Dr. Ghobadzadeh is a senior lecturer in politics at the National School of Arts, Australian Catholic University.
Iran’s political landscape witnessed a month-long series of public protests from the final days of 2017 until the end of January 2018. According to the interior minister, an unprecedented number of cities — more than 100 in total — bore witness to these protests.1 Although the ruling clergy managed to stabilize the situation, the protests have continued, albeit in a sporadic way, up until the present. While the chorus of voices seeking regime change has become louder, reform discourse is earning scant popularity in the political lexicon of the country. This situation is attributable partly to the hostile approach adopted by the Trump administration in abandoning the joint nuclear deal with Iran and reintroducing sanctions. Additionally, the current U.S. administration has increased its ties with, and support for, the Iranian opposition groups that seek regime change. However, external factors offer only a partial explanation for the recent political upheaval.
The main source of the volatile political situation is the widespread dissatisfaction attributable to Iran’s economic and political woes, although such discontent is not a new phenomenon. For years, many Iranians have been disillusioned with governance by the clerics.2 That notwithstanding, members of the ruling clergy have managed to create periods of hope for meaningful change. By holding elections and allowing limited levels of policy reform, they have successfully quelled public dissatisfaction, at least temporarily. The Reform Era (1997-2005), for example, was a time of great expectation for the transformation of the clergy-dominated polity. During the 2013 presidential elections, yet another wave of optimism urged many to vote for Rouhani, a moderate who promised to reorient the course of the country’s economic, political and cultural affairs.
However, these periods of optimism have failed to bring about any meaningful change; instead, they have prolonged the dissatisfaction with the ruling clergy. The hope of reform from within sparked by Rouhani’s rise in 2013 has rapidly diminished. This begs the question: is this just another failed attempt by reformists to transform the polity, or does it imply an innate political obstacle that makes reform from within impossible?
My use of the term “reform” refers to a process to eventually transform Iran’s clergy-dominated political system into a democracy and excludes any suggestion of foreign intervention. This means that the theocratic component of the country’s political system should be gradually demolished and all future leaders be chosen by the people through free and fair elections. This transformation could also be affected by revolution, civil disobedience or the uncertainty surrounding election results, as was rumored to be the case following the 2009 voting. In this paper, I ask if democratization through elections is possible in Iran.
The lived reality of the Islamic Republic over the last four decades emphatically suggests a negative answer to this question. Despite the fact that Iran’s reformists have achieved landslide victories in various elections, they have not ushered in democratization. Nevertheless, it would be premature to suggest that elections can never be a mode of transition to democracy. Closer investigation must be undertaken of (a) Iran’s electoral politics and (b) the reasons underpinning the failure of elections to usher in democracy. This article argues that, due to Iran’s political configuration and the theocrats’ determination not to negotiate structural change, elections are highly unlikely to result in a transition to democracy. The country’s entrenched jurisprudential/theological system, coupled with its constitution, are not amenable to any form of democracy.
This is despite the fact that theoretically, as Andreas Shedler has observed,3 elections are a potential instrument of democratization. The Reform Era (1997-2005) and its aftermath show that both the country’s politico-legal system and its power balance enabled Iran’s theocrats4 to stifle any move towards structural change. While electoral procedures and institutions are capable of introducing policy reform, they lack the capability to initiate structural change.
ELECTIONS: THEORY, PRACTICE
The politico-religious thought of Ayatollah Khomeini did little to provide a conceptual basis for a democratic polity in Iran. His first major political writing appeared in early 1943, when he published “The Revealing of Secrets.” In this work, rather than criticizing Iran’s monarchical system, he stressed that the clergy had always supported it.5 In time, however, Khomeini challenged the status quo, arguing that (a) the shah should show more respect for the clergy; (b) he should recruit more of them into the parliament; and (c) he should heed their advice to ensure that state laws conformed with the sharia.6
In the 1940s, Khomeini’s engagement with politics remained at the conceptual level. However, by the mid-1960s, he had become actively involved in day-to-day politics and started referring to the monarchical system as illegitimate, although his criticism, rooted in religious conviction, did not directly target the system’s democratic deficit. In 1964, in his “A Clarification of Questions,” he urged believers to distance themselves from the “oppressive government,” declaring it religiously forbidden for clerics to cooperate with the Pahlavi monarchical system.7 The most telling feature of Khomeini’s thought was his position regarding the right — indeed what he considered the responsibility — of the clergy to assume political leadership: “In the absence of the twelfth Imam, jurists, who are entitled to issue fatwās and act as judges, represent the Hidden Imam in terms of political and other issues pertaining to theUmmah8. Clearly, Khomeini did not consider it necessary to make any reference to believers or subjects choosing their ruler.
By the early 1970s, Khomeini’s political thought was characterized by a well-grounded conceptual framework. He delivered 13 lectures in Najaf between January 20, 1970, and February 8, 1970 (later published as a book titled Wilāyat-i faqīh: Islamic Government), spelling out a comprehensive politico-religious doctrine according to which the monarchical system appeared in complete contradiction to Islamic principles. Additionally, and perhaps more important, the formation of an Islamic state was deemed the religious responsibility of jurists. Two defining principles reinforced his doctrine, without which it loses its founding logic. First, according to Khomeini, the ultimate goal of the establishment of an Islamic state is the implementation of sharia.
The second principle refers to the exclusive right of clerics to political leadership. Here it becomes obvious that these two key features leave no space to accommodate democratic values; the people are not entitled to decide on the state’s mission. Theoretically speaking, even if the subjects of an Islamic government unanimously agreed to abandon certain aspects of sharia, they would not be granted permission to act. In addition, they are not entitled to freely choose their political leaders. The head of state is appointed by divine will and thus, of necessity, must be a knowledgeable jurist recognized for his religious qualifications and credentials.9 Khomeini’s doctrine of wilāyat-i faqīh — the founding premise of the Islamic Republic — precludes the possibility of accommodating democratic principles and process.10
A brief review of the revolutionary trajectory of Khomeini and his companions reveals that their revolt against the Pahlavi regime was triggered neither by the latter’s non-democratic nature, nor by the revolutionaries’ desire to reclaim the people’s participation in the political process. They were primarily concerned with the alleged violation of Islamic teachings. Although many political groups and ideologies played deceptive roles in the 1979 revolution, the clerical Islamists succeeded in claiming the lead position. This partially explains why the new political system, the anti-democratic doctrine of wilāyat-i faqīh, became the basis of the new constitution. The clerical Islamists developed a specific politico-religious structure making it impossible for a democratic polity to emerge.
The country’s constitution seems to acknowledge both divine and popular sovereignty.11 For example, it states (a) that the people must have a direct role in electing the president and members of Parliament, and (b) that through the Assembly of Experts people have an indirect role in choosing the supreme leader (wilāyat-i faqīh). However, a meticulous reading of the constitution reveals that the very foundation of state authority is inextricably bound to religion as understood and dictated by a jurist, i.e., the supreme leader. While the people are entitled to some democratic rights, they are only free to exercise them within the prescribed religious framework. This is because Articles 1 and 4 of the constitution state that all legislation, policies and programs are conditional on the observance of Islamic principles. It is the duty of the Guardian Council to determine whether a violation has occurred. The constitution therefore authorizes a nondemocratic institution to ensure that all legislation conforms to Islamic principles. The members of this council (six jurists and six lawyers) are either directly or indirectly appointed by the supreme leader. Even if the parliamentary representatives of the people reach a unanimous consensus on a proposed piece of legislation, it requires the Guardian Council’s endorsement before it can become law.
It is further claimed that the supreme leader is indirectly elected by the people through the Assembly of Experts. However, given that all 86 members are clergy, it is difficult to consider them representative of the entire nation. A basic qualification for supreme leader is that he be a jurist; a layperson is ruled out. Furthermore, members of the Assembly of Experts need approval from the Guardian Council, who, in turn, are directly or indirectly appointed by the supreme leader. Even if one accepts that the supreme leader is indirectly elected by the people, the process has shortcomings that render it undemocratic. 12
Over the last four decades, the ruling clergy have exploited this nondemocratic structure to cripple democracy-seeking efforts. Besides adopting the most authoritarian reading of the constitution, on occasion they blatantly violate its semi-democratic elements to eliminate any possibility of entering a transition toward democratization. The Guardian Council is the watchdog and ultimate decision maker at every stage of the electoral process.13 Much has been written about how its conservative members have used their power to manipulate election results. I will limit my contribution to listing its electoral responsibilities:
• Approving the date of elections
• Determining the eligibility of all candidates
• Overseeing the work of the Election Campaign Monitor
• Supervising the election process on polling day
• Canceling election results in an electoral district
• Stopping the election process or security for other reasons
• Hearing complaints and adjudication of electoral disputes
• Approving the election results
• Approving amendments and revision of all electoral laws.
A bold identification marker in post-revolutionary Iran has been the classification of individuals into outsiders and insiders. The latter are those who conform to the ideal of the unification of religion and state. Outsiders are those vilified as anti-revolutionary. Since the ruling clergy consolidated power in the early 1980s, the Guardian Council has denied outsiders the right to stand as candidates for election. The Council has a rich history of denying the eligibility of insider candidates considered “too progressive,” astounding observers with the brash level of abuse it employs to exclude reformists.
Over 90 percent of presidential candidates have been disqualified by the Guardian Council in the past nine elections.14 In 2017, this figure increased to more than 95 percent. The sixth parliamentary elections in 2000 provided a stark example of the cancellation of votes. In Tehran, where reformists claimed a crushing victory, the Guardian Council declared 25 percent of all votes cast invalid.15 During the 2003 elections, it disqualified more than 4,000 candidates including 80 incumbent members of parliament (27.5 percent). Female candidates are never permitted to run for president, and laypersons are excluded from seeking appointment to the Assembly of Experts.
To date, the ruling clergy have successfully used elections to frustrate widespread dissatisfaction with the political system. Despite the periodical concern elections evoke, their outcomes have significantly contributed to the resilience of the Islamic Republic. This may explain why members of the ruling clergy are strongly committed to holding them at their scheduled times; they continued uninterrupted during the country’s eight-year war with Iraq. Of course, asserting that the objective is democratic practice would be disingenuous. Why, then, did Iran’s ruling clergy decide to include electoral procedures in their politico-religious governmental system?
RATIONALE FOR ELECTIONS
There is a certain pragmatism embedded in Shia theology and in the clerics’ rationale for survival. Shiism has always benefited from the time-honored tradition of taqiyya (dissimulation), concealing one’s religious conviction or intention if revealing it could invite harm. Taqiyya, which has Quranic justification, was initially practiced by several of the Prophet Mohammad’s companions with his approval. Later, taqiyya became particularly important when Shias were persecuted as a religious minority.16 It is completely justifiable and even religiously compulsory. Thus, Shii Islamists may have resorted to their religious justification for concealing their true plans in the years preceding the 1979 revolution.
Similarly, the political climate at the time of the revolution would not permit them to establish a fully theocratic state. Leading hardline theoretician Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi,who supported this explanation, in an interview some years later stated that elections were not an essential feature of politics in Islam. He claimed that the late Ayatollah Khomeini endorsed the electoral system due to the circumstances of the time:
Wilāyat-i faqīh represents the Infallible Imam, and he is the one who says what is right. Due to expediency, sometimes he will ask people to vote, telling them that he would accept whoever they choose …. He orders subjects to choose a president, but the legitimacy of the presidential elections is based on his endorsement. He considers it appropriate in [specific] situations to ask the people to vote. 17
A closer look at the sequence of events that led to the clerical consolidation of power reveals that there was some truth in this analysis. One outstanding example was the appointment of clerics to positions in the state apparatus, a process emphatically discouraged by Khomeini in the early years following the revolution. However, two years after the revolution, clerics claimed many middle- and lower-ranking positions, as well as higher political ones. Furthermore, the notion of wilāyat-i faqīh was not included in the first draft of the constitution endorsed by Khomeini in 1979. However, members of the Constituent Assembly made major changes to this draft, confirming that the entire constitution was based on the notion and position of the wilāyat-i faqīh.18
Another example of the pragmatic approach adopted by Khomeini and his companions was their insistence on the role of the people in the political process, in particular on the eve of the 1979 revolution and during the structuring of the new political system. During this time, Khomeini gave over 120 interviews in Paris, not once referring to the clerics’ prerogative of power.19 In response to an NBC journalist who asked Khomeini if he would consider leading the state, he said: “I will not have any position in the future government. I will not be the president or the prime minister. I will be some sort of supervisor of their activities. I will give them guidance.”20 Khomeini’s stance, however, was not confined to his own role in Iran’s future. He made it clear that all clerics, without exception, should avoid assuming political positions.21 Clerical Islamists also adopted a less confrontational approach to relations with other political groups and ideologies, successfully presenting themselves as trustworthy partners in the fight against the shah’s authoritarian regime. They maintained this pragmatic approach in the years immediately following the revolution, strategizing to set divergent groups against one another.
There is no doubt that the clerical Islamists proved skillful in navigating their way up the ladder of power, eliminating competing groups, but perhaps more important, enjoying devotional support from their grassroots constituencies.22 Because the majority of people were religious, the clerical Islamists easily “converted” them into political subjects and supporters. It may well have been their confidence in this mass support that led the clergy to encourage the public to participate in the political sphere. This mindset played no small role in the institutionalization of the country’s electoral processes within the unprecedented new political system. This, in turn, led to a widespread politicization across the country. Clerical Islamists benefited greatly from the extensive pre-existing social networks in the religious context. They purposely used mosques, ḥusayniyyaha, Islamic associations and a range of other informal religious networks during the uprising against the shah.
This religious network was not only a highly effective weapon against the shah; it also provided popular support that would ultimately validate the dispatch of any rivals following his fall. The sum of these achievements may have motivated the ruling clergy to continue to employ this strategy even after consolidating their power. In time, the mobilization of religious networks during elections became part of their policy; and some degree of manipulation made elections a crucial part of these networks’ politico-religious practices. Due to the networks’ broad reach, a sizable portion of the country’s citizens, including those living in the more remote rural areas, became directly exposed, and vulnerable, to the electoral games.
Additional electoral benefits have stimulated the ruling clergy’s appetite for holding regular elections. As in other authoritarian regimes, elections in Iran have become instruments for (a) managing factional conflicts, (b) distributing patronage among their clients, (c) identifying and recruiting new political talent, (d) terminating the services of discontented politicians in a seemingly legitimate way, (e) detecting points of political dissatisfaction, and, perhaps most important, (f) reinforcing and claiming legitimacy for their highly questionable political system. Of course, electoral benefits have not come freely or easily. Periods of uncertainty (for example, the fallout following the 2009 presidential election) have occasionally proven a threat to the establishment.
THE NESTED GAME
An overview of the numerous elections held under the careful watch of Iran’s ruling clergy might lead one to agree with Andreas Schedler that elections held in authoritarian regimes are complicated and deceptive: a “nested game.” Schedler maintains that elections may signal a transition to democracy if a complete cycle of the game takes place. Manipulated elections organized by authoritarian regimes “tend to trigger two-level games in which electoral competition is nested inside reform and outlines the causal interaction and strategic interdependence of the two levels.”23 Building upon Tsebelis’s notion of nested games,24 Schedler depicts elections as a game in which the opposition and the autocrats play on two levels. Pursuing their contradictory interests, each party seeks to maximize its gain while providing minimum input. Autocrats need to play, since they cannot establish legitimacy by decree. Meanwhile, the opposition controls the terms of legitimacy, as their participation in the elections renders them capable of legitimizing the regime. Denying the regime legitimacy is, thus, the opposition’s major bargaining chip. They would not consider legitimizing the autocrats’ authority if they did not believe in the possibility of making changes to the rules of the game — what Schedler terms the “meta-game of electoral reform.” For the opposition, elections are but a way station on the long road towards genuine democratic reform.
The nested game offers a useful framework within which to determine if the opposition parties in Iran have any chance of effecting structural change under the current system. Reformists have proven willing to pursue the structural change to which Schedler’s model refers. In response, the theocrats have employed various measures to confine the game to electoral competition by forcefully rejecting any request for structural change. While the theocrats have shown some flexibility vis-à-vis carefully limited competition, some level of policy change and partial shifts in power,25 they have no tolerance for any form of change to the existing system.
A Contested Configuration
The theological framework that Khomeini articulated in the 1970s was unprecedented, as was the constitutional and political structure based upon it. The Islamic Republic’s constitutional configuration borrowed elements from the republican state model and merged them with fabricated institutions based on a specific reading of Shii Islam. This is why internal inconsistency and conflict between the republican and religious components of this system have always posed major challenges. The system and its institutions have attracted scepticism from both democracy-seeking forces and proponents of theocratic governance. The latter group occasionally strives to make adjustments to the political configuration, in the process further diluting the system’s quasi-democratic component. Conversely, attempts to strengthen the republican component have been severely suppressed, a reaction that has ensured further consolidation of the theocratic cohort.
In the permitted political rhetoric, any challenge to the totality of the political system or the authority of the key theocratic institutions — e.g., the supreme leader and the Guardian Council — is systematically suppressed. Pursuing structural change invites dismissal from the official political process, in many cases accompanied by prison sentences or exile. The introduction of harsh penalties has ensured that the demand for structural change is completely off the political agenda. Labels such as zed-e nīzām (anti-system), sākhtār shekan (deconstructer) and barandāz (one who seeks the regime’s overthrow) are widely used to demonize critics. This strategy has largely worked in the regime’s favor, except during the Reform Era (1997-2005), when rising demand for structural change became part of Iran’s official political discourse. This was the only time that witnessed the possibility of structural change in favor of democratization. The Reform Era offers telling examples of demands for structural change, proving that theocrats in Iran would never countenance “democratization by elections.” In comparison with the Reform Era, the current official political discourse is far more regressive.
Although discourse surrounding political moderation has gained currency since 2013 (and appears to dominate the government and the parliament), the demand for structural change is entirely missing from official politics; the moderates’ programs have been confined to policy making. For example, when President Rouhani raised the possibility of using a referendum to resolve disagreements, it was considered too radical a move, despite simply suggesting that if major economic, social, political and cultural issues were put to a public referendum, disagreements could be resolved.26 Certainly, on occasion, questions are raised regarding the Guardian Council’s supervision of elections, but they are confined to the margins, and the moderates have never taken action by attempting to amend the related law in the parliament. It is worth mentioning here that so-called outsiders are constantly urging structural change. However, they are either unwilling or not allowed to participate in the electoral process and thus cannot be considered part of electoral politics.
The Reform Era emerged during the 1997 presidential elections. Outright rejection of the regime was manifest in the fact that many voted for President Khatami because they could not countenance a win by his competitor, Nateq-Nouri, the theocrats’ favored candidate.27 Khatami’s landslide victory generated renewed demand for meaningful change in favor of democracy. Some degree of freedom of expression — in particular during the early years of the Reform Era — created a space conducive to the publication of articles and op-eds challenging different parts of the political system and their functionality and seeking amendment to the system. Examples of sensitive areas that were discussed and questioned include these:
• the authority and accountability of the supreme leader
• the accountability of the judiciary
• the monopoly ownership of radio-TV
• the intervention of the military in politics
• the dysfunction of the Assembly of Experts in its responsibility to monitor the performance of the supreme leader
• the Guardian Council’s arbitrary use of power.
During the early years of the Reform Era, many reformists held the belief that meaningful change was possible within the framework of the constitution.28 Ali Nazari, a member of parliament from Arak, cited Article 59, according to which, in cases of extreme importance, two-thirds of the members of parliament could seek a referendum to decide a specific matter. Nazari suggested putting the question of the Guardian Council’s supervision of elections to a referendum.29 A second example involves the sixth parliament, which endeavored to introduce new legislation to deal with human rights. However, almost all important legislation was vetoed by the Guardian Council. At the time, Emadeddin Baghi, a human-rights activist, suggested, with reference to the same article, that the Guardian Council’s veto power could wither away after a successful referendum. He proposed invoking Article 59 and putting key parliamentary legislation directly to a referendum.30
Structural change was mooted by many political groups, parties and factions in their meetings and in public announcements. To give just one example, a student gathering at the Faculty of Engineering at Tehran University in December 2002 ended with an announcement seeking the abolition of approbatory supervision (higher approval) of the elections:
Approbatory supervision (naẓārat-e istiṣwābī) is … a direct insult to the will of the people, and to the principles of the Constitution. And it is in obvious violation of the peoples’ right to determine their fate. We university students demand the abolishment of approbatory supervision.31
During the early reform years, reformists sought to pursue their political agendas by negotiating with the conservatives. However, as Alamdari suggests, structural impediments hindered any meaningful reform.32 As time passed, increasing numbers of reformists realized that the foundational document of the political system, the constitution itself, was part of problem. Thus, in time, demand for amending the constitution was incorporated into the country’s political discourse. In 2004, a few key political figures and student activists announced that, in order to end the humiliation and isolation of the people of Iran,
the drafting of a new national constitution and the choosing of a popular system of government is the first imperative step. … [U]nder the current constitution and its designated system of government, the possibility of promoting any meaningful reform in the country is inconceivable.33
Certain reformists also concluded that the electoral institutions were impotent and incapable of meaningful reform. Thus, the reformists no longer had any reason to maintain the country’s crippled institutions, such as the parliament and the presidential office. One proposal, in particular, received considerable attention and gave rise to widespread controversy for some weeks. Abbas Abdi, an influential reformist, promoted the idea of “leaving the government”:
When the reformists cannot fulfill their promises, for them, staying in the regime can have no justification. They will gradually come to be looked upon as people who are only in love with power. This is an important ethical dilemma. If we do nothing, the day will come when the reformists will be stripped of their credibility and dignity. 34
The Islamic Iran Participation Front, the leading reformist party, soon adopted this proposal as part of its strategic plan, yet they never acted on it. Disappointment with the reform trajectory escalated when a leading reformist figure called for regime change. In 2005, while serving a prison sentence, Akbar Ganji published “The Republican Manifesto,” a treatise in which he explicitly urged reformists to seek regime change. Ganji, in addition to spelling out the basis of a proposal for a full-fledged democratic republic, urged (a) the elimination of the theocratic component of the country’s political system and (b) the establishment of an entirely secular republic. Asserting that elections and electoral institutions are powerless and ineffective, he called not only for the boycotting of all elections, but also for abandoning any form of cooperation with the ruling clergy:
The road that the reformists are taking is not a road that will lead to a democratic system. The transition from a sultanate to a democracy requires the “de-legitimization” of the ruling system and “noncooperation” with the arbitrary rulers. … A despotic and unjust system is undermined and weakened via the people’s “non-cooperation” and, in this way, the conditions come about for the transition to democracy. 35
Besides individuals and groups demanding structural change, the country’s official institutions, in particular the parliament and the executive body, also demanded structural reform. The sixth parliament, in which the reformists enjoyed an absolute majority, targeted sensitive issues dating back to the early days of its inauguration. One illustration is the amendment to the press law. Seven years following the revolution, in 1986, the first press law was issued in Iran. Although restrictive in nature, it allowed space for a very limited degree of press freedom. This was evident in the reformist government’s issuing of licenses to some elements of the reformist press in the late 1990s. According to Shahidi, this act gave birth to a short period of press freedom and freedom of expression, generally, a time enthusiastically described by some as the “spring of freedom.”36 Alarmed by this perceived laxity of press restriction, in the last days of the fifth parliament (just prior to the release of the election results), the conservatives amended the press law in April 2000. In June 2000, reformist MPs focused on re-amending the press law, but the conservatives remained resolute and, in an unexpected direct intervention, Ayatollah Khamenei asked the parliament to set the press-law bill aside.
The reformist parliament also challenged the judiciary on different occasions. One example was the case of Hussein Loghmanian, a reformist MP jailed in 2002 after delivering a speech in parliament that the conservatives deemed insulting to the judiciary. In response, the reformists argued that his incarceration signaled a veritable coup. They demanded a referendum that would ensure that, in the future, the head of the judiciary would be accountable to the parliament and president, not to the supreme leader.37 A referendum was also vigorously mooted as an option when President Khatami’s “twin bills” were rejected by the Guardian Council in 2003. The first bill aimed to reinforce the president’s power by enabling him to warn the branches of power against any violation of the constitution. The president could also prevent or reverse action taken by the judiciary and legislative bodies if he saw it as violating the constitution.
The second bill aimed to curb the Guardian Council’s arbitrary power vis-à-vis elections. It aimed to protect the right of any person who sought to stand as a candidate for election. Both bills were approved by the parliament in November 2002. However, at the time, almost all of the important and progressive bills ratified by the parliament were blocked by the Guardian Council; as expected, it rejected both bills, despite Khatami’s threat to resign if the bills were rejected. According to the constitution, if parliament insists on passing a particular piece of legislation despite the Guardian Council’s veto, the bill may be referred to the Expediency Assembly (a non-elected institution controlled by the conservatives) for arbitration and to determine the final decision. Unsurprisingly, in such cases the bill was either nullified by the Expediency Assembly or — like CEDAW (The Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) — buried there.38 Rather than resigning when his twin bills were rejected, President Khatami opted not to push for the bills to be sent to the Expediency Assembly and withdrew both bills.39 This was possibly to prevent further reputational damage to a system in which he believed.
During the term of the reformist parliament (2000-04), the conservatives showed no interest in negotiating with the reformists on fundamental issues. Although the sixth parliament left behind credible evidence of discourse formation, and of challenging the theocratic component of the system, it failed to achieve any degree of structural change towards democratic goals. Near the end of its term, the reformist parliament had become so crippled that there was no possibility of the MPs salvaging their careers. In 2004, 80 MPs’ eligibility for the seventh parliamentary election was rejected by the Guardian Council. Approximately 140 MPs staged a “sit-in” for almost a month, but this did not persuade the Guardian Council to reconsider the MPs’ eligibility. The Guardian Council’s implacability sent a clear message to all who sought to participate in the clerical establishment’s political game. Any attempt to initiate a “metagame” of structural change would cost the “player” his position in the country’s formal politics.
In sum, it was evident from the political landscape of the country in the aftermath of the Reform Era that all efforts to bring about a shift in politics had failed. While the theocrats successfully crippled all reform initiations, at the same time, they made certain compromises at the policy-making level. It seems plausible that they learned from their experience of the Reform Era and, since successfully putting an end to it in 2005, the ruling clergy have vetoed the emergence of any semblance of a quest for structural change. Today, the country’s theocratic bodies are much stronger than they were in the Reform Era. Furthermore, those political groups and individuals who are allowed to participate in the elections are considerably more conservative than the reformists of the second half of the 1990s and first half of the new millennium.
Today, key figures from the Reform Era are sidelined and have been barred from holding official positions — in Khatami’s case, even banned from appearing in the media and at public gatherings. Many other former reformist figures are either in exile or in prison. Having been rendered politically impotent, they struggle to survive on the margins of the country’s politics. This may well explain Iran’s current official political scenario in which there is no evidence of any quest for structural change. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that pursuing political transformation remains high on the political agendas of resilient opposition groups, though they are either unwilling or forbidden to act on the country’s official political platforms. This effectively rules out their participation in the electoral process and the “nested game.”
The promises the country’s reformists make vis-à-vis meaningful change somewhat bolster the people’s hopes for democratization, manifested in high turnouts at election times, particularly in those constituencies where the voters are not necessarily loyal supporters of the clerical establishment. As well as dissidents inside the country, some anti-system opposition groups (predominantly residing outside the country) have shared this hope for democratization with the reformists. At times, they too have been advocates for “reform from within.” Somewhat paradoxically, these periods of hope have offered the ruling clergy an opportunity not only to quell the masses’ increasing dissatisfaction, but also to claim legitimacy by referring to the high participation rates in various elections.
In addition, hope for meaningful change has effectively divided the opposition groups, many of whom have squandered their resources on internal squabbling. As well as lessening the pressure on the regime, internal dissension has diminished the opposition’s ability to mobilize the masses for radical change. The most promising period of hope coincided with the 1997 presidential elections, following which the reformists made repeated attempts to introduce structural change in favor of democratic policies. However, as discussed throughout this paper, the theocrats proved unshakable and capable of frustrating any attempts to introduce structural change. They signaled most emphatically that they would not enter into any negotiations that would expose them to the risk of democratization. They would not play or allow the reformists to play the “nested game.”
Close scrutiny of these reform attempts unequivocally reveals that the maximum capability of any reform through elections and elected institutions — the presidency and parliament — is to introduce some degree of policy change. This does not mean that “reform from within” is impossible and that the only option is regime change through foreign intervention. Contested election could lead to political uncertainty, which by extension could open up windows of opportunity for transformation. Elections in Iran have also contributed to the seeding of democratic norms in the political culture of the country that could mount a profound challenge to the authoritarian dictates of the clerical establishment. These are, of course, by-products of the elections that need further investigation. In this article, I only investigated the potential of electoral politics to trigger the structural change critical for democratization, arguing that the politico/legal configuration and power balance that prevail in Iran today do not offer a promising future for democratic reform from within through electoral politics.
* This publication was made possible by the NPRP award [NPRP 9-309-5-041] from the Qatar National Research Fund (a member of The Qatar Foundation). The statements made herein are solely the responsibility of the author.
1 Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, “Interior Minister Cites ‘Dissatisfaction’ as Cause of Recent Uprising,” March 12, 2018; https://goo.gl/WqqJcS, accessed 20 August 2018.
2Naser Ghobadzadeh, A Study of People’s Divergence from Ruling System in the Second Decade of the Islamic Revolution (Farhang-e Gofteman, 2002); Faramarz Rafipoor, Modernisation & Conflict: An Attempt toward the Analysis of the Islamic Revolution and Social Problems of Iran (Shahid Beheshti University Publication, 1997).
3 Andreas Schedler, “The Nested Game of Democratization by Elections,” International Political Science Review, 23, no. 1 (2002): pp. 103-122.
4In Iran’s political rhetoric, different appellations, e.g., conservatives (muhāfezekārān), principalists (uṣūlgārāyān), hardliners (tundruhā) and right-wing advocates (jenāh-e rāst) are used to describe factions that oppose democratic reform. Their main power source lies in the theocratic component of the system. The supreme leader’s support ensures that almost all of the country’s theocratic institutions are in their control. In this paper, I make alternative use of theocrats and the above-mentioned appellations.
5Ruhollah Khomeini, Secrets Unveiled (Azadi Publication, 1944).
6Ervand Abrahamian, “Khomeini: A Fundamentalist?” Fundamentalism in Comparative Perspective, ed. Lawrence Kaplan, (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992): 109-125.
7Jalal Derakhsheh, “Roots of State Theory in the Political Thought of Imam Khomein,” Ulum-e siyasi, 4, no. 13 (2001): 206-225.
8Ruhollah Khomeini, A Clarification of Question, translated by S.M.B. (Mousavi Hademani, Dar al-elm, 2008).
9Jalal Derakhsheh, “Roots of State Theory in the Political Thought of Imam Khomein, Ulum-e siyasi, 4, no. 13 (2001): 206-225..
10Interestingly, there is scant mention of ‘the people’ in Khomeini’s book. It seems that for him the notion of people was somehow synonymous with the notion of Islam. He used the language alternatively as if the people were unified in their understanding of Islam.
11Vanessa Martin, Creating an Islamic State Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran, (I.B. Tauris, 2003).
12Shahram Akbarzadeh, “Where Is the Islamic Republic of Iran Heading?” Australian Journal of International Affairs, 59, no. 1 (2005): 25-38.
13Elections for the city and village councils are the the only elections in the country not directly supervised by the Guardian Council.
14Yasmin Alem, et al. Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System, (International Foundation for Electoral Systems, 2011).
15A. Schirazi, “Guardian Council.” Encyclopædia Iranica Vol. Xi (2002): 379-382.
16Kohlberg Etan, “Some Imāmī-Shīʿī Views on Taqiyya.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 95, no. 3, (1975): 395-402; Hassan Torbatinejad, Taqiyya in Shi’a Political Thought (Qom, 2016).
17Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, “Criteria for the Legitimacy of the Constitution and Assembly of Experts’ Resolutions Is Their Endorsement by the Wilayat-I Faqih,” Partow-e Sokhan, (December 28, 2005): 8, https://goo.gl/MgyyWKhttps://goo.gl/MgyyWK.
18Naser Ghobadzadeh, Religious Secularity: A Theological Challenge to the Islamic State, (Oxford University Press, 2015); Naser Katouzian, “Gozari Bar Tadvin-E Pishnevis-E Ghanoon-E Asasi [a Review of the Writing of the Primary Version of the Constitution] “ Hughogh-e Asasi, 1, no. 1 (2002): 115-137.
19Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution, (Basic Books, 1990).
20 Elaine Sciolino, Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran, (Free Press, 2000).
21Ruhollah Khomeini, “Interview with Reuters, “Taliay-E Enghelab-E Islamic [Herald of Islamic Revolution: Collection of Interviews in Najaf, Paris and Qum], ed. R. Khomeini (Markaz-e Nashr-e Daneshgahi, 1983).
22Mohammad Samiei, Power Struggle in Iran: Why and How Clergy Won? (Ney, 2017).
23Andreas Schedler, “The Nested Game of Democratization by Elections,” International Political Science Review, 23, no. 1 (2002): 103-122.
24George Tsebelis, Nested Games Rational Choice in Comparative Politics (University of California Press, 1990).
25Naser Ghobadzadeh and Lily Zubaidah Rahim, “Electoral Theocracy and Hybrid Sovereignty in Iran. Contemporary Politics, 22, no. 4 (2016): 450-468.
26Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Hassan Rouhani Proposes Referendum to Heal Iran’s Divisions.” The Guardian, February 12, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/11/hassan-rouhani-proposes-r…, accessed September 25, 3018.
27Shaul Bakhash, “Iran’s Remarkable Election.” Journal of Democracy, 9, no. 1, (1998): 80-94.
28Negin Nabavi, “From ‘Reform’ to ‘Rights’: Mapping a Changing Discourse in Iran, 1997–2009.” Iran: From Theocracy to the Green Movement, ed. Negin Nabavi (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012): 39-54.
29Ali Nazari, “We Will Put Approbatory Supervision to Referendum,” ISNA, May 28, 2001, https://goo.gl/sNaWtZ, accessed October 3, 2018.
30Baghi, Emadeddin. "If Mps Agree, Parliament’s Legislations Could Be Put in Referendum without Being Presented to the Guardian Council.” ISNA, May 29, 2000; https://goo.gl/BJnX6z, accessed October 3, 2018.
31Student Gathering. “Final Declaration of the Students’ Gathering in the Faculty of Engineering, Tehran University.” ISNA, December 7, 2002, https://goo.gl/8JaLFZ, accessed October 3, 2018.
32Kazem Alamdari, Whay Reforms Failed? (Sayeh Publishing Corporation, 2008).
33Mohsen Sazegara, “A Popular Appeal in Support of a Referendum for a New Constitution “ sazegara.net, December 28, 2004; http://www.sazegara.net/english/archives/2004/12/a_popular_appea.html, accessed August 4, 2015.
34Abbas Abdi, “Leaving the Government,” Reforms against Reforms: A Critical Dialogue, ed Sa’id Hajjarian et al. (Tarh-e No, 2003): 80; Ganji, Akbar. “Manifesto for Republicans.” Index on Censorship, 34, no. 3, (2005): 14-18.
35Akbar Ganji, “Manifesto for Republicans.” Index on Censorship,. 34, no. 3 (2005): 14-18.
36Hossein Shahidi, Journalism in Iran: From Mission to Profession (Routledge, 2007).
37Adam Tarock, “The Struggle for Reform in Iran.” New Political Science, 24, no. 3 (2002): 449-468.
38There is no time limit for the review of cases referred to the Expediency Assembly. One tactic employed by the Expediency Assembly was to avoid putting a referred case on the agenda. CEDAW is one good example. Although it was referred to the Assembly 15 years ago, it has not been discussed until today.
39Payvand News. “Iran’s Parliament Agrees to Withdraw Khatami’s Twin Bills.” Payvand, April 4, 2004, http://payvand.com/news/04/apr/1120.html, accessed October 5, 2018.
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