Although, to some observers, democracy may seem as the undoubtedly superior form of government, it is not universally present in the world. Many countries still lack the traditional features of democracy, such as universally applied human rights or the working separation of powers – sometimes due to their cultural differences from Western powers. Additionally, understanding these cultural differences is vital for the better understanding of political processes abroad. For instance, the knowledge of culture may provide a better understanding of why the Iranian revolution did not result in putting democratic moderates in power of why Iranian and Chinese policymakers act like they do.
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Democracy and Iran
The main reason to consider Iran to be partially a democracy is that, despite the theocratic authoritarianism codified in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, it still has reasonably strong electoral institutions. Although the authority of the Supreme Leader is not to be questioned, there is still an opportunity for active political participation on the lower levels of government. Even during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, when one would expect political participation to be curtailed to a minimum due to wartime, the Iranian parliament still remained fractious and divided on many issues (Maloney). Similarly, the situation when people may chant opposition slogans at the funeral of Ali-Akber Hashemi Rafsanjani, a well-known leader of the Islamic revolution, suggests there is vocal opposition in the first place (Maloney). Admittedly, the existence of fierce electoral politics and non-silenced opposition is not enough to qualify Iran as a democracy. Still, they demonstrate that Iran has notable elements of democratic participation, such as the broad range of political opinions and the ability to exercise them through electoral procedures.
At the same time, it still is relatively easy to argue that the Islamic Republic is not a democracy in the strict sense of the word. Prior to the ouster of Reza Shah, Iran had an opposition consisting of democratic moderates, but these lost the contest to the far more numerous proponents of Islamic populism in the 1979 referendum (Huntington 148). Thus, while technically present, those willing to make Iran a fully democratic society still play a secondary role in pubic politics. Apart from that, Iran lacks the working separation of powers that is one of the key indicators of a democratic political regime. Although the constitution mandates popular elections for parliament and presidency alike, the Supreme Leader has the final word in the matters of executive and legislative power. As a result, the democratic elements of Iran’s political constitution are enclosed within the all-encompassing authority of the leader who is not elected and serves his term until death.
From these two positions, the second one holds more merit. It is not merely because there are deviations from the democratic political model in Iran’s constitution but also because the country’s development goes in the direction opposite to universal democratic participation. Since the 1980s, the ruling government’s ideology has been aiming at homogenizing Iranian identity at the expense of non-Persian ethnic groups. The government’s proclaimed goal was and remains the creation of “a strong and centralized Islamic state,” which did not leave much leeway in terms of minority representation (Yesiltas 59). Minorities, including such sizeable ones as Kurds and Arabs, oppose the “state-led denial of the ethnic and religious diversity of Iran” (Yesiltas 54). While not denied political participation and sometimes even crucial in electoral victories, as with Muhammad Khatami’s presidential elections, these minorities do not enjoy the same rights and freedoms as Persian Iranians. These communities face problems in terms of both regional autonomy and language and culture accommodation, which remain their primary goals (Yesiltas 60-61). It means that the Islamic Republic does not provide equal rights to all its citizens and, as such, is not a democracy.
Culture and Politics
The importance of understanding culture as it relates to politics is hard to overstate, especially given the magnitude of the consequences that can stem from ignoring it. It is hardly arguable that the ability to reliably act and react in the complex environment of international politics depends on making sufficiently accurate predictions. What is also important to understand, though, is that any sort of political prognostics is influenced by the culture that shaped the political theories serving as its foundation. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran may serve as a useful case in this respect. As Reza Shah’s government crumbled, Western analysts estimated that the resulting power vacuum could be filled by democratic moderates, as was often the case with autocratic regimes in the second half of the 20th century. However, this analysis based on the Western perception of political processes underscored the importance of political Islam among Iranian Shias, and the theocratic outcome of the revolution came as a surprise (Huntington 148). This first example shows that cultural understanding is crucial for better political prognostics, which is merely one of the ways in which it can prove useful.
Apart from that, a better understanding of culture is also important for discerning the perceptions of the ruling elites. Even when nations have a shared history, it does not necessarily provide them with common reference points for better mutual understanding. Perceptions of the past and the acuteness with which the people remember it may be drastically different between cultures. To use the Iranian example once again, in 2009, Supreme Leader Khamenei blamed the progress of a controversial election on the “perfidious British government” (White 41). For the British, whose last direct involvement in Iranian political affairs dated back to the mid-century, the claim was puzzling. However, as the statements in the highest level indicated, it was an acute and relevant memory for high-ranking Iranian policymakers. This second example indicates that, without sufficient cultural competence, it is impossible to understand how foreign leaders think, which is also a way in which cultural understanding is crucial.
Political leaders are not the only ones to hold opinions on international relations, and a better knowledge of culture is vital for a better understanding of the resulting popular pressures. Even when the political leadership of a given culture does not want to adopt a combative stance, domestic consideration may force them to do so. For example, China, as the world’s greatest emerging economy, has so far been relatively docile in its approach to the existing power structures in international relations and preferred to “defend the existing order” (Kahler 728). However, the idea of the ‘century of national humiliation’ – a period roughly between the Opium Wars and the reunification of China – is still held very acutely among the Chinese population. Combined with the growing political activity among the Chinese population, it calls for a “more forceful posture in pursuit of Chinese national interests” (Kahler 721). Neglecting this cultural belief means underestimating the domestic pressure for a decisive stance on the international stage while understanding it is a way to get a more comprehensive picture of the popular sentiment.
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To summarize, culture is a paramount consideration in international politics and should always be taken into account. The cultural importance of political Shia Islam was one of the main reasons why the Iranian revolution resulted in a theocracy with democratic elements rather than genuine democracy, which it still has not achieved. Additionally, neglecting culture may lead policymakers to misunderstand or ignore perceptions and motivations of foreign policymakers.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Kahler, Miles. “Rising Powers and Global Governance: Negotiating Change in a Resilient Status Quo.” International Affairs, vol. 89, no. 3, 2013, pp. 711-729.
Maloney, Suzanne. “Rafsanjani Proved that Pragmatism Couldn’t Moderate Iran.” Brookings, Web.
White, Jonathan. “A Comparative Revolution? An Argument for In-Depth Study of the Iranian Revolution in a Familiar Way.” Experiencing History, no. 142, 2011, pp. 40-47.
Yesiltas, Ozum. “Contested Notions of National Identity, Ethnic Movements and Democratization in Iran.” Studies of Transition States and Societies, vol. 8, no. 1, 2016, pp. 53-68.