Hoover Institution Hosted Conference on the “Prospects for Democracy in Iran: Assessing the Regime and the Opposition”

Thursday, November 29, 2007

As an emerging power in Middle East politics, Iran has been at the forefront of the news, especially in regard to its nuclear program, in recent months. The question of how the United States should deal with Iran is frequently debated, but remains unanswered. Hoover research fellow Abbas Milani notes that the United States has long lacked a viable and coherent policy toward Iran.

In an effort to gain a better understanding of the evolving Iranian society and the options available to the United States in its relations with that country the Iran Democracy Project at Hoover Institution hosted a conference titled “Prospects for Democracy in Iran: Assessing the Regime and the Opposition” on November 2 at the Hoover Institution. The political outlook for Iran, including its nuclear program, the country’s legislation and democracy in Iran, the power structure of Iran’s regime and the clergy, and its civil society, was discussed at the conference.

In the session on Iran as a nuclear power, titled the “Nuclear Question and U.S. – Iran Relations,” Shahram Chubin, director of studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, and Abbas Milani, Hoover research fellow and codirector of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, gave presentations.

No one knows the exact state of the Iran nuclear program, said Chubin in his presentation, “The State of Iran’s Nuclear Program.” He believes that “treating the nuclear issue as the only issue is a huge mistake” and that the way for the United States to deal with Iran is through engagement, noting that the world has long lived in the shadow of a nuclear Iran.  

“Iran has sold the world a lie,” said Milani, on the question of a nuclear Iran. In his presentation titled “Public Reactions, Political Factors, and Splits in the Regime,” Milani voiced concerns about the media coverage of Iran. He shared with the audience a letter signed by a number of prominent members of the Iranian opposition criticizing the regime’s nuclear policy that has received no coverage by the media. Milani warned that the regime in Iran is defining the issue, due to the “failure of the U.S. to develop a policy on Iran that is clear, cogent, and consistent,” the failure of public diplomacy, and the Iranian regime’s ability to exploit tension among other countries.

In the same session Michael Shuster, National Public Radio foreign correspondent, recounted his experience in July 2007 of visiting nuclear plants in Iran, which he said appeared to be functioning.

Hoover senior fellow and Stanford University professor Larry Diamond served as the session chair.

Mehrangiz Kar, visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program at the Harvard University law school and at the Newhouse Center for Humanities at Wellesley College, discussed legislation and democracy in Iran in a session by the same name. “Iran has gone through a process of reverse modernization,” Kar said. “Now, Iran’s constitution has laws that violate basic human rights.”

Michael McFaul, Hoover Institution senior fellow and Stanford University professor, served as the session chair.

Overviews of the power structures in Iran were given in the session “Regime Splits and Structures.” Presentations were made by Arash Naraghi, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on “The Clerical Structure” and Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, on “The Regime Structure.”

In his presentation, Naraghi spoke about the movement in Iran toward a more secularized society. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini presented the Doctrine of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist in reaction to the process of secularization, Naraghi said. Soon, however, Khomeini realized that this version of the theory of government, confined by Islamic law, was naive and needed to be fundamentally revised. In the second version, Khomeini determined that Islamic government should act in accordance with its own interests, even if it seems contrary to Sharia, or Islamic law. “Ironically, with the framework of Shiite jurisprudence, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s second version has been the boldest step toward secularism, and it has effectively facilitated the process of secularization in Iranian society,” said Naraghi.

Haghighatjoo, in her presentation (translated by Milani), discussed the fundamental question of who rules Iran today. A proponent for human rights and democracy in Iran, Haghighatjoo was a member of the 6th Majils (Iran’s Reformists Parliament), until she resigned in 2004 following the crackdown on reformers.

The session chair was Milani.

Insights on the sexual revolution in Iran and Iranian bloggers were offered by Pardis Mahdavi, assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College, and John Kelly, a founder and chief scientist at Morningside Analytics who is an affiliate at Harvard University law school and a research associate at Columbia University, in the session titled “Civil Society.”

Today, in Iran, two-thirds of the population is young people ages 15-30, noted Mahdavi in her presentation titled “The Sexual Revolution.” Mahdavi discussed her research of Iran youth culture, whose attitudes and action have toward sex have become much more open over the past several years. “Many of the young people view changes in sexual and social culture as an integral part of delegitimizing the regime that claims to have brought morality into the country,” she said.

“What is it that people link to often tells you a lot about  who they are and what they are interested in,” said Kelly. In his research on the Iranian blogosphere in “Internet Activism and Bloggers,” Kelly’s research divided the Farsi blog network into four different clusters, two of which are named for the politics espoused, liberal and conservative; the third, poetry and culture; and, finally, mystery, which lies between the conservative and poetry and culture cultures. Kelly noted that among the conservative bloggers there seems to be coordination, not only in the language used but the topics discussed.

Abbas Milani served as chair for the session.

The Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution was created to understand the process and prospects for democracy in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. The program is part of the Hoover initiative, Diminishing Collectivism and Evolving Democratic Capitalism, an area of study that includes analysis and documentation of how totalitarian societies transition to freedom, representative government, and private enterprise. Milani, McFaul, and Diamond are codirectors of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.