Thirty Years after Revolution, Iran Still Seeks Democracy

TEHRAN ~ Iranians shouted “independence, liberty, Islamic republic” during the revolution that toppled the US-backed monarchy, but hopes for freedom and democracy have yet to be fulfilled 30 years down the road.

Veteran revolutionaries see the Islamic republic system as a far cry from the “despotic” rule of the shah that ended on February 10, 1979 and are proud Iran is an independent state free from foreign meddling.

For many conservatives it is an ideal state where people choose their rulers, and even the supreme leader – the undisputed number one who has the final say in all key policy issues – is elected by an indirect vote.

However, moderates and reformists complain that the current system, where a powerful watchdog vets candidates running for public office, prevents people from determining their fate through a truly democratic process.

The revolution’s founder, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, “wanted an Islamic republic reliant on people’s votes where Islam is observed,” pro-reform cleric and two-time parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi said.

“We have elections but there are interventions which hurt the republican nature of the system.

“Some intervention is legal such as that of the Guardians Council, but it has vastly expanded its control and reads too much into its overseeing role,” Karroubi said.

The council is a non-elected body tasked with overseeing elections under the constitution and screening parliamentary legislation to ensure it abides by Islam and the constitution.

It is made up of six senior clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six legal experts named by the judiciary chief – who is also appointed by the leader – whose names are submitted to parliament for approval.

The council has over the past years disqualified thousands of mostly reformist parliamentary and presidential hopefuls, after scrutinizing their allegiance to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the constitution.

It has also binned many bills, especially those adopted by the reformist-dominated parliament of between 2000 and 2004.

But conservatives regard the vetting as a blessing “because incompetent people and secularists should not come to power,” said Asadollah Badamchian, deputy head of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party.

He also dismissed criticism about lack of freedom in the Islamic republic, noting his imprisonment and torture under the shah for political dissent.

“Naturally no system can tolerate those who seek to overthrow it, but now we have about 250 political parties and groups who freely meet and a press that harshly criticizes the government,” Badamchian said.

His views, however, are not shared by everyone.

Non-Islamic parties such as those with Marxist and liberal leanings are banned in Iran and several groups which played a key role in the 1979 Islamic revolution – the Religious-National Forces and the Liberation Movement – have been forced out of politics, with their candidates disqualified in most polls.

Groups that backed the revolution but took up arms against the Islamic republic were outlawed shortly after 1979 and many of their loyalists executed.

The Iranian press, which enjoyed a brief period of freedom under the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005, has undergone frequent crackdowns and closures.

Scores of journalists, political and rights activists have been jailed under accusations of harming national security, insulting religion or the system.

The state broadcaster, whose director is appointed by the supreme leader, has a monopoly in Iran. Private stations and satellite channels are banned and viewers are penalized.

All books and artistic productions are subject to vetting before their release, and complaints of censorship abound.

“The problem is either we do not allow enough freedom or, when we do, some start crossing red lines,” Karroubi said, citing a newspaper article that described the revered Shiite imam, Ali, as violent.

“We do not have the freedom we wanted,” prominent dissident Ebrahim Yazdi said. “People’s basic liberties enshrined in the Human Rights Declaration, the UN conventions and our own constitution are ignored.”

“If oppression continues and the people’s basic liberties are not respected, nothing will remain of the republic or the Islamic aspect” of the revolution, he warned.

But the seasoned revolutionary, who was a close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini in exile, is optimistic about an eventual implementation of democracy in Iran, despite pressure faced by his Liberation Movement Party.

“Democracy has been victorious in societies where the big fish cannot eat the small ones.

“Unlike under the shah when power was concentrated in the hands of one person, there are different groups in the (Iranian) political arena and all have power but none are powerful enough to fully exclude the other,” he said.

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