's struggle with democracy, the authors sensibly argue, has to be understood in the context of its history and culture. We also must consider how Iran's political activists and intelligentsia framed debates over ruling the country. In the 1990s, Gheissari and Nasr point out, Iranian intellectuals embraced the idea of civil society because they had learned from hard experience that the Marxist or Islamist ideologies they formerly espoused led to untrammeled state power. The mullahs, the authors note, shut down newspapers and jail writers, but their regime now holds elections as an institutionalized part of the political process. That can be a mixed blessing, of course; Iranian voters have recently picked both the liberalizing Khatami and his fire-breathing, Holocaust-denying replacement, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "We did not have a revolution in order to have democracy," Ahmadinejad sneered on the campaign trail. But as the authors note, "to be president, he had to win the election."

Gheissari and Nasr provide us with a clear and readable account of politics in the Islamic Republic but not -- as they set out to do -- an analytic framework for understanding the tension in Iran between a more effective government and a more democratic one. They also shed little light on the meaning of the Iranian legacy for the larger Muslim world, which is also grappling with how to provide more open systems of government. The book also says surprisingly little about how Islam has influenced the ways in which Iran's elites and other social classes have understood the proper role of government or the meaning of individual rights; not enough on the competition of ideas -- democratic, theocratic, autocratic -- that shape Iran's politics today; and not nearly enough on the reasons for the continued strength of the country's autocratic tradition and the relative weakness of its civil society.

It is possible that in Iran, as elsewhere in the Middle East, politics has remained too much the domain of political and intellectual elites that failed to build durable civil institutions such as parties, unions and independent newspapers; that the general public has only sporadically entered the political arena; and that these difficulties are themselves the products of a culture, history and social structure that will not be easily changed. Democracy in Iran encourages readers to think hard about these intriguing questions, but it does not answer them. ยท

Shaul Bakhash is Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.

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