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  • Iran’s Peculiar ElectionChinese Dreams, Persian Realities
  • Michael McFaul (bio)

The mid-2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as Iran's new president left those committed to democratic change in the country feeling shocked and disappointed. At first glance, his victory seemed to signal not only the consolidation of Iran's ruling Islamist autocracy, but also the rejection in principle of democracy and the revival of the ideas and goals of the revolutionary Islamic Republic. While few had thought that another "reformist" would replace outgoing two-term president Mohammad Khatami, just as few had forecast that a "conservative" with Ahmedinejad's hard-line credentials would win. True, a reassertion of conservative political and economic power had been rolling forward for several years. Its most recent milestone had been the fraudulent February 2004 parliamentary elections, which had turned a one-time pocket of reformism into another tame preserve run by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his agents.1 More of the same might have been anticipated in the case of the post-Khatami presidency, but Ahmedinejad seemed worse than expected—not merely a Khamenei crony, but a true believer in the antidemocratic and antiliberal dictates of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Fortunately, pronouncements of the death of democracy in Iran are premature. Without question, the rulers' grip on power is tighter—and prospects for genuine democratization thus dimmer—than was the case five years ago. Yet considered in a longer-term and comparative perspective, Iran retains many structural and historical factors that favor democratic development and that will endure despite one unfavorable election result.

Moreover, the very features that make the current authoritarian regime [End Page 74] hard to dislodge in the short run will make it more vulnerable to democratic pressures from below in the long run. Finally, the conservative consolidation of power over the last decade has by no means been inevitable, but has come about in no small part because Iran's democrats made tactical miscalculations that can be studied and reversed. In other words, the ills of the democratic movement in Iran of late have flowed not from deeply entrenched structural forces, but rather from problems of human agency that are far more easily remedied. Democratic leaders making different decisions will have opportunities to reverse recent misfortunes.

Iran's Positive Requisites for Democracy

After Singapore, Iran may be the country in the world with the best structural endowments for democracy that is still ruled by an authoritarian regime. In his seminal 1970 article on transitions to democracy, Dankwart Rustow identified one necessary precondition for democratic change that has stood the test of time—a set of clearly defined state borders or a clear sense of who is part of the polity and who is not. "National unity," Rustow wrote, "must precede all other phases of democratization" and works best as a precondition for democracy "when national unity is accepted unthinkingly."2 Conversely, a polity whose territorial boundaries are contested is less likely to democratize.

By this metric, Iran does rather well. It is a clearly defined state and nation with a coherent heritage in terms of territory, culture, and history. Unlike many other countries where democracy has been lacking or unconsolidated (including neighbors such as Iraq and Afghanistan), Iran is free of major contentions over the borders of the state. There are of course ethnic and religious minorities, including millions of Iranian Kurds who live mainly but not exclusively in the northwest. There are Turkic- and Arabic-speaking minorities as well. Ethnic strife has been known to occur, especially amid major political upheavals such as those brought by the close of the Second World War, the fall of the shah in 1979, and most recently the murder of a prominent human rights activist in the Kurdish region following the 2005 election.

Compared to most countries around the globe, however, Iran is relatively homogeneous. Neither is it, like so many other developing-world polities, the arbitrary and relatively recent product of lines drawn on maps by some distant imperial power. Instead, Iranians can look back on a shared history that extends to thousands of years before the advent of Islam. All of this has helped to forge...


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