Iran’s Long Road to Reform

By Jason Brownlee

U.S. media coverage of Iran’s presidential election and its aftermath has shown a mix of curiosity and outrage, while obscuring several significant elements of Iran’s political debate. It may surprise some Americans to learn that many pro-democracy forces in Iran seek to modify the government without overhauling it. For example, presidential aspirant Mir-Hossein Musavi and his close affiliate, former president Mohammad Khatami, envision an Islamic republic – in practice, not just in name. The state would be democratically led by elected politicians with unelected clergy in symbolic or advisory roles.

Throughout the past decade Mousavi and Khatami have worked to accomplish this goal incrementally. Having lived through one revolution and its aftermath, they dread unleashing another. Thus they have sought to minimize public conflict, even in the face of their principal adversaries, such as Leader Ali Khamenei. So far this approach has brought meager results. Peaceful dissidents have faced state-sponsored thuggery while their reformist patrons have backed down. Protests in 1999 ended when President Khatami, who enjoyed a historic popular mandate, sided with Ali Khamenei. Khatami even chastened the students for threatening public order. Khamenei’s paramilitary forces then squelched the riots.

Ten years later, post-election dissent has followed a familiar course. While alleging the vote was stolen by backers of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mousa- vi’s camp avoided a street battle with Ahmadinejad supporters and instead advocated an officially conducted revote. In response, the hardliners entrenched themselves, permitting a partial recount (and confirming Ahmadinejad’s victory) while assaulting demonstrators and detaining thousands. When Khamenei’s base began repressing the crowds, Mousavi did not reappear to publicly rally his troops and instead issued instructions and denunciations online–to little avail.

Paradoxically, the latest wave of repression, which succeeded tactically for the hardliners, may amplify the core message of Mousavi’s movement. Claims of election rigging remain controversial (the most often cited study erroneously compares Ahmadinejad’s reelection with his initial bid for the presidency in 2005). The state’s retaliation, however, has been vividly recorded and broadcast to a global audience. Even as Khamenei’s forces dispersed the latest cohort of demonstrators they may have sown the seeds for future dissent.

As Iranians wrestle over how to improve their government, Americans can recognize that democracy in Iran has advanced through local efforts, not as an imposition from abroad. Leaders like Khatami and Mousavi have worked for decades at enshrining a more representative government while averting social upheaval. External pressure, particularly when applied by the United States, jeopardizes that agenda and strengthens hardliners’ claims that Iran is under threat. The best way for outside observers to support Iran’s reformists will be to appreciate their hard-won achievements and recognize the long road ahead of them.

Jason Brownlee is associate professor of government. He has lived and studied in Iran and is the author of Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization, which explains why Iran’s opposition leaders have made greater gains than their counterparts in Egypt and Malaysia.