June 11, 2005

Iran's road to democracy: a response by Mehdi Hosseini

Mohsen Sazegara’s article in openDemocracy has prompted a debate with Iranians in Iran as well as the expatriate community; various aspects of the piece have been analysed and critiqued by openDemocracy contributors.

Sazegara’s article and the ensuing discussions provide a number of observations and ideas about the current state of affairs and future possibilities in Iran. My hope in this note, in the spirit of advancing the discussion, is to draw attention to a few points in Sazegara’s article that warrant further inquiry and examination.

Here is a summary of Sazegara’s main points: he asserts that his objective in Iran is to pursue “a new intellectual and political paradigm” and a “promise of democracy” which are being led by “the reformation movement”. We are informed that this movement is based on four principles: “democracy, human rights, civil society, and involvement in international community”. And the main contention of the movement is this: the most critical obstacle in reaching the goals of the reformation movement is “the underlying framework of the existing constitution”.

Mehdi Hosseini is responding to Mohsen Sazegara’s proposal for a referendum on a new Iranian constitution, “Iran’s road to democracy

Iranians present a wide range of responses in our debate, “Democracy & Iran

For an introduction to openDemocracy’s debate, see David Hayes’s “Iran between revolution and democracy

Please post your responses in our discussion forum; and if you can afford it, send openDemocracy a donation so that we can continue to facilitate dialogue among Iranians – and keep it free

Therefore, “the answer is to mobilise civil society behind a referendum campaign to create a new constitution”. This movement embraces all groups who are interested in changing the constitution. The movement requires international support, not of the military or financial kind, but of the “civil” type. And, finally, a requirement for the future constitution is to abide by a “minimal theory of religion” (meaning that there shall be minimal influence of religion in government).

A strategy under scrutiny

I have four broad comments on Mohsen Sazegara’s article:

First, the casual use of terms that are not clearly defined makes it difficult for readers to know exactly what a writer is proposing. Terms like “democracy”, “civil society”, and “populist” have, for the most part, become terms of propaganda that take on different meanings depending on the agendas and politics of those who invoke these words. Therefore, just to declare that a movement is based on democracy does not necessarily say much.

Second, Sazegara seems to be asking for a form of republic, a participatory or representative form of government, whose essential differences from the current system of Iran are: better relations with foreign countries, respect for “human rights”, more transparency, more freedom for the press, more freedom for practicing (or not practicing) religion. However, in his quest for this new government, Sazegara imposes a tight constraint on the movement towards this goal: it can be done only through the first step of changing the constitution. As a result, all other forms of struggle and resistance, all other strategies, are dismissed or excluded.

This contradicts the inclusive, populist claims of Sazegara’s proposal. His belief in “democracy” and “civil society” would tell him that change can happen in any number of ways; that changing the constitution cannot be the only answer; that the people, the “civil society” – assuming that they participate in a movement – will over time determine how things will develop.

Sazegara should be free to dedicate himself to and invite the support of others for the movement to change the constitution. But to say that “the key”, “the answer”, is to change the constitution is rather simplistic (as Bahman Kalbasi has argued) and excludes other forms of legitimate struggle.

Third, the absence of widespread grassroots opposition in Iran, the entrenched financial interest of the business class in maintaining the status quo, the narrow and mostly outdated expatriate opposition, the dedication of various Iranian armed forces to defending the existing system even if it requires extreme violence, all indicate that the type of public support whose existence in Iran is claimed or assumed by Sazegara may be either unsubstantiated or illusory.

As Bezhad Yaghmaian points out, there appears to be little evidence of large numbers of people in Iran who are ready to pursue activities that would lead to civil unrest, economic instability, or foreign intervention.

Fourth, Sazegara’s emphasis on international support is troubling. It is unclear exactly what he is seeking. Action from foreign countries comes in different forms: through governments (mostly guided by financial or hegemonic interests); the United Nations; financial or commercial institutions (often enjoying the support of their governments); or non-governmental or private organisations. Which one of these is the target of Sazegara’s appeal for help?

While rejecting the possibility of foreign military or financial support, Sazegara is seeking the support of an entity he calls “the international civil society”. I presume that this means people of other countries and their civil institutions. If that is the case, then we have a serious problem.

In order for the people of other countries to really care about what happens in Iran, they need to be able to develop an informed view. The majority of the world is informed about Iran’s internal affairs through the media (whose level of propaganda and misinformation should require little argument), books, and films. Each source of information advocates or serves specific political or personal agendas.

Sazegara appears to be assuming that the people of other countries have reached a high level of enlightenment that they would be able to sift through all of this information; figure out what is really going on in Iran; defy their own governments’ policies with respect to Iran; forget about the financial interests of their corporations who may be trying to get a bite on Iran’s investment opportunities; and actively, in large numbers, engage in a push for a more open and free society in Iran, perhaps something akin to the worldwide opposition to the war in Iraq.

I do not see any evidence that such a worldwide movement is possible in the short term. Furthermore, regardless of the feasibility of the “international support” that Sazegara is after, I submit that reliance of a movement that aspires to be “democratic” on foreign elements – let alone predicating the entire movement on the necessity of that foreign support – conflicts with “democratic” principles. It may indeed be an indication that the promoters of the movement do not believe in the existence of sufficient homegrown backing.

The courage to change

Near the end of the article, Sazegara mixes his appeal for a referendum with a condition which he considers a necessary component of the future constitution – that is, his “minimal theory of religion”. I propose that any discussion of specific elements of a potential future constitution is severely premature. This is like (as the Farsi saying goes) “setting prices in the middle of a fight”.

Moreover, proposing a necessary component for a future constitution does not help Sazegara’s advocacy of the proposal. This is simply because putting a precondition on the outcome of a potential event (for example, necessitating that it accords with any particular theory) decreases the likelihood of the event’s occurrence. I suspect that Sazegara may have added the comments about “minimal religion”, at least in part, in order to assure his readers that he is not interested in any government that even remotely resembles the current government of Iran.

One last word, and this is intended for those who, solely because of Sazegara’s Islamic revolutionary past, are hesitant to take his proposal seriously: a person’s political and ideological tendencies change. Sazegara’s views deserve to be considered based on the merits of the ideas and arguments. I believe that his courage to articulate his opinions in public forums is admirable. So is his ability to question the ideas that guided him earlier in life.


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