The Cable

Iran’s Not a Totally Fake Democracy, Study Says

A new survey shows a country with a constrained but active body politic, contrary to plenty of D.C. conventional wisdom.

Iranians show ink-stained fingers after casting their ballots on May 19. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranians show ink-stained fingers after casting their ballots on May 19. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump and plenty of lawmakers seem to view Iran as a Potemkin democracy, with an angry and oppressed population yearning to shake off a class of imposed, tyrannical leaders. Trump himself recently said the Iranian public longed “to reclaim their country’s proud history, its culture, its civilization,” from an ethnically separate and domineering regime.

And while Iran certainly isn’t a paragon of democratic virtue, politics there isn’t necessarily the monolithic sham many in Washington seem to think. A new survey led by a University of California, Los Angeles sociologist paints an Iran with a constrained but active political and civil society, an engaged electorate receptive to campaigning, and a sensitivity to shifts in public opinion.

The Iran Social Survey, conducted in December 2016 and set to be released over the next week, was conducted among 5,005 Iranians. It was designed to track public opinion and tease out political connections between different groups, ethnicities, and political parties.

“I don’t want to deny the brutal consolidation of the revolutionary state, but I did I want to show that there were different ways that the government reached down into society,” said Kevan Harris, the survey team leader.

“There is a great lack of appreciation for internal politics in Iran in the United States,” said Barbara Slavin, the head of the Future of Iran initiative at the Atlantic Council. “We have a very stereotypical notion that the regime decides on three or four candidates and they’re put in front of people and that’s it — that they don’t really have any kind of choice.”

Rather, says Harris, Iran’s body politic is a lot more complicated. Take an argument often made in the United States: that Iranian voters are beholden to government-sponsored welfare organizations. In that view, a political machine distributes oil revenues to win over the populace with payouts, similar to Hugo Chávez during Venezuela’s economic heyday and monarchies in the Persian gulf.

It doesn’t seem to be the case in Iran, though. Harris says there’s no correlation between receiving welfare and voting participation or party preference. “People are participating in pretty central civic activity, and you don’t see any distinction between how they’re linked to the state,” he said. (Harris literally wrote the book on politics and welfare in Iran.)

Another surprise is the degree of civic engagement in political campaigns. Harris described scenes during city council elections in the city of Tabriz, with candidates distributing business cards on the street, trying to rally supporters in the days before election day. “These are stories you don’t hear outside Iran,” he said. “There are huge efforts to mobilize people to vote, and they’re pretty competitive. It’s suspenseful.”

To be sure, religious conservatives often don’t play by the rules of electoral politics: The Guardian Council vets potential candidates, and the government manipulates votes and cracks down on dissent. The Green Revolution in 2009 wasn’t a reaction to fair play.  

Nevertheless, political groups are updating their message, Harris said, engaging with pop culture and social media in ways they never used to. “That’s not a bad thing,” Harris said. “I think that’s a sign of the institutionalization of political competition in Iran.” Twitter and other social media platforms are still blocked in the country.

In order for conservatives to feel comfortable ceding power, Harris explained, they need to know that there is a genuine space within Iran’s politics for defeated parties. “An Iran with a more democratic system wouldn’t be one where the right wing just disappeared,” he said. “If you institutionalize transitions so that they can give up power, that’s an important step.”

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.

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