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  • What Are Iranians Dreaming about Today?Reflections on the Islamic Revolution at 40
  • Kian Tajbakhsh (bio)


almost 20 years ago, i published an article in this journal under the title "Political Decentralization and the Creation of Local Government in Iran: Consolidation or Transformation of the Theocratic State?" (Tajbakhsh 2000). The establishment of an elected local government in every city and village in Iran was the most significant institutional innovation the reformist administration of Mohammad Khatami could claim. It engendered a massive increase in the scope of electoral participation. I identified three contending rationales that had supported the political decentralization reforms: the reformists hoped that the local electoral institutions would lead to the growth of an independent democratic plural civil society; the ruling Islamists saw in the local councils (shura) the demonstration of the relevance of the Islamic concept of participatory governance (mardom salari deeni); and the technocrats in the state bureaucracy and planning agencies hoped that decentralizing public administration would increase the efficiency of the delivery of public services and encourage economic development to serve the escalating demands of a rapidly urbanizing population.1

Each rationale embodied a broader societal project: democratization, Islamicization, and developmentalist modernization, respectively. [End Page 305] Yet to fully understand these three projects, we must recognize that they are a part of, or overlap with, broader visions for the future of Iran which cannot be confined to Islamist agendas. Each societal project is in fact related to a vision of an ideal future and a corresponding narrative of transition to a chosen ideal state or utopia. If constructed well, the visions of these ideals capture the stories the actors themselves tell or would tell about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and ultimately what they hope to achieve for their society.


Here I focus on three groups promoting distinct visions for the future of Iran.2 The velayi (or velayat madar) Islamists are the ruling strata and their core supporters, who espouse a maximalist interpretation of the velayat-e faqih (principle of guardianship and rule by clerics). Islamic democratic reformists have been politically marginalized since 2009 but remain socially influential (I do not consider the current Rouhani administration as part of the democratizing reformists but as velayi developmentalists). The third group is the secular modernists who have no legal or organizational presence in Iran but enjoy the tacit support of perhaps a significant minority inside the country and certainly the majority of expatriate Iranians.

Each group sees itself as working towards its preferred ideal future state of affairs. The velayi Islamists dream of a pristine pious (world) society shaped entirely by (Shia) Islamic values and organized through Islamic institutions and law. The Islamic reformers hope to craft a "religious democracy" combining the country's distinctively Islamic culture with some modern (Western) human rights to fashion a nontyrannical but nonliberal government. The modernists aim to bring about a secularized constitutional republic (with or without a monarch) shorn of all clerical and religious official dispensations and founded on a strong version of Western liberalism, a predominantly secular culture, and possibly informed by elements of pre-Islamic Iranian [End Page 306] identity. These projects may or may not overlap in support of a given policy.

Corresponding to its envisioned future ideal, each group advances a distinct interpretation of the existing political regime. (I use "regime" in the descriptive sense, meaning the totality of a political system, and not pejoratively. The ruling Islamists prefer the term nezam.) For the velayi Islamists, today's Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is the embryo of a future perfect, theocratic society and government that successfully combine clerical rule with managed popular participation; they trace the deficiencies of the current system to the detritus of the non-Islamic environment with which it is forced to coexist. By contrast, the secular modernist opposition considers the IRI nothing more than an authoritarian Islamic dictatorship. Islamic reformers concur that the IRI has been distorted into a religious despotism (estebdad deeni), but argue that Iran is currently striving to navigate through a transitional epoch between Islamic traditionalism on the one hand and a modern nation-state on the...


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