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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 107

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Is Iran Democratizing?

One of the most surprising developments of recent years has been the emergence of democratic currents in Iran, whose Islamic Revolution is barely two decades old. Today, Iran presents a strange combination of remarkably competitive elections and harsh repression. In the pages that follow, we present a set of articles that seek to shed some light on this complex and puzzling situation. All the contributors were active participants in a June 13 roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., on "Democratization in Iran" hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and cosponsored by the International Forum for Democratic Studies (with financial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York).

This section opens with a short essay by Haleh Esfandiari, who was in Tehran during the February 18 parliamentary elections. She not only describes Iran's electoral system and campaign practices but conveys the political excitement that preceded and accompanied the overwhelming triumph of the reformists. The high hopes generated by February's electoral victory, however, have given way to disappointment, as reformist newspapers have been shut down and the new parliament seems to be stymied in its efforts to put reformist policies into practive. Ladan and Roya Boroumand seek to explain this paradoxical pattern of "reformist electoral victories and political defeats" by focusing on the "unique" theocratic constitutional structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Daniel Brumberg comments on the Boroumands' analysis, arguing that Iran's "dissonant" politics resembles that of other Middle Eastern countries that have tried to use "selective political openings" to forestall democratization and lend legitimacy to authoritarian regimes.

Next we present a short essay by Ramin Jahanbegloo addressing the role of intellectuals in the effort to bring about change in Iran. His remarks also help to identify some of the deeper philosophical currents influencing the thinking of leading reformists. Finally, this section concludes with some selections from publications inside Iran (translated under the supervision of Ladan Boroumand): three opinion pieces on elections and democracy that appeared in reformist newspapers (now shut down) and an editorial from a major intellectual monthly on religion, tolerance, and violence. These selections not only illuminate the issues discussed by our contributors but give foreign readers the flavor of contemporary discourse in Iran. However formidable the obstacles to democratization in Iran may be, it is clear that democratic thinking has gained a foothold there.

--The Editors, 31 August 2000



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