Yes, for all intents and purposes, Iran is a democracy in that there are “free” elections for the presidency, the parliament and the Assembly of Experts. But there are four outstanding problems in this so-called “democracy”:
- Unelected power: There are two institutions with enormous power which aren’t elected by the people – the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader. These two centers of power are backed by the IRGC, a huge military and economic force in Iran and they have the dictatorial power to overrule the government, the elections, the parliament, the law and the constitution turning what should have been a democracy into a democtatorship.
- No real opposition: Since opposing the regime is a sin, it’s hard to find politicians and leaders who are willing to put their lives on the line by speaking their minds and since the regime is hardline in nature, it stifles any opposition which calls for a more moderate and more secular government. Politicians who do oppose the regime have to tread a very fine line in which they profess their opposition enough but not too much.
- The vetting process: The elections are not really free since the candidates are vetted before the elections by the (unelected) Guardian Council which has the right to disqualify candidates based on their beliefs, their level of religion etc…The vetting process is political in nature and during the last parliamentary election, the Guardian council disqualified 90% of the moderate candidates and only 30% of the hardline candidates.
- The regime cheats: During the 2009 presidential elections, it seemed that the Green movement which was moderate and secular in nature had won the hearts and votes of the majority of the Iranian population. But the results of the election pointed to a landslide victory by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As protesters hit the streets, so did the authorities and thousands of Iranians were arrested (and still are arrested today) for questioning the decision of the regime.
These four problems are actually one big problem: the power of the unelected institutions of the regime. As long as the regime maintains its power, it will strive to maintain the status quo of the Revolutionary Ideals that defined it – Religious/Islamic/Shiite and anti-West/Democracy/US.
Since the next Supreme Leader will be chosen from within the regime, it will continue to maintain power indefinitely until it is toppled from within with the support of the masses. Remember, those politicians that did try to implement change within the regime found themselves either ousted (Montazeri for objecting to the 1988 massacre), under house arrest (Moussavi and Karroubi for contesting the 2009 elections), under media ban (Khatami for criticizing the regime) or sidelined (Rouhani for the nuclear deal).
Some might say that the civil wars, anarchy and frequent elections in countries that underwent an Arab Spring are a result of a misguided notion that Arab countries should be democratic and that such countries can only be ruled through dictatorships. These same people will claim that the rigid laws of Shaariah are more than enough to rule huge populations of Islamic believers. They will tell you that freedom and equal rights are no match for the blind obedience to Islam, to a regime, to a Supreme Leader, or to a dictator. They may be right on a general level but the price that those people who don’t want to obey blindly is immeasurably harsh. Such a rule doesn’t not allow for different voices and therefore doesn’t allow for any process of change and those that fell suffocated and oppressed by the regime cannot hope for change.
The only way to ensure that change will come to Iran is by a popular uprising by the people demanding to turn this democtatorship into a true democracy. Until then, the regime will prosper, as will the hardliners who support it. Those who don’t will either suffer for voicing their opinions or will be careful to enjoy their freedoms only in private.