Kian Tajbakhsh

Social Research: An International Quarterly, Spring 2019


Almost 20 years ago, I published an article in this journal under the title “Political Decentralization and the Creation of Local Government in Iran: Consolidation or Transformation of the Theocratic State?” (Tajbakhsh 2000). The establishment of an elected local government in every city and village in Iran was the most significant institutional innovation the reformist administration of Mohammad Khatami could claim. It engendered a massive increase in the scope of electoral participation. I identified three contending rationales that had supported the political decentralization reforms: the reformists hoped that the local electoral institutions would lead to the growth of an independent democratic plural civil society; the ruling Islamists saw in the local councils (shura) the demonstration of the relevance of the Islamic concept of participatory governance (mardom salari deeni); and the technocrats in the state bureaucracy and planning agencies hoped that decentralizing public administration would increase the efficiency of the delivery of public services and encourage economic development to serve the escalating demands of a rapidly urbanizing population.1

Each rationale embodied a broader societal project: democratization, Islamicization, and developmentalist modernization, respectively. Yet to fully understand these three projects, we must recognize that they are a part of, or overlap with, broader visions for the future of Iran which cannot be confined to Islamist agendas. Each societal project is in fact related to a vision of an ideal future and a corresponding narrative of transition to a chosen ideal state or utopia. If constructed well, the visions of these ideals capture the stories the actors themselves tell or would tell about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and ultimately what they hope to achieve for their society.

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