Safeguarding Democracy: The Case for Decentralization in Iran
Throughout Iranian history, authoritarians of all stripes have attempted to assert total control over the country from Tehran. A more democratic government should appreciate local autonomy across Iran’s large territory and culturally diverse peoples.
The popular revolution in Iran—sparked by the murder of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s religious police—has steadily grown in the past four months. Although their outcome remains uncertain, the protests and the ensuing crackdown have laid bare the fundamental illegitimacy of the clerical regime, and the chances of its overthrow have never been greater. However, the events of 1979—by which the current regime came to power—are a reminder that simply overthrowing a tyrannical government is not enough, and that Iran must break free once and for all from the vicious circle of tyranny that has afflicted it throughout its modern history. While the revolution gains momentum, Iranians must reflect on how to facilitate the country’s transition to democracy so that it can finally enjoy true freedom and human rights, experience steady development under the rule of law, and form lasting friendly relationships with its neighbors and the wider world.
Throughout Iran’s 2,500-year history, the greatest obstacle to democracy has been a centralized political structure and the concentration of power in one person, class, or clique. True to its roots in ancient Persian political theology, the political structure in Iran has a tendency to converge around the supreme patriarch—be it a shah or an ayatollah—who has traditionally been regarded as a demigod on earth and whose command must be obeyed above any law.
By placing the ruler above the law, Persian political theology necessarily leads to autocracy and authoritarianism. A notorious modern manifestation of this ancient concept can be seen in the slogan “God, King, Homeland” that was promoted by the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, and which totally ignored modern, humanistic concepts in politics such as nation, democracy, and human rights.
For all its opposition to the ways of the Pahlavi dynasty, the clerical establishment that seized power under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 enshrined the same absolutist concept of authority in the character of a cleric. The cornerstone of the current theocracy, the principle of “Guardianship of the Jurist” (velayat-e-faqih), concentrates all religious and political power in the person of the Supreme Leader—replacing the crown with the turban, but leaving the paradigm intact.
Iranian absolutism has never been without its opponents, of course. To rein in autocracy and prevent the monopoly and concentration of power, Iranian intellectuals and political elites supported the creation of a constitution limiting imperial authority during the Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century. When the freedom fighters from across the country seized Tehran in 1909 and deposed the autocratic Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar, they introduced the “Bill for Regional and Provincial Associations” at the first session of the newly-established National Assembly. According to the provisions of the bill, the authority to manage regional affairs was to be delegated to regional and provincial councils throughout Iran. The bill was notable in that it was the first ever attempt by the legal representatives of the people at administrative decentralization and devolution of the central government’s authority to regional, provincial, and local councils across the country.
If the bill had become law, it would have laid the foundation for a decentralized government structure in Iran. In the long run, doing so would have created a multiplicity of smaller power centers, which would have thwarted the resurgence of centralized autocracy from Tehran. For the first time in modern history, the various regions of Iran would have possessed legally-guaranteed rights to manage their affairs and therefore exercise a considerable degree of self-government.
A Missed Opportunity
However, the Bill for Regional and Provincial Associations never passed. The occupation of Iran by the Russian and British empires during the First World War, and the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s dictatorship in the postwar years, served to dismantle the constitutional system and shut down its instrument of implementation—the National Assembly—for over two decades.
More than half a century later, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi grudgingly allowed a watered-down version of the bill to pass, following pressure by the Kennedy administration. However, dissident Iranians unhappy with the Shah’s leadership had already organized other groups through which they channeled their opposition. These groups—many of which were aligned with Khomeini and other ultraconservative Shi’a clerics—were outraged at certain provisions within the bill, such as the enfranchisement of women and the removal of bans on non-Muslims serving in government. In fact, the legislation angered Khomeini and other religious extremists to such an extent that they started a bloody uprising and forced the government to repeal it, much to the chagrin of the Shah and the Kennedy administration.
Following the bill’s defeat, there were no other attempts to democratize the country by decentralizing its political structure, devolving authority, or diversifying the centers of power across the nation. In spite of its lofty rhetoric and promises of egalitarianism, the 1979 revolution only led to a wholesale transfer of concentrated power from the Shah and the royal family to the Supreme Leader, his clerical inner circle, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the paramilitary guardians of the regime.
As Tehran has taken steps to strengthen its control over the whole country, developed democracies across the world, driven by a desire for further democratization, have steadily delegated different degrees of the central government’s power to their regions and provinces. Regions in leading democracies such as Great Britain, France, and Spain all enjoy a considerable degree of decentralization and devolution of authority, enabling the people across their nations to play a more meaningful part in self-rule on a local level.
To finally stamp out the country’s tradition of tyranny and ensure that the Islamic Republic is the final authoritarian regime in the history of Iran, it is necessary to devise and promote a scientific, comprehensive, and long-term plan for the development of a pluralist discourse in Iranian society and delegation of power across the country. This, beyond any other action, is perhaps the most important step towards the establishment of democracy in Iran.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.