How democratic is Iran?

At first , this might seem a strange, even silly, question. After all, hasn’t no less a figure than President George W Bush told the world that Iran is a member of the “axis of evil”? Isn’t this a country building nuclear weapons in defiance of UN sanctions? Isn’t this the nation that only recently detained 15 UK naval personnel?
Well, yes – but there is a case for arguing that the scale and vigour of democratic debate in Iran excedes that of any country in the Middle East except Israel. That is my conclusion from this report from Simon Tisdall in Tehran.
Tisdall quotes no less a figure than Grand Ayatollah Haj Sheikh Yusef Sa’anei as saying

“The government should be at the service of the people. But it is putting too much pressure on the people. It bans newspapers, sends people to jail, segregates the boys and the girls at the universities, makes noise about hijab. The reaction to the use of such power is resistance, the breaking of the law. Change must come by debate, by discussion, through persuasion. But it will come. The fight in Iran is to some extent a cultural fight for greater democracy.”

Tisdall also interviews Akbar Alami, an independent, pro-reform MP in the Iranian Parliament or Majlis:

“The last reformist government had been undermined by the failure of the US and European countries to engage more closely with Iran, he said. But if elected, the coalition would again seek improved, mutually respectful, ‘normalised’ relations with the west, including a negotiated settlement of the nuclear dispute and greater cooperation over issues such as Lebanon and Iraq.”

If the reform movement in Iran is to win power, the West has to be careful not to give the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the militias that back him opportunities to create international distractions that will frustrate the reformists’ efforts.