Can Iran Become a Democracy?

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

In recent years, much has been made of the so-called coming clash of civilizations. Policy wunderkinds and academic mandarins have, sometimes gleefully, predicted an unavoidable Armageddon, pitting a Judeo-Christian West against an Islamic East. Such theories recklessly disregard the vibrant and varied complexities of the Muslim world in favor of an imagined monolith. More dangerously, such rhetoric is music to the ears of Islamist radicals, reassuring them of the veracity of their apocalyptic vision. They too recklessly reduce the myriad complexities of the Christian world into a bogus behemoth, claiming that talk of a clash of civilizations is only a thin disguise for the long-prophesized Judeo-Christian crusade against Islam. Whereas crusades beget jihads, imaginary Muslim monoliths create the illusion that a single strategy can deal with “Islamic civilization.”

The clash of civilizations jargon misses a very crucial sociohistorical fact about many of the societies in the Muslim Middle East. Iran is a prime example. Over the last 50 years, the lure of modernity, fueled by the power of petrodollars, has led to the creation of a rapidly burgeoning, increasingly “wired,” surprisingly cosmopolitan Iranian middle class. This middle class has much more in common with its Western counterparts than with its Muslim brethren. Members of this middle class have often been trained and educated in Western—and, increasingly, American—universities. They constitute a veritable Trojan horse within the Islamic republic, supporting liberal values, democratic tolerance, and civic responsibility. In an age when knowledge is power, they are their society’s most knowledge-savvy strata and can play a formative role in shaping Iran’s political culture and disposition. Whoever succeeds in forging an alliance with this emerging middle class will shape the future of Iran. Fortunately, American foreign policy in the past was well cognizant of this important point.

During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda succeeded in inculcating in the minds of much of the Muslim world an image of America as a war-mongering imperialist, hungry for cheap oil and greedy to sell arms to any of the oriental despots that were strewn across the Middle Eastern landscape. In the case of Iran, what helped Soviet propaganda was the role the U.S. government had played in overthrowing the government of Mohammed Mossadegh and restoring the Shah to his throne. In reality, however, the U.S. role in the coup was only one aspect of American policy in Iran. Even a cursory look into the archives of American diplomacy reveals that, for at least two decades before the Islamic revolution of 1979, U.S. policymakers had systematically tried to convince the Shah that he should share power with the middle class or with the organizations that represented it. Ironically, as increased oil revenues allowed the Shah some measure of independence from U.S. aid and grants, and thus from U.S. pressure, he grew less and less willing to heed U.S. advice about democratizing Iran and about curtailing his infinite appetite for arms.

The Shah’s unwillingness to share power with the middle class, and his impatience with the existence of even a loyal opposition, is, in my mind, a key to the riddle of the revolution that toppled him. Ironically, the one group that was allowed to continue its activities with minimal harassment during the Shah’s reign was the clergy. The Shah had come to believe that the clerics were, with a few exceptions, his allies and were a bulwark against his main enemies, the Communists and the nationalists. As it turned out, he was wrong about who his real enemies were, and when the monarchy went into a prolonged period of crisis, the clergy emerged as the only organized force that could fill the vacuum.

The Vital Middle Class

The strategic decision by the United States to try and convince the Shah to share some of his power with the ascendant middle class was the result of a combination of factors. Some in the foreign policy establishment have long seen America as the “City on the Hill” for the rest of the world and have argued that U.S. foreign policy should actively promote democracy abroad. The logical way to accomplish this is generally agreed to be the promotion of a vibrant civil society and middle class. It has been, after all, an accepted adage of political theory, going back to the time of Aristotle, that the middle classes are the most reliable champions and guardians of democracy. Others arrived at the same conclusion from a purely pragmatic perspective, arguing that only by sponsoring democratization abroad could the long-term interests of the United States best be safeguarded. Despots—albeit staunchly anticommunist or willing to accommodate the West on, say, the question of oil—are not the most reliable strategic allies of the United States.

The United States was not the only force cognizant of the pivotal role of the middle class in Iran. Islamist zealots, though averse to the modern, secular values held by much of the middle class, began to refashion at least part of their message to appeal to the aspirations of this group. In the decade before the revolution, some Islamic ideologues—such as Ali Shariati—began to advocate a moderate interpretation of Islam; and on the eve of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini himself offered a disingenuous “soft” version of Shiism. Even the composition of the first government appointed by the Ayatollah was a clear nod to the Iranian middle class and its aspirations, and to the United States, whose early support the Ayatollah needed. Nearly every member of the cabinet was a religious member of the National Front—often recognized as the symbol of Iran’s middle class and its politics.

The recent history of Iraq, in contrast, has been radically different. It is a tragic example of the destruction brought about by a totalitarian regime bent on destroying civil society and an autonomous middle class. In the iconic images of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in central Baghdad, which were broadcast across much of the globe via live television, what was glaringly clear to discerning eyes was the complete absence of the middle classes from the jubilant scene. The semiotics of the celebrants’ attire were unmistakable. From their plastic shower shoes to their worn-out T-shirts, from the Rambo-bedecked Stars and Stripes to their shaggy beards, they were clearly marginalized elements of the city’s underbelly. Such groups are not, as a rule, reliable advocates of democracy. More often, in fact, they are foot soldiers of totalitarian regimes and of mob rule. The embarrassing looting of the cities that followed the initial celebrations, the utter disregard for safeguarding the country’s—and indeed humanity’s—historic heritage displayed in the ransacking of the country’s museums, all testify to the weakness of the middle classes and the dangerous absence of civil society.

Tehran, 1979, and Baghdad, 2003

Events in Iran in 1979, on the day of the revolution, provide a revealing point of contrast and comparison. For about a week, there was no police or security force in Tehran, then a city of some seven million inhabitants. On the night of the revolution, thousands of guns, pistols, and machine-guns had been “liberated” from deserted barracks and distributed among the populace. Gun-touting youth, red or black bandannas on their heads, roamed the city. At Tehran University, a group of professors—of which I was one—decided to keep the university free from guns. We were each issued a simple armband, indicating that we were members of the faculty. We succeeded in keeping armed individuals out of the campus. Not a single act of vandalism took place in the university. In fact, throughout the city, there were no lynchings, no revenge murders, and only a handful of ransacked houses or buildings.

The relative calm in the midst of the jubilant chaos was, more than anything else, a testimony to the power of the civil society that had emerged in Iran. It was in fact Iran’s embryonic civil society—and the middle classes that were its chief champions—that helped topple the regime of the Shah. It has been the same civil society that has fought the Islamic zealots incessantly over the last 25 years. The middle class, particularly its women, valiantly and peacefully fought, and eventually succeeded in thwarting, the dream that many clerics harbored of creating a Taliban-like regime of gender and religious apartheid. The middle class created, in the election of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, a veritable referendum on the nature of the Islamic regime. And, finally, it is that same civil society, now more seasoned than in the past, that stands ready and poised to make Iran a genuine, secular, democratic republic.

Those who preach of the coming apocalyptic clash of Islam and the Judeo-Christian world, and those who advocate the preemptive imposition of democracy in Iran by American marines, imperil the social position of the democratic forces working for reform in Iran. Such preemption would render all but impotent the middle class’s advocacy of a more open society and its overwhelming support for the resumption of diplomatic ties with the United States. The fact that Iran and Israel were the only two countries in the Middle East where no major demonstrations took place against the war with Iraq is yet another indicator of the strength, and maturity, of the Iranian civil society. Impatience with the gradual and native empowerment of these local forces for change, and with the concomitant flourishing of Iran’s civil society, might well jeopardize the imminent success of this movement and haunt future American foreign policy for generations to come. Good diplomacy, like fine cuisine, requires the patience to allow for an enriching simmer and the wisdom to use fresh and native ingredients.