Pro-Democratic Movements in Iran

Over the past century Iran has experienced a number of dramatic changes in economics, politics, and social affairs. More so, the current struggle for democracy in Iran is rooted in a century of pro-democratic aspirations characterized by struggle, defeat, sacrifice, democratic learning, intellectual transformation, and political experience. The struggle has followed an oscillating pattern whereby brief periods of democratization are followed by equally short instances of de-democratization and vice versa. For instance, in more recent times, Iran has experienced a short period of democracy and reforms during the era of President Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005), which was immediately followed by the hard-line presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which again was altered by a brief period of democratization following the 2009 presidential elections. Subsequently, the country has witnessed an endless period of electoral malpractices that characterize the present regime of President Ahmadinejad (Hashemi 50; Felton 375).

From a historical perspective, Iran has experienced over 2,500 years of political authoritarianism, which can be attributed to the Iranian monarchies and some sections of the clergy. For instance, during the reign of Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenian dynasty dominated the political landscape in Iran for a very long time. On the other hand, the influence of the Shi’a Muslim clergymen has been felt in the Iranian political arena in more recent times. This religious group has enjoyed monopoly over the Iranian religious interpretation for much of the country’s history. Furthermore, during the Safavid and Qajar Era, some sections of the ulema were used for the purpose of justifying the divine powers and exclusive claim to political authority bestowed upon the ruling kings (Hashemi 51; Felton 375). Therefore, Iran is a country with a long history of authoritarianism and little instances of democracy. However, during the 20th century, Iran experienced some moments of democracy including the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), the era of Mossadeq and the National Front (1950-1953), the Islamic Revolution (1979), and the era of President Muhammad Khatami (1997-2001). This research paper highlights these and other current moments of democracy in Iran with emphasis on the pro-democracy aspirations, which characterized such important moments in the history of this country.

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The Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1906-1911)

With the hope of transforming the entire Iranian society, initiating political development, and promoting modernization, Iran underwent a Constitutional Revolution that lasted about five years in 1906 to 1911. The revolution involved diverse groups of people with divergent ideologies. Therefore, the revolution was characterized by heated and controversial debates between those in favor of the traditional Islamic culture on one hand, and the proponents of the western culture on the other. Most importantly, this period provided the basis for democratization, modernization, and constitutionalism that were significant indicators of democracy until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The core players in this revolution included the monarchy, the clergy, and other external forces, mainly the Russians. Primarily, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution was caused by widespread economic stagnation, corruptionof the ruling monarchy, and persistent foreign interference with internal affairs in the country (Hashemi 53). Furthermore, the reformists were influenced by a variety of modern democratic and liberal ideas in other parts of the world. Besides, the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) played a major role in precipitating the revolution. Therefore, the revolution began when a number of national leaders started agitating for immediate alternatives to authoritarianism, particularly the limitation of royal absolutism, creation of a constitutional monarchy in Iran, establishment of parliament, and institutionalization of the rule of law. A better part of the democratization movement during the constitutional revolutionary period involved intellectuals, women activists, social democratic activists, merchants, liberal constitutionalists, religious groups, and other ethnic/tribal groups (Hashemi 53). As a result, the experts note that the Constitutional Revolution was Iran’s first true struggle for democracy.

One of the most important characteristics of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution is the conflict between the reformists and the conservatives. In the run up to the revolution, the two opposing groups debated over whether the council of clerics should retain the veto power over all parliamentary activities. In the process, the liberals won over the clerics in the 1907 decision to reconcile the Islamic rule with modern forms of rationalism, democracy, and the rule of law. However, this victory did not last long as the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran saw the country sink deeper into the past instances of religious domination of the state (Hashemi 53; Ganji 1). The two most important public leaders who spiced the debate include Ayatollah Fazlullah Nuri (a religious anti-constitutionalist) and Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Na’ini (a pro-constitutionalist). In their debate, the two leaders deliberated on two important issues including the legitimacy of the secular constitution in an Islamic state and the importance of political sovereignty. From this debate, it was evident that the two sides were widely divided over a number of issues with Ayatollah Na’ini’s side maintaining that a secular constitution promotes two important aspects of Islam, democracy and constitutionalism. On the other hand, Ayatollah Nuri’s side opposed the idea of a constitution that granted equal rights to different religious groups before the law besides advancing the freedom of the press. In his argument, Nuri noted that a constitution that is based on Islamic teachings does not champion for sovereignty, which belongs to God alone (Hashemi 54). The impact of this debate on the Iranian politics cannot be overlooked as it informed the struggle between the liberal reformists and the religious conservatives in the years leading up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The Era of Mossadeq and the National Front

Following the Constitutional Revolution, Iran witnessed ascendance to power of Reza Shah who took over from Ahmad Shah (a Qajar ruler). In the process, he allowed the establishment of some basic institutions of a democracy including the parliament (Majlis) and the position of the prime minister. However, political opposition was not allowed during Reza Shah’s rule; hence, all governing authority was a preserve of the ruler and the military leaders (Felton 375). On the other hand, Reza Shah put a lot of effort in modernizing Iran by reducing the power of tribal leaders and Islamic rule in different state institutions. In the eve of World War II, Mohammad Reza, a son to Reza Shah ascended to power after his father fled the country following allegations that he was sympathizing with German. This saw the emergence of foreign interference in Iran with both London and Moscow controlling bigger part of the country. After the war, a number of civilian political leaders began to emerge and challenged the rule of Mohammad Shah. Among the most prominent civilian political leaders was Mohammad Mossadeq. Mossadeq was a key government official who had served house arrest for a better part of the late 1930s for opposing the rule of Reza Shah. In 1943, he was appointed to the parliament and became the leader of the National Front, a national political movement, which was opposed to the presence of foreign powers in Iran. In 1950, under Mossadeq’s leadership, the National Front began to question the activities of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and launched public demonstrations to oppose the increasing influence of foreign companies in Iran (Felton 376).

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As a result of these demonstrations, the Majlis passed a legislation, which nationalized the oil industry. In 1952, Mossadeq became the country’s prime minister amid international pressure and oil boycotts in a bid to force the Iranian government to reverse its decision. Subsequently, Iran fell into a deep economic recession after the United States and British joined forces ruled the country out of the international oil market. In 1953, Mossadeq requested the Majlis to give him explicit emergency powers over the shah’s authority in order to make key decisions regarding the state. Instead, his political influence began to weaken as members of the National Front defected to the Tudeh (Masses) Party. Around the same period, the British government and the United States Central Intelligence Agency charted a plot with the pro-shah security forces to overthrow Mossadeq from power and grant the shah full political authority. On the first two attempts, the plot failed to topple Mossadeq from the prime minister’s seat, but on the third attempt, the united forces succeeded in arresting, trying, and detaining Mossadeq until his death in 1967. After the fall of Mossadeq, the United States began supporting the Iranian government through loans that went into the economic restoration process. Again, the country fell into an autocratic authority whereby the shah had full political authority with minimal or no serious political opposition since the Tudeh Party and the National Front went out of court with the death of Mossadeq. The shah’s autocratic rule continued until the emergence of the 1978-1979 Islamic Revolution, which transformed the country into a theocratic state (Felton 377).

The Iranian Islamic Revolution

As noted earlier, the shah had initiated a number of projects with the aim of modernizing Iran in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For instance, the shah had developed close ties with western countries, which provided Iran with experts who were involved in managing the oil industry and establishing a variety of infrastructural systems. Furthermore, during the Arab-Israeli War in 1973, the shah spent a significant amount of money on purchasing weapons from the United States; hence, cementing the relationship between the two countries. However, the shah failed in promoting political democracy in the modern state since he got rid of all political parties, but for one, which was under his control. The shah’s move angered a number of political figures in the country and the Iranian society in general. On the other hand, the shah’s policies such as increased acquisition of weapons from the west saw the country sink deeper into inflation and economic recession (Felton 370; January 4). Consequently, the Iranian people staged protests against the shah and his policies in 1976 through 1977. At the center of these protests were Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other pro-Islamic theocracy leaders. When the government of Mohammad Reza, the shah, began to criticize them publicly, larger protests were staged in different parts of Tehran. In response, the pro-government security forces fired into the protesting crowds of students in Qom, which resulted in the death of  a number of people (January 22).

The killing of students in Qom, one of the centers of the Shiite scholarship, angered a lot of people across the country; thus, more protests were experienced in Iran throughout the whole year 1978. The government tried to quell the protests with the use of violence, but the protestors with the backing of Khomeini who was then in exile, did not relent in their quest for justice and political democracy. After the government failed to stop the demonstrations and strikes by oil workers through force and violence, it tried a number of appeasement strategies including extending amnesty to Khomeini and offering the prime minister’s position to an opposition leader, Shapour Bakhtiar (Felton 380). Moreover, the United States tried to intervene by sending one of its army generals, Robert Huyser, to Iran with the hope of providing military support for the government, but the try turned to be vein. At the end, the shah left Iran for Egypt in January 1979 and never returned. At about the same time, Khomeini returned from exile and took over the government after Bakhtiar was forced to go to exile. Subsequently, Khomeini formed a provisional government, which held a referendum with the hope of transforming Iran into an Islamic republic. The referendum saw more than 97 percent of the voters favoring the establishment of the Islamic republic of Iran by April 1979. In his statement to the Iranian people, Khomeini indicated that the newly formed government would provide equality and God’s justice to all in equal measure (January 22; Karbassian 621).

In the years leading up to the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, the country’s students both in local and international institutions played a proactive role in the protests and activism that led to the fall of the shah’s rule. For instance, in 1977, when the shah visited Washington, about 4,000 students took to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the then increasing support for the imperialist, anti-democracy Iranian leader from the United States. Unfortunately, the students’ demonstrations faced brutality and violence of the police. Nevertheless, Iranian youth studying in the United States continued to protest in their respective colleges throughout the shah’s one week visit to Washington (Aquilina 322). On the other hand, Iranian students inside Iran played a significant role in the nationwide protests leading up to the Islamic Revolution. In fact, a considerable number of students were shot dead in the 1978 protests around Qom when the pro-government security forces opened fire on protestors (Felton 380). Further, student activism was very much evident in the 1997 political campaigns when a number of student movements took part in efforts to put President Khatami (a reformist) in power. Moreover, the strength of student movements was felt in 1999 when massive demonstrations were held in different cities across Iran to protest the raid of the security forces on Tehran University (Mashayekhi 283).

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Iran has experienced many years of political authoritarianism with only a few moments of democracy. In fact, the studies reviewed in the foregoing discussions indicate that the country has experienced an oscillating pattern of political governance in which brief periods of democratization are followed by relatively short periods of de-democratization. From the foregoing discussions, it is evident that there are three important instances of democracy in the history of Iran, which offer significant indicators of the struggle for democracy in the country. These historic moments include the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), the era of Mossadeq and the National Front (1950-1953), and the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Although these moments provide evidence for the pro-democratic struggle in Iran, the country is far from achieving full democracy that can be compared to other democratic countries in the world.

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