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  • Iran’s Peculiar ElectionA Historical Perspective
  • Abbas Milani (bio)

In the present age of democracy, ideas about the "social contract" and the natural rights of citizens have become, much to the consternation of despots, indispensable elements of the common political discourse. Autocrats of different hue and heft—from totalitarian tyrants like Stalin to authoritarian despots like the shah—must pay lip service to the idea of popular elections, incorporating it into their countries' political practices. Employing a combination of force and chicanery, money and muscle, they deform elections into an empty but expedient gesture of public diplomacy, intended largely for consumption abroad, and not for registering and implementing what Rousseau called "the general will." In nondemocratic countries, elections become an instrument for validating the self-serving political designs of the despotic elite. The tortured political history of the twentieth century has shown that elections, rather than being a guarantor of democracy, are merely a necessary tool for democracy—and then only if they are genuinely free and fair.1

Modern Iranian politics provides a good, albeit painful, example of the strange vicissitudes of elections as both an idea and a political practice. The country has witnessed three types of elections, each representing a distinct political philosophy and meant to underlie a different form of governance. Based on the Iranian experience, one can even extrapolate the general proposition that the relative quality of elections in any country is a reliable reflection and a fair measure of the true nature of power in that society. There have been times when the country has experimented with limited but still recognizable forms of liberal democracy: from 1905 to 1907, and again from 1941 to 1953. In such [End Page 23] times, elections were as free as the context of an underdeveloped society—with its high illiteracy, weak sense of civic responsibility, and easily corruptible officials—could allow. At other times, Iranians have experienced periods of modernizing authoritarianism. Such periods covered nearly all of the Pahlavi era (1925–41 and 1953–79), when Reza Shah and his son Mohammad Reza Shah believed that only with an iron grip could they pull Iran out of the vicious cycle of backwardness and poverty. The prospect of democracy and free elections, they believed, had to be sacrificed in the name of economic progress.

Most recently, in the years of the Islamic Republic, Iran has been ruled by a would-be totalitarian regime, bent as much on "soulcraft" as "statecraft,"2 and keen on remolding society and the citizenry around Islamic values. In Iran, as in other regimes aspiring to totalitarianism, elections are a necessary nuisance; they are the key element of the regime's democratic façade and a convenient tool for hiding its despotic soul. As Hannah Arendt has shown, totalitarianism, the most pernicious form of dictatorship, is ironically possible only in the age of democracy.3 The Islamic regime has failed to establish a tight totalitarian hold on power not for lack of trying, but because various strata of Iranian society, particularly women and students, have fought vigorously to thwart the regime's attempts to deprive them of their rights.

As a political system, the Islamic Republic has from its inception been sui generis. It has uniquely tried to combine, in the constitution itself, the vast despotic powers of an unelected "supreme leader" with the limited democratic promise of a popularly elected president and parliament.4 In the last few years, local councils too have been elected by the direct vote of the people. The Islamic Republic's holding of regular elections sets it apart from many Middle Eastern Muslim countries, and the regime's defenders often see this as one of its important achievements. The regime's critics, however, fault the same regular elections for their undemocratic nature and for their failure seriously to change the structure of power in Iran.

Behind the 2005 Election

Even in the context of Iran's contested electoral history, the June 2005 presidential ballot stands out. Some have already dubbed it the "Third Revolution," after the 1979 Islamic Revolution itself and the ensuing occupation of the U.S. Embassy, which then–Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989...


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