With bread and butter issues a priority, Iranian demands for political dynamism have been obfuscated amidst the country’s economic and political woes. Almost 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, this is not the first nor the last storm the Iranian regime will have to weather. War-hardened, Iran is no stranger to rationing, shortages or inflation. Let us recall that Iran was the victim of weapons of mass destruction during the Iran-Iraq War. Thousands suffered horrific deaths, and tens of thousands more are coping with long-term effects of exposure to those chemical weapons 30 years ago.
Grappling with economic hardship, the Iranian people live under the predictable backlash of increased security. This is the regime’s antidote to the overwhelming evidence that Western agencies fund and provide support for self-styled pro-democracy movements whose ideological orientation is pro-Atlanticist — that is, movements that have become a way for the Atlantic ideological and power systems to advance.
Iran’s Basij volunteer forces have started nationwide drills in which thousands of participants have been enlisted. According to Brigadier General Hossein Gheibparvar, “As long as there exist adversities and threats posed by foreigners, we will defend the country’s Islamic establishment, standing behind the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.” The crisis has intensified regime insecurities, and hard-liners have intensified vigilance to interdict Western-supported “democracy promotion” measures designed to achieve regime change.
Where does this leave society’s calls for social liberties and political expression? How is society to foster a national dialogue? In post-revolutionary Iran, popular electoral politics have been an integrating factor and an agent of social change. Despite the tutelary institutional mechanisms that screen candidates, presidential elections have generated unexpected outcomes. The people’s mandate has unleashed power and policy shifts, as embodied in the reformist Seyyed Mohammad Khatami and the moderate-centrist Hassan Rouhani. Iranian elections, powered by the people, are the primary institutional channel through which Iranian aspirations are heard.
Powered by the people
Thus, when a commentator like Bobby Ghosh states that “Rouhani, already enfeebled by President Donald Trump’s abrogation of the nuclear deal, is now a political relic,” he is, by extension, suggesting that the people’s will is null and void. He is also negating the extraordinary depth and intensity of society’s desire for political development. As early as 1997, the Iranian people rallied around Khatami who promised to promote the rule of law and to invigorate civil society. Rouhani was elected on similar grounds, although his emphasis was on economic revitalisation and rapprochement with the West. During his re-election campaign in 2017, Rouhani ramped up promises on human rights reforms, adding that in voting for him, Iranians would be choosing “a lawyer who defends people’s rights.”
All of that is now on the back-burner as Rouhani fights for his political survival amidst mounting economic turmoil and internal pressure. Weighed down by Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the re-imposition of US sanctions, the specter of energy-related sanctions (oil being Iran’s main commodity and foreign currency source) in November, the tumbling national currency and general economic mismanagement, Rouhani faced an impeachment-level inquisition in parliament last week.
This raises the question of agency. After all, democratisation and democracy are about people and how they coalesce in shaping their destiny. History has taught Iranians that political and social change needs to be negotiated internally and not outsourced. Thus, for instance, if some women in Iran contest compulsory veiling, it is not the task of US-supported Masih Alinejad to incite women to unveil in public. Whether we like it or not, veiling is mandatory under current Iranian law, just as veiling was against the law under an edict issued in 1936 by Reza Shah Pahlavi, who used unveiling to emasculate the clergy and to promote modernisation and Westernisation, as did his son, Mohammad Reza Shah.
Islamic and morality dimensions aside, the contentious topic of veiling has become an historical tit for tat. And now, Alinejad has made the subject of veiling even more controversial for Iranian authorities by linking it to calls for defiance by a “VOA activist.”  If the law on the hijab is to be amended one day, chances are that reform will not be spearheaded by Alijenad. The social media videos uploaded from Iran in which publicly unveiled woman, visibly distressed, are being verbally abused, is hardly empowering.
Recently, Parvaneh Salahshouri, a reformist parliament member, listed a host of social ills in front of her colleagues. Addressing the clerical community, she argued: “I wanted to seek their help. But I found that instead of being worried about poverty and corruption, what matters to them most is young girls’ cycling and the hair sticking out of their scarves.” Suffice it to say that Iran needs more Salahshouris and fewer Alinejads.
At this critical crossroads, Iran needs glasnost, a spirit of openness and dialogue that would allow society to air its grievances and to move closer to consensus. However, such an experiment would prove fatal to the regime as it would expose divisions and fragilities, which would be exploited by the US and by Iran’s regional rivals. Under the weight of sanctions, regime change efforts, support for Iranian “resistance” abroad, exacerbation of ethnic discord, talk of military action and the country’s constant vilification, Iran’s national security trumps (pardon the pun) society’s aspirations for democratic change.
As I outlined in an earlier article, Iran does have the capacity for reform and renewal, even under the rubric of “religious democracy” or a hybrid theocracy-democracy. However, in what can be conceptualised as a double helix, there needs to be a clearer line indicating where theocracy ends, and where democracy begins.
Democracy is seldom handed down from above. Instead, it requires popular pressure from below — especially given the character of Iran’s institutional arrangements and of its intellectual foundations. Agency is especially crucial in view of the structural constraints of the office of the president, and one, no less, embroiled in managing the aftershocks of Washington’s antics. If Iran is to democratize “from within” and “from the bottom up,” the only the viable path ahead begins with an inclusive and engaging political discourse.
Human agency is the critical instrument in reconstituting social structures to meet human needs. However, Iranian hopes for societal empowerment and democratic procedures based on engagement, dialogue and deliberation have been stifled under the weight of international obstacles. The hegemonic geopolitical vision of the current US administration has created a situation of permanent stalemate by denying the Iranian people independent agency and popular demands for civil dignity.
(Ghoncheh Tazmini is an Associate Member of the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS and Research Associate at ISCTE-Center for International Studies, University of Lisbon, Portugal)