Iranians want democracy. Who are we to say no?
In the American ConservativeSohrab Ahmari request a question that many Iranians have been asking for decades, especially during the recent protests: if the clerics leave, who will take their place? “Who would you like to rule us? ” he asks. “What principle of unity and continuity do you propose? ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’? LGBTQIA+ pride? An empty flag, erasing 2,500 years of history? It is interesting that Ahmari, an American citizen, calls Iranians “we”, because he does not see anywhere the idea that Iranians could choose their own future at the ballot box.
Iran does not have a totally free and just history democracy. As Ahmari tells it, the Iranians has tried constitutionalism at the beginning of the 20th century, but the experiment failed. One of the reasons, as he mentions, is that the United Kingdom and Russia, in the midst of Good game, made sure he failed. Ahmari echoes the leftists of a generation ago, laying too many Greater Middle East issues at the feet of past empires and not enough at the feet of indigenous rulers, leaving Iranian politicians unable to decide the future of their country. In this case, Iranian democracy also failed because its elites were corrupt and elections were rigged.
Yet the ballot box remains Iran’s last and best hope, as it has proven itself around the world. Democracy is not without its problems, many of which stem from the accountability demands it imposes on its citizens, who are more than in a typical authoritarian system. But isn’t it better than China’s party-state communism, Russia’s hodgepodge of gangster nationalism, or Iran’s brutal theocracy?
IIt is true that the absence of a leader of the protest movement creates problems. Like all leaderless movements, it is chaotic and lacks direction. Desperate dissidents have no way of organizing into a revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing their oppressors. This is a political enterprise without a competent politician, at least for now.
Ahmari has long entertained the notion of “benign autocracy” in Iran. (No autocracy is “harmless” to the freedom fighters in its prisons.) Four years ago he wrote:
Perhaps the opposition forces will conjure up a leader at the right time and organically. Or perhaps an ambitious shah will emerge from the security apparatus. Yet the most plausible current candidate is probably Reza Pahlavi, the exiled grandson of Reza Shah, whose prestige and popularity have skyrocketed in recent years as post-revolution Iranians rely on what they lost because of the collective madness of their parents.
Since then, Ahmari’s penchant for monarchism has not changed: “A Pahlavi restoration, however implausible, is a much better answer to these questions than the one now being offered by the opposition,” he wrote in his new article. But the Iranians in the streets chanting “freedom” are not risking their lives for watered-down tyranny. Many would probably settle for a king if that guaranteed the end of theocracy tomorrow, but as each day they pay a higher price in blood, they will expect more freedom in return.
Either way, Pahlavi has no interest in being a “benevolent” dictator. He is a democrat and is on the file saying that he thinks republicanism is superior to monarchy: “I don’t need a boss and I don’t want to be somebody else’s boss.”
Perhaps Pahlavi could be persuaded to reign without reigning in Iran, as a constitutional monarch in the northern European model. Or perhaps, like the Spaniard Juan Carlos I, he could help the country move from despotism to freedom before retiring. The fact that he is not charismatic and has no desire to become a tyrant makes this proposition more appealing, softening the edges of an inevitably messy transition to a new period in Iranian history. Previous attempts to democratize Iran failed because the kings and their courts stood in the way. It would be nice to have someone help with the process for once.
Ahmari also theorizes that “perhaps an ambitious shah will emerge from the security apparatus”. Good luck convincing the Iranians to succumb to the rule of a general from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in New York.
For democracy to succeed in Iran, you need a responsible elite. In Europe, these elites have often organized themselves around constitutional monarchs. Traditionally authoritarian regimes from South Korea to Chile morphed into democracies, and authoritarian elites there, with the help of US diplomacy backed by incentives and coercive tools, served as gatekeepers until let democracy take root. In Iran, there is no current elite that the people will accept in the next system in any form, with the notable exception of the prison system. Civil society is non-existent. The Iranian diaspora shows little promise of providing an elite capable of returning to the Old Country to build democracy – most are now professionals in the Anglosphere and quite content with their new lives, not to mention most oblivious to politics .
The democratization of Eastern Europe after the Cold War faced similar challenges. Some countries were fortunate to have renowned freedom fighters to lead them as their countries learned democracy; others got help from the US State Department and set up transitional organizations to decide on the next phase. Poland had Lech Walesa, a trade union leader. Czechoslovakia had Václav Havel, an influential intellectual. The Islamic Republic has ensured that Iran has no trade unions or famous intellectuals. Iran’s transition will be bloody and disruptive, and it will face the same challenges as fledgling democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This does not mean that Iranian democracy is a hopeless cause. To begin with, the Iranian people are more liberal than the Iraqis and Afghans. As the world’s oldest continuous nation-state, they also have a rich national heritage around which to unite. Ahmari warns of “erasing 2,500 years of history” – as if such a thing could be done – but the rioters are the same people who embark on pilgrimages to Cyrus’ tomb. They are not trying to erase their history; they want retrieve this. “How are you going to hold together a multi-ethnic and multilingual nation-state? asks Ahmari, as if Iran doesn’t have a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic history dating back to the 6th century BC. And to make sure no one forgets, Persian protesters angered by the murder of a Kurdish woman are joined by Azeris, Balouchis and Lurs, all chanting the same slogans. There was no question of separatism, only of national unity in the name of the fatherland.
Ahmari seems to think Iranians are incapable of achieving democracy. Four years ago it was because
For more than two millennia, the immutable principle of Iranian political life has been estebdad, or arbitrary rule, and it remains so today.. . . estebdad left deep imprints in the Iranian mind.. . . The main political consequences of estebdad were disorder and discontinuity. There were good shahs, great ones even. And there were bad ones. The problem was that government was never established on one principle or set of principles. There were no permanent things. Adalat, justice, was not something that could be built into a system. The best one could hope for was a just shah. It all depended on the character and personality of the man sitting on the Peacock Throne.
What Ahmari fails to mention is that in the past all rule was arbitrary, capricious, unjust and autocratic. Now there are democracies all over the world, from Taipei to Tallinn. Why not Tehran?
And what about Ahmari’s complaint that those protesting in the streets do not have a plan in mind for a coherent system of government. He would no doubt also have expected the Romans to have worked out all the loose ends of the republic before they expelled Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and the victims of the Boston Massacre to die clutching the Constitution. Or maybe he would have preferred monarchs either way.
In 2018, Ahmari intoned: “The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a global historic event and an unmitigated good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normality four decades after the Ayatollah. [Ruhollah] Khomeini founded his regime. Amen. Only the Iranians can unify their country around a common notion of nationhood, but they will count on the support of the United States to make the transition. It requires an American willingness to get its hands dirty if the regime collapses. One can always hope that Iran will produce its own Václav Havel – who will certainly not come from the “security apparatus”. Just because the Iranian protests don’t have a savvy political figure to lead them doesn’t mean they can’t find one. Who could have predicted that from the American colonies would emerge Washington; from Israel, Ben-Gurion; Or from Ukraine, Zelensky? Democratic movements have a way of imposing greatness on people.
Some of Ahmari’s criticisms and analyzes of Iran and Iranians are sound, and he is right to point out that the transition to democracy will not be easy. If only members of the Biden administration — or its predecessors — paid this much attention to the issue.
But Ahmari is making a terrible mistake in attributing a value vacuum to the protests. The Iranian revolution is no more void of values than that of America. If there is no Iranian Thomas Jefferson to declare: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”, it is only because Jefferson already wrote it for the rest of mankind.
So, again, we come back to Ahmari’s question: “Who would you like to rule us?” No one governs Ahmari—he is a citizen of a constitutional democracy. This is his answer.