Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed by Misagh Parsa (review)
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Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed, by Misagh Parsa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. 406 pages. $45.

How resilient is the Islamic Republic of Iran? This question has often been and continues to be examined and debated by scholars. In Misagh Parsa’s book, Democracy in Iran, the answer to this question is that the future survival of the Islamic republic is tenuous at best and, like its predecessor, it is likely to succumb to a revolution in the near future if it does not reform. As Parsa acknowledges at the beginning of his book (p. 4) and as Iranians discovered during and after 1979, reform is preferable to revolution, because the latter frequently produces chaos, instability, unpredictability, and authoritarianism.

Throughout the book, Parsa highlights what he perceives to be the political and socioeconomic issues and factors that make the Islamic republic vulnerable to opposition and revolution. Politically, the Islamic republic is categorized as an authoritarian, theocratic, repressive, and intransigent state with power increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small clique comprised of the supreme leader, other conservative and hard-line elites, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. With its growing concentration of power and intensified repression and marginalization of reformists, this clique supposedly suffers from a narrowing political and social support base that renders the state susceptible to opposition and revolution. Furthermore, this clique’s arbitrary rule and rampant corruption undermine the rule of law and violate constitutional, citizenship, minority, and human rights, oppressing and antagonizing dissenting elites and citizens alike.

Economically, the Islamic republic suffers from a declining gross domestic product per capita, rising inflation and unemployment, high brain drain, and elevated gender disparities in workforce participation — even though more women than men are attending and graduating from universities. Socially, the Islamic republic confronts numerous issues ranging from alcoholism and drug addiction to polygamy and temporary marriage. These issues are symptomatic of the lack of separation between religion and state, and the latter’s imposition of draconian social and cultural restrictions through the morality police and other institutions.

Collectively, these political and socioeconomic outcomes and deficiencies create high levels of disillusionment and disappointment with the failed promises of the revolution, both real and perceived. These outcomes and deficiencies also lead to declining popular legitimacy and support for the state as well as political and social polarization between regime supporters and opponents. As a consequence, the Islamic republic confronts active resistance in the form of reoccurring mass demonstrations and protests, such as those that had been organized by students and activists in 1999 and 2009, respectively. In the spirit of James Scott’s everyday forms of resistance,1 Parsa argues that the Islamic republic also faces more latent and sustained modes of passive resistance in the form of alcohol and drug consumption, satellite television dishes and popular music, cosmetic surgery and heavy makeup, Zoroastrian fire festivals and rising conversions to Christianity and Bahaism, disrespect for and violence against clerics, and declining religiosity, including less mosque attendance, prayer, charity, fasting, and proper wearing of the head scarf.

Though meticulously researched and lucidly argued, Parsa’s book requires greater nuance, clarity, and elaboration in four areas. First, from the standpoint of regime type, the book challenges the recent scholarship on the Islamic republic that categorizes it as a hybrid regime with nonelective institutions (e.g., the Supreme Leader’s office and the Guardian Council) and elective institutions [End Page 495] (e.g., the presidency and parliament).2 While acknowledging the power asymmetry that exists between both sets of institutions, this scholarship contradicts Parsa’s thesis by arguing that the Islamic republic’s institutional diversity and flexibility explains its resilience contrary to the single executive structures and one party states of neighboring Arab republics. Although Parsa presents compelling evidence that contradicts this assertion, he does not situate his book within the broader literature and scholarly debates on the Islamic republic’s resilience and vulnerability.

Second, Parsa’s book occasionally makes questionable and reductionist assumptions about social issues and their correlation to politics. In Iran, the issue of religiosity has become a polemical and polarizing debate between regime supporters, who insist...


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