Visiting Scholar, Department of Sociology, UCLA
Obstacles to Constitutional Democracy in Iran
Two factors have worked as major obstacles to constitutionalism and democracy in Iran: first, a prevalent misconception about independence that has enabled the state to suppress popular sovereignty under the guise of anti-colonialism or anti-imperialism, legitimizing authoritarian rule; and second, a state-controlled economy that has created unaccountable rulers.
The Qajar dynasty was the last tribal regime in Iran with state sovereignty. The Constitutional revolution laid out the foundation for a nation-state. Reza Shah’s reign formally institutionalized the new status. With an authoritarian modernization, however, he suppressed the quest for popular sovereignty (democracy). His son Mohammad Reza Shah did nothing to change this course. Iran did not face the problem of liberating itself from colonial rule. Yet, the main slogan of the anti-Shah revolution of 1979 was initially “independence and freedom,” to which “Islamic Republic” was attached later. Under a widespread misconception about “independence” within Iran’s political discourse, the Iranian people fought an imaginary colonial rule. Even today, the distinction between the concepts of popular sovereignty and national sovereignty is lost or blurred.
The persistency of authoritarian rule in Iran is based not only on this misconception of national sovereignty, but also on the state’s continuing domination of the economy. A state-dominated economy leads to a monopoly of power and the politicization of economic decisions. In Iran’s rentier system, the government owns the nation’s natural resources and wealth and controls their distribution to a population whose welfare is kept almost entirely dependent on the state. This rentier system of an oil-rich state produces a corrupt bureaucratic administration that resists decentralization and distribution of power. Thus, the emergence of a strong private sector and an independent voice for a productive middle class is hampered. The state economy has been a major characteristic of Iranian society throughout history, beginning with state control of agricultural land and later the oil industry.
To facilitate constitutional democracy in Iran, therefore, reform efforts are needed at two levels: A) Conceptual or discursive revision and re-articulation concerning the ideas of independence and sovereignty among the intellectuals and educators; and B) Restructuring of the state economy along with secularization of state.
Kazem Alamdari received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Alamdari’s area of specialization includes Third World development and social change, democratization in the Third World, Middle Eastern Studies, Islamic societies and Iran. He has published several articles both in English and Persian, and has given talks on Muslim, Arab and Iranian communities throughout the United States. Dr. Alamdari has taught at several institutions, including University of Tehran and University of California, Los Angeles.