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  • Iran’s Exclusionary Republic
  • Ladan Boroumand (bio)
Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed. By Misagh Parsa. Harvard University Press, 2016. 406 pp.

In the final days of 2017, an astonished world witnessed an explosion of popular anger all over Iran that lasted for more than a week. It was not the first time that the Islamic Republic had faced irate demonstrators. In 2009, millions had marched peacefully in the streets of Tehran and other major cities to protest dictatorship and the rigged June 12 presidential election. Still recalled with horror is the death of one peaceful protester, a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan, whose shooting by one of the regime’s basiji militiamen was captured on video as it unfolded in a Tehran street on June 20.

Social media made Neda Agha-Soltan and the demonstrations in which she gave her life famous throughout the world. What the world did not know, however, was that since the early 1990s Iranian cities had been the scene of popular protests that occurred frequently but were hardly ever reported thanks to the Islamic Republic’s censors.

With this in mind, one could assume that the late-2017 outbreak was just one more example of popular anger surging only to be met with violent repression (48 protesters killed, 4,792 arrested). A closer look, however, reveals the unprecedented nature of these most recent demonstrations. First, there was their geographic scope. Previous protests had been confined to a few cities. In 2017, the protest movement spread rapidly across 72 cities after starting with demonstrations against the high cost of living in the eastern province of Khorasan—protests that [End Page 173] at first had been discreetly egged on by conservative rivals of President Hassan Rouhani.

The most important thing about the protests was the slogans that the demonstrators chanted. These showed that a turning point had been reached. For the first time, protesters were openly demanding regime change. They dismissed Rouhani and his fellow regime reformists as purveyors of empty promises; denounced clerical rule; and complained about embezzlement, unemployment, and the high cost of living. Some demanded a secular republic or even the return of the monarchy.

How can we explain the recurrent explosions of popular anger in the Islamic Republic over the last three decades? How are we to make sense of the latest outburst, given that barely six months earlier the international media had been reporting the “moderate” Rouhani’s reelection with a resounding 57 percent of the vote based on an impressive 73 percent turnout? Had not Iranians said by this vote that they wanted to mend, not end the regime?

For those struggling to understand these confusing signals, this book by Dartmouth College sociologist Misagh Parsa is remarkably helpful. Most analysts of Iranian politics ignore larger social forces in favor of a narrower focus on infighting between reformists and hard-liners within the regime. Parsa, by contrast, explores the relationship between the Islamic Republic and civil society—a far more important dynamic.

He notes early on the huge irony that lurks at the heart of the Islamic Republic. Its founder, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–89), rode to power in 1979 at the head of a large and inclusive coalition. His supporters came from many backgrounds and represented a range of ideological inclinations. Yet Khomeini’s rule unleashed an implacable dynamic of exclusion that was inherent in his theocratic project. Once he took over, exclusionary wave followed exclusionary wave. The non-Islamist elements of his coalition were the first to go. Then the revolution began to eat its own, as Khomeini purged hard-core Islamists who had been among the very architects of the theocratic regime, but who had for various reasons become political liabilities in his eyes.

Nothing about these purges was gentle. They made free use of harsh repression and violence. Between June 1981 and September 1985, the Islamist regime summarily killed about 12,000 dissidents. By 2009, only three out of the original twenty-six members of the 1979 revolutionary council still belonged to the ruling elite. Parsa shows how the shrinking of the polity and the ideological nature of the Islamist...