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Decentralisation is Key to Democracy in Making a Modern Progressive Iran


The popular revolution in Iran, which was sparked by the death of the young Kurdish woman, Mahsa or Zhina Amini, at the hands of the so-called Islamic Republic’s
‘morality police’, is rapidly gathering momentum across the country and gaining increasing support around the world. As such, the chances of the Islamist regime’s being overthrown have never been so high.

One vital aspect which all the peoples of Iran must bear in mind is that, even more important than bringing down the current brutal authoritarian regime is ensuring that it’s not replaced by another, as happened in 1979 – Iran must end, once and for all, the vicious cycle of tyranny that’s afflicted the nation for the past century.

While the current revolution is going on, all the country’s peoples must reflect on how best to facilitate its transition to a democratic state which protects the freedom and human rights of all its peoples, of both sexes and including its ethnic and religious minorities, and develops in a positive progressive manner, while forming lasting friendly ties with neighbours and the wider world.

Based on historical evidence, the greatest obstacle to democracy in Iran is the centralised political structure and the concentration of power in one person, class or small group. True to its roots in the ancient Iranian political theology, the political structure in Iran has a tendency to converge around the patriarchal autocrat who is the container of the “Godly Glow,” and as such is a demigod on earth whose command must be obeyed above any law.

The autocratic nature of this rule is further entrenched by racial supremacism which is an unspoken but key part of the traditional power structure; in short, despite its racial and religious diversity, with ethnic minorities such as Ahwazi Arabis, Kurds, Balochis, Azerbaijanis, Gilaks and Turkmen collectively making up more than half the population, Iran glorifies the ‘superiority’ of Persian-Iranians, with the minorities subjected to deprivation, marginalisation and multi-layered oppression.

By automatically placing the ruler – whether secular king or theocratic ayatollah – above the law, Iranian political doctrine inevitably creates autocracy and authoritarianism. We can glimpse a notorious modern manifestation of that ancient concept in the slogan “God, King, Homeland” that was promoted by the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, and which totally ignored modern, liberal democratic political concepts such as nation, democracy and human rights.

Following the fall of the monarchy in 1979, the Islamic Republic enshrined exactly the same absolutist concept in the character of a cleric. The cornerstone of the current theocracy, the “Absolute Guardianship of the Jurist,” which concentrates all religious and political power in the person of the Supreme Leader, was formulated by the theorists of Shiite Islamism with a view to emulating the classical political tradition of Iran, simply replacing the monarchy’s crown with the ayatollah’s turban.

In comparison, the clergy enjoys no such absolute authority in any branch of Sunni Islam. In Western Christianity, the political power of the clerical class has been greatly reduced following several centuries of religious and political reforms, so that it has been substantially democratised and mostly functions in accordance with the humanistic precepts of a secular civil society.

In stark contrast with this democratisation process, the Russian Orthodox clergy, which is, in many ways, a continuation of the Byzantine tradition, was historically under the authority of an absolutist tsar, and had no real chance to become democratised under communism throughout the 20th century. As a result, the Orthodox clergy has turned into Putin’s instrument of oppression at home and proved a major driving force for Russia’s irredentism and imperialism abroad, similar to Shiism in contemporary Iran.

In order to rein in historical autocracy and authoritarianism and to prevent the monopoly and concentration of power, Iranian intellectuals and political elites thought of a solution during the Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century. When the heterogeneous freedom fighters from the four corners of the country conquered Tehran in 1909 and deposed the autocratic Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar, in order to prevent the power from being concentrated again in the person of the king and the centre of the country, at the first session of the newly-established National Assembly those visionaries introduced the “Bill for Regional and Provincial Associations.”

According to the provisions of the bill, the authority to manage many regional affairs was to be entrusted to the councils of the regions and provinces in Iran. The bill was notable in that it was the first ever attempt by the legal representatives of the people at administrative decentralisation and devolution of central government’s authority to regional, provincial and local councils across the country in modern times.

If the bill had become a law, it would have laid the foundation for a decentralised government in Iran, which in the long run, by creating a multiplicity of smaller power centres, would have prevented the resurgence of centralised autocracy. For the first time in modern history, different regions of Iran would have had legally-guaranteed rights to manage their native affairs and therefore exercise a considerable degree of self-government.

However, the Bill for Regional and Provincial Associations never passed in the parliament. The occupation of Iran by the Russian and British empires during the First World War, followed by the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s dictatorship practically dismantled the constitutional system and shut down its instrument of implementation, the National Assembly, for over two decades.

More than half a century later, during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, under pressure from the Kennedy administration that expected wide-ranging democratisation from Iran as a key ally of the United States in the Middle East during the Cold War, the Pahlavi autocracy finally had a now-subdued, rubber-stamp parliament pass a new version of the bill into law in 1962.

By this time, however, other forces of oppression were rising that would challenge the liberal law. Among the provisions of the revised bill were the enfranchisement of women and the removal of the requirement that set adherence to Islam as a condition for becoming a member of parliament. This angered Khomeini and other religious extremists to such an extent that they started a bloody uprising and forced the government to repeal the law, much to the chagrin of the Shah and the Kennedy administration.

Following the defeat of the Shah’s proposed Law of Regional and Provincial Associations in the middle of the 20th century, there were no other attempts to democratise the country by decentralising the political structure, devolving authority and diversifying the centres of power across the nation. The Islamist revolution, with all its egalitarian claims, only led to a wholesale transfer of concentrated power from the Shah and the royal family to the Supreme Leader and the clerical establishment as well as the formation of the paramilitary guardians of the regime, the so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Meanwhile, developed democracies across the world worked to further enhance democracy by steadily delegating different degrees of the central government’s power to the regions and provinces. Leading democracies such as Great Britain, France and Spain all enjoy a considerable degree of decentralisation and devolution of authority to smaller centres of power that have enabled the people across their nations to play a more meaningful part in self-rule on a semi-macro level.

In order to finally make tyranny obsolete and ensure that the Islamic Republic is the last centralised and authoritarian regime in Iran’s history, it is essential to devise and promote a long-term, comprehensive plan to develop and promote a pluralist democratic discourse in Iranian society, with multiple federalised centres of power distributed across the country. Indeed, this is perhaps the most crucial step towards the establishment of democracy in Iran.

By Dr Reza Parchizadeh: a political theorist, security analyst, and cultural expert based in Pennsylvania state. Parchizadeh holds a BA and an MA in English from the University of Tehran and a PhD in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). He tweets under @DrParchizadeh.


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