Published in: Financial Times (
Iran's path to democracy is slow, but inexorable


Mohammad-Ali Abtahi
Reform can be defined as a process, not a project. In terms of countries,
this means that reform processes have to be moulded along indigenous
characteristics so that democracy becomes deeply rooted in society. It has
taken the west 300 years and two world wars to institutionalise democracy.
Iran has a history of over 25 centuries of monarchical rule, the basic
tenets of which contradict the nature of democracy and the notion of
popular participation in state decision-making. Quite naturally, this long
history has had a serious psychological impact on Iranian society. Much
time is needed to change such a culture. Moreover, in geo-political terms,
Iran is surrounded by democracy-unfriendly neighbours. These factors should
be taken into account in any analysis of developments in
The Islamic revolution in 1979 ushered in a style of democracy for the
first time in
Iran's history, marked by the overthrow of the monarchy and
introduction of a new system after a referendum voted overwhelmingly to
Iran into an Islamic republic. Iranians with their right to vote
decided to launch a new phase of reform by electing Mohammad Khatami in
1997. Since then, the reform movement has aimed to show Iranians they
themselves can play a role in running society. People have been able to
stage public protests and participate in elections at every level. They
have become aware of their civil and political rights. However, hope and
aspiration have made people impatient to achieve reform quickly, and this
has driven demands for speed rather than emphasis on institutionalising
democracy. On the other hand, the fact that Mr Khatami was elected
president within the existing constitution which does not hand supreme
authority to the president should not be ignored. The Iranian constitution
distributes power; the main centres of state power such as the judiciary,
parliament, the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, the armed forces
and state-owned radio and television networks fall outside the president's
jurisdiction. In fact some have been run by opponents of reform; a notable
exception has been the parliament, or majlis. Under these circumstances, a
president is a smart political leader only if he takes into account the
existing realities and before anything else, rightly evaluates the scope
and limits of his power.
Unfortunately, the intense resistance and confrontational tactics of
opponents of reform, who have been powerful enough to stand against the
president and the pro-reform parliament, succeeded in making people feel
their reform project had been stalled. This despite the fact that the
reform process has been proceeding. Last month's [FEB] parliamentary
election was a good example of this reality: the powerful conservative
faction with all legal means at its disposal did its best to eliminate the
reformists, while people who were disappointed with the pace of reform left
the political scene, disillusioned. **CONTRARY TO WIDESPREAD OPINION,
however, the election results did not benefit the conservatives. In the
parliamentary election, conservatives kept within their traditional vote
range of 15 to 20 per cent similar to the proportion they won in the past
two presidential and municipal elections, and in the parliamentary
elections four years ago. I strongly believe that even this figure of 15
per cent highlights the victory of reformers and the reform process not
least because even the most conservative political factions in the recent
elections displayed reformist mottos as their winning cards. Campaign
slogans which previously could have been considered against the law, such
as "campaigning for a free and happy Iran", and PROMISES SUCH AS lifting
the ban on satellite dishes, developing the country, bringing in cultural
and social freedoms and breaking the taboos about relations with the US,
were the reasons that conservatives garnered even that percentage of votes.
If all these election promises materialise into policies, it will prove
nothing but the considerable speed of the process not the project of
reform. In fact, the conservatives had to adopt this strategy even to keep
their traditional votes, while 50 per cent of eligible voters, either
because they opposed the very Islamic system or
because they were encouraged by reformists to boycott the elections, did
not vote.
I am very optimistic about the future of the reform process in Iran
even though, as is usual in developing countries, "process" has too often
been mistaken for "project" and too much attention has been paid to TRYING
TO BUILD AND FOLLOW heroes rather than to DEVELOPING the movement FROM THE
GRASSROOTS. Thanks to the world of communication and
Iran's young
population, there is no other way ahead for the Iranian nation and its
rulers but a continuation of the reform process.

The writer is
Iran's vice-president for legal and parliamentary affairs


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