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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 129-134
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Is Iran Democratizing?
A Comparativist's Perspective
One of the uncomfortable facts of life confronting students of com-parative politics is that all political systems are, to some extent, unique. Indeed, it seems that the more we know about a particular place, the harder it becomes to compare it to others. Squeezing a given case into a tight theoretical mold offers no easy solutions to this problem, a lesson nicely illustrated by Brazil, whose experience partly inspired the theory of "bureaucratic authoritarianism." Yet Brazilian authoritarianism never quite matched the expectations that animated this theory, or for that matter, its paradoxical offspring--the theory of "democratic transitions." As Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter once noted: "Brazil is an interesting exception. . . . No serious attempt was made in Brazil to create distinctively authoritarian institutions. Rather, the generals [ruled] . . . by distorting rather than by disbanding the basic institutions of political democracy." 1
One might quibble with the assertion that Brazil lacked distinctively authoritarian institutions and insist instead that the grafting together of democratic and patrimonialist structures during the 1960s is precisely what created an "exceptional" political beast, one that subsequently resisted a full transition to democracy for nearly 15 years. Yet then we would have to concede that this protracted dynamic was not wholly unique to Brazil, or even to Latin America. Many of my Egyptian colleagues still complain that their country is mired in a marhalla intiqaliyya mustamira--a continuing transitional stage. This ailment [End Page 129] sounds familiar. For a long time, Mexican political scientists lamented their country's "painful and indefinite transition." 2
Whether the Islamic Republic of Iran is floating in a similar political purgatory, or is instead trapped in an Islamic variant that reflects Iran's distinctive culture and politics, is an interesting question--one that Ladan and Roya Boroumand's article compels us to ask. The central premise of their article is that politics in Iran is unique because that country is ruled by a "theocratic system." While I agree with the authors' overall assessment of the internal workings of that system, I doubt that the "dis-crepancy between 'reform' and real democratization in Iran" is as paradoxical or as unique as the authors suggest. The use of "survival strategies"--selective political openings that forestall competitive democ-ratization and lend a measure of legitimacy to authoritarian regimes--is a widely practiced art in the Middle East and elsewhere. 3 Moreover, in Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait, monarchs have regularly invoked pat-rimonialist symbols to give a purported cultural authenticity to their claims that collective rights (as they define them) must take precedence over those of the individual. While there is no guarantee that such claims can be sustained indefinitely, we should not preclude the possibility that Iran's reformists and conservatives will together find ways to accommo-date such contradictions and thus to "muddle along," as Houchang Chehabi has suggested. 4
The uneasy accommodation of competing visions of authority that has animated Iran's political system since the 1979 Revolution is a familiar phenomenon in the Middle East. While some scholars use concepts like "corporatism" or "Islamic democracy" to capture this phenomenon, I prefer the term "dissonance" because it points not to a coherent system (or ideological synthesis) but rather to the deliberate and uneasy linking of competing notions of political community. The resulting political music may lack harmony, but it often plays quite well. Thus Morocco's King Hassan II survived for four decades by institu-tionalizing both legal-rational and traditional notions of authority. His role as master arbiter of these contending visions was enshrined in the 1992 Constitution, which declares that as "Commander of the Faithful, Supreme Representative of the nation," and "symbol of its unity," he can "dissolve the Chamber of Deputies by decree." 5 Today Morocco may be governed by a seven-party coalition, but this admirable example of reform cannot be equated with the victory of competitive democracy.
Dissonant systems and the survival strategies on which they often rely succeed because of--rather than despite--a heritage...