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Iranians Want Democracy. Who Are We to Say No?

Iran’s liberal opposition has as much right as anyone else to choose their government.
October 12, 2022
Iranians Want Democracy. Who Are We to Say No?
An election clerk checks the identification documents of Iranian voters at a polling station in the capital Tehran during the country's presidential election, on June 18, 2021. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

In the American Conservative, Sohrab Ahmari asks a question that many Iranians have asked for decades, especially during the recent protests: If the clerics go, who will take their place? “Who would you have rule us?” he asks. “What principle of unity and continuity do you propose? ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’? LGBTQIA+ Pride? An empty flag, erasing 2,500 years of history?” It’s interesting that Ahmari, an American citizen, refers to Iranians as “us,” because he nowhere entertains the idea that Iranians might choose their own future at the ballot box.

Iran has no history of completely free and fair democracy. As Ahmari recounts, Iranians tried constitutionalism in the early twentieth century, but the experiment failed. One reason, as he mentions, is that the United Kingdom and Russia, amid the Great Game, made sure that it failed. Ahmari is echoing the left-wingers of a generation ago, laying too many of the Greater Middle East’s problems at the feet of bygone empires and not enough at the feet of indigenous leaders, which denies Iranian politicians agency in shaping their country’s future. As it happened, Iran’s democracy also failed because its elites were corrupt and rigged elections.

Yet the ballot box remains Iran’s last, best hope because it has a proven record of success around the world. Democracy is not without its problems, many of which arise from the demands of responsibility it makes on its citizens, which are more than in a typical authoritarian system. But is it not preferable to the party-state communism of China, the mishmash gangster nationalism of Russia, or the brutal theocracy of Iran?

It’s true that the protest movement’s leaderlessness creates problems. Like all leaderless movements, it is chaotic and lacks direction. Desperate dissidents have no way to organize themselves into a revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing their oppressors. This is a political enterprise without a capable politician—at least for now.

Ahmari has long entertained the notion of “benign autocracy” in Iran. (No autocracy is “benign” to the freedom fighters in its prisons.) Four years ago, he wrote:

Perhaps the opposition forces will conjure a leader at the right moment and in organic fashion. Or maybe an ambitious would-be shah will emerge from among the security apparatus. Yet the most plausible current candidate is probably Reza Pahlavi, Reza Shah’s exiled grandson, whose prestige and popularity have spiked in recent years, as Iranians born after the revolution reckon with what they lost to their parents’ collective folly.

Since then, Ahmari’s penchant for monarchism has not changed: “A Pahlavi restoration, implausible as it may be, is a far better answer to these questions than the one currently proffered by the opposition,” he writes in his new article. But the Iranians on the streets chanting “freedom” aren’t risking their lives for a diluted tyranny. Many would likely settle for a king if doing so guaranteed the end of the theocracy tomorrow—but as each day they pay a higher price in blood, they will expect more freedom in return.

At any rate, Pahlavi has no interest in being a “benign” dictator. He is a democrat and is on the record saying that he thinks republicanism is superior to monarchy: “I neither need a patron nor want to be someone else’s patron.”

Perhaps Pahlavi could be persuaded to reign without ruling in Iran, as a constitutional monarch in the Northern European model. Or perhaps, like Spain’s Juan Carlos I, he could help shepherd the country from despotism to freedom before retiring. That he is uncharismatic with no desire to become a tyrant makes this proposition more appealing, softening the edges of an inevitably messy transition into a new period of Iranian history. Iran’s previous attempts to democratize failed because the kings and their courts were an obstacle to it. It’d be nice to have one who helped with the process for once.

Ahmari also theorizes that “maybe an ambitious would-be shah will emerge from among the security apparatus.” Good luck convincing Iranians to succumb to the rule of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general from New York.

For democracy to succeed in Iran, it needs a responsible elite. In Europe, those elites have often been organized around constitutional monarchs. Traditionally authoritarian regimes from South Korea to Chile have evolved into democracies, and the authoritarian elites there, with the aid of American diplomacy backed up by incentives and coercive tools, have served as caretakers until democracy took root. In Iran, there is no current elite that the people will accept in the next system in any form—with the notable exception of the prison system. Civil society is nonexistent. The Iranian diaspora bears little promise of providing an elite capable of returning to the Old Country to build democracy—most are now professionals in the Anglosphere and quite content with their new lives, not to mention mostly oblivious to politics.

The democratization of Eastern Europe after the Cold War faced similar challenges. Some countries were lucky to have renowned freedom fighters to serve as their leaders while their countries learned democracy; others got help from the U.S. State Department and set up transitional organizations to decide the next phase. Poland had Lech Walesa, a union leader. Czechoslovakia had Václav Havel, an influential intellectual. The Islamic Republic has ensured that Iran has neither labor unions nor famous intellectuals. Iran’s transition will be bloody and disruptive, and it will face the same challenges that infant democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq faced.

This is not to say that Iranian democracy is a hopeless cause. To begin with, the Iranian people are more liberal than the Iraqis and the Afghans. As the world’s oldest continuous nation-state, they also have a rich national heritage around which to coalesce. Ahmari warns of “erasing 2,500 years of history”—as if such a thing could be done—but the rioters are the same people embarking on pilgrimages at the tomb of Cyrus. They aren’t trying to erase their history; they want to reclaim it. “How are you going to hold a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic nation-state together?” asks Ahmari, as if Iran doesn’t have a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic history going back to the sixth century B.C. And to make sure the point is not lost on anyone, the Persian protesters angered by the murder of a Kurdish woman are joined by Azeris and Balouchis and Lurs, all chanting the same slogans. There’s been no talk of separatism, only national unity in the name of the homeland.

Ahmari seems to think that Iranians are incapable of achieving democracy. Four years ago, it was because

For more than two millennia, the unchanging principle of Iranian political life was estebdad, or arbitrary rule, and it remains so today.. . . Estebdad has left deep imprints on the Iranian mind.. . . The main political consequences of estebdad were disorder and discontinuity. There were good shahs, great ones even. And there were bad ones. The problem was that government was never established on a principle or set of principles. There were no Permanent Things. Adalat, justice, wasn’t something that could be baked into a system. The best one could hope for was a just shah. Everything depended on the character and personality of the man sitting on the Peacock Throne.

What Ahmari fails to mention is that, once upon a time, all rule was arbitrary, capricious, unjust, and autocratic. Now, there are democracies around the world, from Taipei to Tallinn. Why not Tehran?

And what of Ahmari’s gripe that those demonstrating in the streets don’t have in mind a plan for a coherent system of government. He would no doubt have also expected the Romans to have worked out all the details of the republic before kicking out Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and for the victims of the Boston Massacre to die clutching the Constitution. Or maybe he would have preferred the monarchs in both instances.

In 2018, Ahmari intoned: “The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a world-historical event and an unalloyed good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normalcy four decades after the Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini founded his regime.” Amen. Only Iranians can unify their country around a common notion of nationhood, but they will rely on support from the United States to transition. That requires an American willingness to get its hands dirty should the regime collapse. We can always hope that Iran produces its own Václav Havel—who will certainly not come from the “security apparatus.” Just because the Iranian protests lack a savvy political figure to lead them now doesn’t mean they won’t be able to find one. Who could have predicted that from the American colonies would emerge Washington; from Israel, Ben Gurion; or from Ukraine, Zelensky? Democracy movements have a way of thrusting greatness upon people.

Some of Ahmari’s criticism and analysis of Iran and Iranians is sound, and he is right to point out that the transition to democracy will not be easy. If only members of the Biden administration—or its predecessors—paid as much attention to the problem.

But Ahmari makes a terrible mistake in ascribing emptiness of values to the protests. Iran’s revolution is no more empty of values than America’s was. If there is no Iranian Thomas Jefferson to declare, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” it is only because Jefferson already wrote it for the rest of mankind.

So again, we return to Ahmari’s question: “Who would you have rule us?” No one rules Ahmari—he is a citizen of a constitutional democracy. Therein lies his answer.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.