Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, is widely regarded within and outside the Islamic Republic today as a repressive and corrupt ruler willing to subordinate the concerns of his people in a bid to preserve the 2,500 year old Persian monarchy. Indeed, his overthrow during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was feted as a cause for celebration by Iranians and ‘liberal’ supporters worldwide.
Yet as new Iranian presidential elections draw closer, it is clearly discernible that the people of Iran are less represented by their rulers today than they were during the years of the Shah. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has basically handpicked a presidential electoral list of dull, non-threatening technocrats who, if elected, are likely to do little more than his bidding.
There were no leadership elections to decide the Shah, of course, yet under Mohammad Reza’s reign there were clear advances in the social rights of the population. His so-called White Revolution ushered in a series of economic and political reforms that improved the competitiveness of Iran and helped redress (to an extent) the vast income inequalities and land distribution disputes in the country. It also granted women suffrage in ministerial, local and workplace elections, modernised education and improved press freedom. A secular Muslim, heavily influenced by America and Britain, the Shah set his country on the path to modernity.
Under the conservative Shiite rule of the Ayatollah’s, however, Iran has regressed socially. Elections are a virtual charade, intended only to rubber-stamp one of the Supreme Leader’s chosen candidates, whilst giving the Iranian citizens a false impression that they are executing a ‘democratic right’. Women are treated in an archaic fashion that makes a mockery of the Islamic Republic’s claims to be representative of its people, press censorship is rife and demagoguery has replaced any attempts at political consensus.
Whilst a monarchical system, such as that that existed under the Shah, is not democratic, it at least refrains from pretending to be that way. The Ayatollah and his clique of Revolutionary Guards, whole rule Iran alone, give a different impression. Yet when even semi-moderate candidates like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (a former president himself) are barred from running, the real choice for the people is clear to see.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected as president in 2009, large-scale protests at the clear fraudulence of the result took place on the streets of Tehran and had to be brutally suppressed as a consequence. This raises two issues. Firstly, that even with a pre-approved ballot list, electoral irregularities are commonplace in Iran. Secondly, that allowing a reformist candidate like Mir-Hossein Mousavi to run against Ahmadinejad in 2009 was a clear mistake on the part of the Ayatollah, one he is not keen to repeat.
Despite its reputation as a closed, conservative, fundamentalist Islamic state, there are many Iranians with a more open worldview. Indeed, the reputation of the Iranian people is, unsurprisingly, derived from its dictatorial leadership. The Shah’s reign reached a natural breaking point in 1979, when the unrepresented populace rose up to displace him. What is stopping the Iranian people from doing the same to the Ayatollah should they realise the true misrepresentation of his leadership?
Such a challenge would be necessarily bloody yet might help the Iranians attain the true political voice they have long been denied.