A recent article in the Washington Quarterly (30,1,Winter) by Hen Tov is entitled “Understanding Iran’s New Authoritarianism”. It purports to show how Iran is quickly evolving from a specialized theocratic state into a standard authoritarian regime of the kind that has long characterized the region. He tells us that “a new group of younger ideologues is taking over the conservative establishment”.
In fact, this is not what is happening. It is not happening for a variety of reasons. First, the governmental system is a complex mixture of electorate decisive factors and clerical-elite decisive factors. To succeed in the system, it is not enough to get elected and develop a cult of personality. In addition, Iran has a much more lively public opinion and media input into public affairs. And in spite of the nondemocratic vetting, those competing for office have a more equitable chance to achieve office and influence than in states such as Egypt. Campaigning is much freer and more open than in any Arab states outside Lebanon (in its better days).
By mid-January it had become apparent that Ahmadinejad’s belligerent language and world tours had produced a backlash among the Iranian people. The Head of State has felt it necessary to openly censor the President (New York Times, January 19). Two hardline newspapers, one owned by the Head of State, called on the president to stay out of all matters nuclear. The Times piece claimed that the president is not officially in charge of foreign affairs. Government officials are saying that the sanctions do have a potential to seriously hurt the economy. Fifty legislators wrote a letter calling on the president to appear before parliament to defend his nuclear policies. 150 legislators signed another letter criticizing the president for his economic policies and his failure to submit a budget on time. The stock market has been in a steady decline for a month. A group of businessmen has met with the National Security Council to ask for a moderation in nuclear policies to help stem the slide.
After the December elections, Rafsanjani has become the head of the Assembly of Experts that will choose the next Head of State. There is reason to think that he is positioning himself for that position as he looks forward to the retirement of Khamenei. Several of the other people who were defeated in the 2005 presidential election now hold high positions in government. It seems to be elite government by consensus modified by electoral inputs.
American advocates of instant, universal democracy often refer to the Iranian system as a fraudulent democracy. Yet it is well to reflect that the dangers from ostensible democracies that we face in the world come from persons, usually populists, who are able to use democratic institutions to achieve electoral and then personal supremacy. These were the roads to power of Mussolini and Hitler. We have often faced such dangers in Latin America, and today we fear the regimes taking shape in Venezuela, Bolivia, and possibly once again in Nicaragua. The essential problem is that there are not sufficient institutional controls to head off mobocracy. We might consider the advantages for the world of a more controlled democracy in which a loose cannon such as Ahmadinejad may be more easily controlled, even if the democracy is in other ways defective.