This is an excerpt from an article published in Social Research, Vol. 86, No. 1, Spring 2019.


Almost 20 years ago, I published an article under the title “Political Decentralization and the Creation of Local Government in Iran: Consolidation or Transformation of the Theocratic State?” (Tajbakhsh 2000). The establishment of an elected local government in every city and village in Iran was the most significant institutional innovation the reformist administration of Mohammad Khatami could claim. It engendered a massive increase in the scope of electoral participation. I identified three contending rationales that had supported the political decentralization reforms: the reformists hoped that the local electoral institutions would lead to the growth of an independent democratic plural civil society; the ruling Islamists saw in the local councils (shura) the demonstration of the relevance of the Islamic concept of participatory governance (mardom salari deeni); and the technocrats in the state bureaucracy and planning agencies hoped that decentralizing public administration would increase the efficiency of the delivery of public services and encourage economic development to serve the escalating demands of a rapidly urbanizing population.

Each rationale embodied a broader societal project: democratization, Islamicization, and developmentalist modernization, respectively. Yet to fully understand these three projects, we must recognize that they are a part of, or overlap with, broader visions for the future of Iran which cannot be confined to Islamist agendas. Each societal project is in fact related to a vision of an ideal future and a corresponding narrative of transition to a chosen ideal state or utopia. If constructed well, the visions of these ideals capture the stories the actors themselves tell or would tell about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and ultimately what they hope to achieve for their society.

Transition and Utopia: Three Projects, Three Narratives

Here I focus on three groups promoting distinct visions for the future of Iran. (I leave aside a number of other tendencies and groups that either have marginal influence currently inside Iran, such as a variety of left-leaning groups, or advocate armed or violent overthrow of the current regime. My analysis of the three groups concurs with Mehran Kamrava’s excellent 2008 survey, Iran’s Intellectual Revolution, and to which I refer interested readers for greater detail.) The velayi (or velayat madar) Islamists are the ruling strata and their core supporters who espouse a maximalist interpretation of the velayat-e faqih (principle of guardianship and rule by clerics); Islamic democratic reformists have been politically marginalized since 2009 but remain socially influential (I do not consider the current Rouhani administration as part of the democratizing reformists but as velayi developmentalists). The third group is the secular modernists who have no legal or organizational presence in Iran but enjoy the tacit support of perhaps a significant minority inside the country and certainly the majority of expatriate Iranians.

Each group sees itself as working towards its preferred ideal future state of affairs. The velayi Islamists dream of a pristine pious (world) society shaped entirely by (Shia) Islamic values and organized through Islamic institutions and law. The Islamic reformers hope to craft a “religious democracy” combining the country’s distinctively Islamic culture with some modern (Western) human rights to fashion a nontyrannical but nonliberal government. The modernists aim to bring about a secularized constitutional republic (with or without a monarch) shorn of all clerical and religious official dispensations and founded on a strong version of Western liberalism, a predominantly secular culture, and possibly informed by elements of pre-Islamic Iranian identity. These projects may or may not overlap in support of a given policy.

Corresponding to its envisioned future ideal, each group advances a distinct interpretation of the existing political regime. (I use “regime” in the descriptive sense, meaning the totality of a political system, and not pejoratively. The ruling Islamists prefer the term nezam.) For the velayi Islamists, today’s Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is the embryo of a future perfect, theocratic society and government that successfully combine clerical rule with managed popular participation; they trace the deficiencies of the current system to the detritus of the non-Islamic environment with which it is forced to coexist. By contrast, the secular modernist opposition considers the IRI nothing more than an authoritarian Islamic dictatorship. Islamic reformers concur that the IRI has been distorted into a religious despotism (estebdad deeni), but argue that Iran is currently striving to navigate through a transitional epoch between Islamic traditionalism on the one hand and a modern nation-state on the other; they see Iran as a substantively religious community undergoing an existential struggle to come to terms with the age of reason, science, individualism, social pluralism, and global interdependencies. Each of these interpretations of the present system rests on a principal explanatory motif: where monistic ideology defines the theocrats’ worldview, authoritarianism is based on the centrality of economic and political interests, and the reformers’ view highlights a society struggling over its identity.

For the purposes of socially relevant analysis, there is no single correct description of the IRI in that none is a product of presuppositionless reflection expressed through a neutral objective language. Evaluations of any description can only be judged on the grounds of criteria derived proleptically, based on the ultimate goal of the societal project that produced it. At the same time, each project or paradigm confronts a number of key internal contradictions. In what follows, after describing the champions of each paradigm, their utopian vision, and their understanding of the present, I highlight the tensions and the instability they generate in the discourse. My hope is that the recognition of these contradictions might prompt each group to accept the value of a dialogue with the others based on the recognition that all approximations of justice will depend on fashioning a balance of power — of social force against social force, of ambition against ambition. Given that these are the three main visions dominating Iranian politics today, it seems reasonable to assume that they represent the choices confronting individuals for the foreseeable future.


There is a fourth vision for Iran, one in which ultimately all three societal projects arrive at some tolerable compromise — achievable perhaps only through a contrived balance of power. Naturally, no project would emerge unscathed from such a settlement, least of all the velayat-madar group. The internal contradictions confronted by each project indicate some of the obstacles that must be overcome for the realization of this outcome. The velayi Islamists must recognize that the moral sentimentality that is blind to the need to check all undue concentrations of power, and that cannot see that the will-to-power to monopolize social life in the name of justice is itself a source of social injustice and will inevitably generate resentment and ultimately rebellion. It could be remedied by embracing instead the famous maxim that “man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary” and by eschewing hubris in all and every political and social enterprise, a counsel not entirely absent from Islam’s teachings. A purely secular enterprise would soon confront its own dangers of making a democratic society — however good and just — the ultimate aim of human existence and human life; the secular absolutization of a historical contingent society might provoke individuals and groups yet again to reassert transcendental religious objections that resist all universalist claims for the “end of history.” Finally, a religious democracy would no doubt continue to confront the vexing challenge of the coexistence of absolute religious doctrines of justice and legitimacy with incompatible conceptions of good in a pluralistic society. But a deepening rather than weakening of religious convictions that embraces pluralism might assuage this difficulty and engender greater toleration.

Whether the historical circumstances will favor movement towards a resolution of these contradictions, both within and between projects, is hard to foresee. I have tried here only to imagine some of the contours of its possibility; perhaps it will emerge in the future as something real, graspable, and welcomed. 

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Kian Tajbakhsh is a fellow of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. This essay was originally published in Social Research Vol. 86, No. 1, Spring 2019 . 

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