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Lecture Circuit

For Iran, the Best and Worst of Times

Photo: Steve Gladfelter

POWER TO THE PEOPLE: They shall overcome, Milani predicts.

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Democracy is a gift only a nation can give itself—and only after its body politic has reached a certain maturity. It must have developed the requisite organs of political mediation, from civil society and a propertied middle class to a culture of religious tolerance and epistemological and political pluralism. There is, then, an implicit historic law of democratic determinism. And the history of modern Iran has been a tragic tale of rulers and intellectuals ignoring these laws, trying to bring democracy too soon or halting its overdue arrival.

The Islamic Revolution itself was the result of a modernizing but authoritarian monarch realizing too late the force of this democratic determinism. Ironically, the very clerics who hijacked that democratic movement and went on to create a theocratic despotism are still harboring the delusion that they can ignore the very laws that brought them to power. They have now pinned their hopes first on sheer brutality, and secondarily on emulating the China model, affording people the economic benefits of a controlled market economy while ruling over them with an iron fist.

The hope is but a chimera. Long before it became a fad, that model was tried by the Shah. Although he delivered on the economic part of the pact, with Iran becoming a magnet for investments as China is today; and although the Iranian economy was having, like China today, annual double-digit growth rates; and although the country enjoyed a level of religious and cultural tolerance that was unprecedented in modern Iran; the plan failed.

Today the regime has a failed economic policy, with living standards barely reaching the pre-revolution level. There has been a massive flight of capital from Iran in recent years. Moreover, the regime's zeal in the early years of the revolution to create a larger Hezbollah [literally, party of God] for itself has now resulted, particularly in light of its economic failures, in a demographic time bomb. They need to create about a million jobs a year to just keep the unemployment at its current percentage (anywhere between the low double digits, according to the regime, and the 30s, according to economists).

Add to that a rising middle class; a million students in (albeit inferior) colleges; 15 million boys and girls in schools; a highly wired society, with one of the largest per capita numbers of bloggers in the world; a fractured regime led by septuagenarians and threatened by younger men with young Cassius's "lean and hungry looks"; a powerful Iranian diaspora, politically disorganized but committed to the still inchoate idea of a free, secular and democratic Iran; ethnic and religious minorities deeply disgruntled; and finally a women's movement that has been heroic in its war of attrition against the misogyny of the regime—and one conclusion is, I think, unavoidable. Never in the history of Iran's century-old dream of democracy have the conditions for actualizing that dream been more ready than today. But these are both the best and worst of times.

The regime still has the support of a small but dedicated part of the population, and it has the economic power to sustain the heavily subsidized economy and its handmaidens in the region, like the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Moreover, the youthful population is depoliticized as the result of the failures of the Reform movement and of the re-gime's decision to implement a calculated policy of giving young people some leeway for enjoyment. This has resulted in 7 million people addicted to opium and heroin, the problem of AIDS and infected needles, and anxiety-laden opportunities to watch satellite television and attend private parties.

Finally, the failure of the opposition to develop a coherent alternative, and the ability of the regime to use the poverty of programs from diaspora media as a sign of the poverty of the opposition, have combined to create widespread pessimism amongst analysts and activists, convincing some that they must write an obituary for the democratic movement. But just as the optimism of those who claim the regime is a simple nudge away from total collapse is false, the pessimism of those who see an intractably well-entrenched despotism is also wrong. The regime is strategically vulnerable but tactically powerful and nimble.

Eventually, the most basic human demands—of women for equality, of youth for jobs and simple joys of living, and of Iranian society at large to live their lives in the 21st century, free from the force of dogma and of obscurantism—will deliver democracy to Iran.

The question of democracy in Iran is unfolding at history's interminably slow pace, but it is now entangled with the urgent nuclear question. The regime aims to make itself impervious to outside pressure through its nuclear program. Most of the leadership, including Revolutionary Guard commanders, are the new rich, feeding from a $50 billion trough. They want to continue their lucrative hold on power.

An attack on Iran will give the regime what it wants: it will rally public support and allow the regime to openly pursue the bomb. After an unprovoked attack, Russia and China might more openly support the regime's nuclear program. Iran's nuclear problem has no military solution. That and other thorny issues, like the regime's support for terrorism and its ability to threaten stability in the region, have one solution: the rise of a democratic government in Iran. An effective opposition, relying only on the support of Iranian society and its diaspora, can help expedite that transition.

But many analysts and activists in the Iranian opposition are still sadly mired in political paradigms best suited to another time. While the left is trying to revive its old organizations, the right, still awed by the power of leftist intelligentsia, is trying to emulate the left and its methods. In a pseudo-totalitarian society like Iran, the quotidian is potently political. Only a new paradigm that recognizes the power of the seemingly apolitical grievances of the people, and can channel it into a political force to overthrow the despotic regime, can bring democracy to Iran.


ABBAS MILANI, the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, addressed the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Conference on Iran on May 30 in the Bahamas. This is an edited excerpt.

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