Democracy in Iran

Iran has a perplexing form of government. There are elections – contested ones with candid debate, as this year’s campaign showed – which allow the public to register its views. On the other hand, candidates can be excluded from the ballot and the president’s actions are circumscribed. Above the ballot and the presidency loom a Guardian Council and Supreme Leader. Neither name betokens commitment to democracy and many people feel last Friday’s election was fixed.

The 2009 election had several candidates but only two, the reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were seen as having any chance of winning. The results show Ahmadinejad trouncing Mousavi, 63% to 34%, and this has led to charges of fraud, in and out of Iran. Polling data are invoked that showed Mousavi ahead, sometimes by a wide margin, though sometimes by a nose.

But many polls showed Ahmadinejad with a wide lead. Polling in Iran is dicey. Large portions of the public live in remote villages, do not have telephones, and do not speak openly about politics. There, traditional politics has considerable support that is not easily detected by pollsters. Western media focused on young people and urban areas; it’s easier than going into distant provinces. This meant over-reporting of people likely to support Mousavi, which might have misled urban Iranians and Westerners alike on the extent of his appeal.

Reform is not as appealing to Iranians as often thought. There was a reformist government for eight years, from 1997 to 2005, but it could not solve the nation’s problems, which led directly to Ahmadinejad’s first election. For many Iranians, reformists are still associated with disappointment and failure.

The mullahs may well have tampered with the vote count. Reports of ballot oddities are accumulating and even a few ayatollahs have expressed skepticism about the election’s propriety. But in the recent past the mullahs have allowed reformers such as Mohammad Khatami to become president, and the mullahs could have fended off reform this time by having Ahmadinejad win by a comfortable margin but well short of a landslide. In any case, many students are sure they were swindled and are engaging in street demonstrations and skirmishes with security forces.

Young people and others interested in reform are likely to channel their anger and energy into developing a broad democratic movement, by building political groups, forming ties with like-minded members of the middle classes, and engaging in open criticism of the regime. They are also likely to become, to the dismay of conservatives, increasingly pro-West. Should the demonstrations grow, the mullahs of course can resort, again, to grisly crackdowns, but demographics and a sluggish economy favor reformers. Ahmadinejad will have many questions if he enters his second term. Foremost might be, should he continue his loutish rhetoric or focus on the economy of a country that likely hit peak oil quite a while back.

The Islamic Republic is facing its strongest challenge. The revolution that ousted the shah and brought in the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini was a massive, popular movement, which seemed to augur eternal unity of leader and nation – a key delusion in Islamist thought. That has been lost, and the paradox of a regime that came to power by street demonstrations now being challenged by them, must be apparent to all. The mullahs should be worried.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at:

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at