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Iranian Democracy: Where It’s At

July 1, 2009

Please welcome guest blogger Donovan Schaefer. Donovan is doctoral candidate in Religion at Syracuse University. I came across this commentary on Facebook and he agreed to allow me to share it (thanks Donovan!). It’s a bit long, so I’ll be posting it three parts.


So, just a few thoughts on where this is at right now. First a little bit about what the protests in Iran have accomplished, then a few points on things that I think we can do to help.

The protests in Iran have for the most part subsided, squelched by brutal violence, captures, intimidations, and propaganda on the part of the Khamenei/Ahmedinejad faction.

The impact of the protests has been seismic. Roger Cohen saw five things happen:

First, the fact that the Supreme Leader has been questioned and that he waded into a partisan battle by siding with Ahmedinejad had transformed the nature of his office. Like the office of the American President after Nixon, the Supreme Leader is no longer unassailable.

Second, the basic formula of “80% dictatorship and 20% democracy” that has served the Republic for decades has been upset. The illusion of freedom will be harder to sustain. Iranians are already considering the election as a “coup d’etat” rather than just a stolen election. Their perception of their country as a limited but functional democracy has been shattered. Acquiescence is giving way to open anger.

Third, the rivalries among the ruling elite–Khamenei/Ahmedinejad vs. Rafsanjani/Moussavi/Montazeri, as well as the various players who are aligned with either Khamenei or Ahmedinejad but against the other–which were previously expressed only through proxy battles and always behind closed doors, have now been brought to the surface, where they are currently playing out in a battle to recruit clerical allies. There is no longer a united “ruling class.”

Fourth, the Iranian regime’s attempt to position itself as a regional leader has been seriously compromised by the brutality and shamelessness of Ahmedinejad’s moves. This doesn’t mean there aren’t many people, inside and outside of Iran, who believe the Iranian government’s line that the reformers’ side of the election was promoted by American and British interests. But the violent suppression of the protests will cast a shadow over the Ahmedinejad regime’s attempts to situate itself as a regional authority.

Fifth, the generational divide inside of Iran has become crystal clear. With 70% of their population under thirty, the young people of Iran (and especially the women of that generation) suddenly find themselves actively and violently disenfranchised by their government. Their memories of the Supreme Leader will be the previous generation’s memories of the Shah. When the time is right, they will act.

The demonstrations were only the most public dimension of the the conflict caused by the elections. Different factions within the ruling elite are still trying to manipulate the levers of power to gain the upper hand. The outcome is still uncertain, though dispersing the demonstrations is certainly a victory for the hardliners.

Tomorrow look for part 2, “What We Can Do From Here.”

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