POMED Notes: Politics or Culture? Iran’s Main Obstacles to Democracy
On Thursday, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars co-hosted a conference titled Democracy and Human Rights in Iran, in honor of Siamak Pourzand. The third panel, “Politics or Culture? Iran’s Main Obstacles to Democracy,” featured Nazila Fathi, former Iran-based correspondent for the New York Times, Arash Sobhani, an Iranian musician and founder and lead singer of “Kiosk,” and Maziar Bahari, an Iranian author and documentary filmmaker. Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, moderated the panel.
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The panel began with a discussion of whether Iranian society was ready for female political leadership. Nazila Fathi noted women were sidelined during the 1979 revolution after having participated alongside men, but today they are prepared for leadership positions. Women make up a majority of university graduates in Iran and showed leadership capabilities during the 2009 uprisings. Arash Sobhani said that Iran was ready for female leadership, saying that it could happen if the right leadership was in power. Maziar Bahari recalled that Ayatollah Khomeini’s first political act was against women’s suffrage in Iran; he later had to co-opt women for the revolution to be successful. The present government likewise is looking to assimilate women, as it saw the power they held during the 2009 protests.
The conversation then turned to Iranians’ apparent predilection for authoritarian rule. Sobhani noted that many Iranians focused on the tangible improvements brought about by authoritarian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, which may cause a preference for his style of rule. He also noted that Reza Shah’s rule was characterized by social freedom that was lost during the Islamic Republic era. Bahari believed that it was a matter of security, stating that Reza Shah’s rule was characterized by stability and personal security, whereas the era of Mohammad Mossadegh, a symbol of democratic rule in Iran, was characterized by instability and chaos from various sources. Even today, the government uses a threat of instability to prolong its rule. Fathi agreed that the romanticism surrounding the Pahlavi dynasty is a result of the social freedom and visible development of the era, and few are nostalgic for Khomeini’s rule due to the fact that Khamenei’s rule has been distinctly less brutal.
Concerning religion in Iran, Bahari said that it is becoming more of a personal, rather than public, matter despite the fact that most everyone in Iran is religious in some sense. He posited that a post-Islamic Republic Iran would have religion as a wholly private matter. Fathi stated that Iranians are too often stereotyped as willing to serve or complicit with martyrdom, and Sobhani said that it is the government that injects the idea of martyrdom and public religion into society.
The final question posed was whether Iran would in the future undertake an uprising such as those seen in the Arab Spring. Fathi didn’t believe it would, due to demographic and political differences. She said that Iranians prefer a slow, grassroots change due to their fear of instability, as well as due to the fact that Iranian leadership is more prepared to deal with street protests than Arab leaders were. Sobhani believed that change is coming, as the government can’t use its wealth to subdue its people forever. Bahari agreed that the regime can’t survive forever and uses its wealth to prolong its rule. However, the people do fear chaos and Khamenei has smartly presented himself as a bastion of stability and purity.