Religion and Politics in Iran

Religion and Politics in Iran

Religion’s place in the Iranian political system has long been debated among scholars, but a president who blurs the line has refocused attention on the topic

June 19, 2008 4:30 pm (EST)

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In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran closed a speech at the United Nations with a call for the "mighty Lord" to "hasten the emergence" of Imam Mahdi, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. Shia Islam holds that the Mahdi, as the redeemer of Islam, will return from hiding to rid the world of injustice. This belief made Ahmadinejad’s plea more than a pious invocation: Some analysts speculate the president was seeking to sow chaos by using religion to further his political goals. The debate reached a boil in May 2008. During a nationally broadcast speech Ahmadinejad suggested that Imam Mahdi supported the day-to-day operations of his government, a claim that brought condemnation from Iran’s powerful clerical elite. The president also indirectly accused senior clerics of economic corruption, further upsetting the Iranian clergy and shining a rare spotlight on the increasingly tenuous relationship between politics and faith in post-revolution Iran.

Birth of Political Islam

While some would date the birth of political Islam to the life of the prophet, political and religious disagreements that have arisen since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 have their roots in the evolution of the contemporary Iranian state. In 1925, a young military officer, Reza Khan, led a coup that deposed the 131-year-old Qajar dynasty and founded the Pahlavi dynasty. After being named shah, Reza Khan pursued relations with Germany, angering Britain and Russia, and prompting those powers to invade. British and Soviet troops left in 1946, but foreign influence only intensified with the advent of the Cold War. Nationalists, led by Mohammad Mossadeq, rose to power in 1951. But the CIA and British intelligence colluded to topple him two years later, restoring the exiled Pahlavi dynasty to power in the form of Reza Khan’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The shah repressed Iran’s Islamists, however, and his restoration fostered anger among the general population. By 1979, this discontent boiled over into outright revolution, forcing the shah to flee. On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in France—though most of his fourteen year absence was spent in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq. He then proceeded to muscle aside the Communists and secular parties that had worked with the Islamists to overthrow the shah, and assumed the levers of power, ending Iran’s monarchy.

Revolutionary Ideas

Under Khomeini the Iranian religious and political landscapes were dramatically transformed, making Shia Islam an inseparable element of the country’s political structure. Khomeini ushered in a new form of government anchored by the concept of velayat-e faqih, or rule of the Islamic jurist. In his 1970 book, Hokumat-e Islami: Velayat-e faqih, Khomeini argued that government should be run in accordance to sharia, or Islamic law. For that to happen, an Islamic jurist—or faqihmust oversee the country’s political structure. Constitutional changes following the revolution established a system of government based on three pillars of power—the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. But sitting atop the Islamic Republic’s power structure was Khomeini.

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The stated aim of the Iranian Revolution was to upend the reign of the shah and restore Islamic ideology to Iranian society. "Khomeini used the emotional power of Shia lore and imagery not only to help him seize control of Iran but to lay claim to Shiism’s very soul," CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr writes in his 2006 book, The Shia Revival. But more than a reshuffle to the religious hierarchy, Khomeini dramatically altered the state’s political landscape. Iran’s new leader, Nasr writes, "made Islamic fundamentalism a political force that would change Muslim politics from Morocco to Malaysia."

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He did this by turning Shia Islam on its head. In a series of lectures delivered from exile in the early 1970s, Khomeini began arguing that in the absence of the Imam Mahdi—also known as the Hidden Imam or the twelfth imam of the Shia faith—that governments should be run by those with a higher rank among clergies. It was a revolutionary concept in Shia clerical thought, says Afshin Molavi, a Middle East expert at the New America Foundation. As such, "It was rejected by the majority of senior ayatollahs in Iran." But the concept found an audience among young revolutionaries in Qom, Iran’s religious center, and formed the theoretical backbone of the movement that would later demand the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime. By the end of the decade Khomeini had succeeded in instituting his ideas, Molavi says, "by the sheer force of his will" as an "uncompromising revolutionary."

A New Political Framework

Today, Khomeini’s teachings and precedents have evolved into a system of government that combines elements of Islamic theocracy with bits of democracy.

Unlike the U.S. system of governance, church and state are inexorably linked in modern-day Iran, and religious precepts form the backbone of Iran’s political structure. In theory, the Iranian power structure appears akin to Western frameworks, with clear demarcations of power. But in practice the Iranian system is dominated by a small cadre of religious clerics and revolutionary forefathers. While Iran’s massive clerical establishment may hold religious sway, their political influence is contained to a few. According to statistics attributed to German scholar Wilfried Buchta, of the five thousand ayatollahs in Iran in 2000, only eighty participate in government. Gregory F. Giles, an American scholar who has studied the Iranian system of government, writes that an informal "four rings of power" (PDF) permeate the formal government structure. Most of those in the center are revolutionaries close to the supreme leader.

Molavi describes this concept as a system of insiders (khodee) and outsiders (gheyreh khodee) that govern the Iranian establishment. Only insiders—or supporters of the revolution—are granted a wide degree of latitude in criticizing the regime or shaping its future. By contrast, outsiders face harsh repercussion if they speak out of turn. "Few outsiders—secular nationalists or liberal democrats or opponents of the Islamic Republic—have a public voice in the debate," he writes. This top-down autocratic formulation translates into a complex mix of elected and non-elected institutions (BBC) that, in practice, are less democratic than they appear:

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  • Supreme Leader. At the top of Iran’s political and religious pecking order is the supreme leader. The de facto leader of the executive branch, the leader oversees the military; appoints military and judicial leaders; supervises the constitution; and sets general state policy. The supreme leader also appoints senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s second supreme leader, assumed office in June 1989 after eight years as Iran’s president. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that while Khamenei lacks the "popular support, charisma, and theological qualifications" of his predecessor Khomeini, the current leader remains the "single most powerful individual" (PDF) in the Islamic Republic.
  • Assembly of Experts. An eighty-six-member body of senior clergymen, the assembly elects the supreme leader. Appointed by popular vote, the assembly is charged with reviewing the leader’s work; it can, in principle, dismiss the leader, but never has. It is also unclear how carefully the assembly monitors the supreme leader’s activities; all notes of the group’s biannual meetings are confidential. In September 2007, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected speaker of the assembly.
  • President. Officially sitting atop the executive branch, the president is in practice second to the supreme leader. Nationally elected to four-year terms, Iran’s president is constitutional mandated to be a Shiite Muslim. The power of the president has varied historically; many observers speculate the office’s fortunes are closely tied to the political whims of the supreme leader. In January 2008, for instance, Ayatollah Khamenei reversed a decision by President Ahmadinejad and ordered the president to supply heating fuel to remote Iranian villages. The move was seen as a major rebuke to a president under fire for poor economic performance.
  • Majlis, or parliament. A 290-member body of deputies representing all thirty of Iran’s provinces, the Majlis introduces and passes legislation. Members are elected to four-year terms. Five seats are reserved for religious minorities. The approval of candidates, however, requires the blessing of the Council of Guardians, the most influential body in Iran. Hundreds of reformist candidates we barred from the 2008 election, political interference that drew widespread criticism from international monitors. Conservatives now dominate parliament. The clerical makeup of the Majlis has also changed in the last two decades. In the early 1980s, 51 percent of the Majlis were clerics. By 2002 they made up just 12 percent of the body.
  • Council of Guardians. Twelve members—six theologians appointed by the supreme leader, and six jurists approved by the Majlis—that review legislation and election candidates for consistency with Islamic law. In the early 1980s the council intervened forcefully to prevent a number of parliament-passed laws, including numerous land reform initiatives. In 2002 the Council rejected legislation that would have limited the use of forced confessions in criminal trials. More recently, the council disqualified hundreds of reformist candidates before parliamentary elections in March 2008.
  • Expediency Council. Created by constitutional revision in 1988, the administrative body of clerics, scholars, and intellectuals was formed to resolve disputes between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians.
  • Supreme Court. The highest judicial body in Iran, its members are chosen by the head of the judiciary, who is appointed by the supreme leader. With thirty-three branches—all but two in Tehran—the court sets judicial precedent and serves as a court of appeals.
  • Special Clerical Court. Overseen by the supreme leader, the clerical court is used for trying members of the clergy for crimes, including "ideological offenses." This court has effectively silenced many of the regime’s clerical critics.

Cracks in the Foundation

Debate over Islam’s place in the Iranian political structure is as old as the revolution itself; religion’s influence on politics has oscillated over time. During the presidential tenure of Mohammad Khatami, for instance, political and diplomatic reforms weakened the role of religion in policymaking, thereby reducing the clergy’s influence over society. Among the influential critics of the theocratic regime during the Khatami era was Abdulkarim Soroush, whose political magazine, Kiyan, long served as a monthly forum for religious intellectualism in the 1990s until it was shut down in 2001. Much of Soroush’s criticism was directed at Khatami; he accused the president of failing to make good on his promises. The sentiment gained traction among the electorate, and reformists were upended in the 2005 presidential election by the conservative Ahmadinejad.

Those who continue to advocate for the separation of church and state say they face increasing hostility in the Ahmadinejad era. In late 2006, dissident cleric Seyyed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi accused Iranian authorities of targeting his supporters and waging a campaign to discredit his movement. The ayatollah told U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that "real Islam is free of political ornaments," and that the Iranian public was losing faith in God because of the government’s lackluster economic policies. In September 2006, Amnesty International reported that more than three dozen Boroujerdi followers were arrested and detained at Tehran’s Evin Prison (PDF).

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Dissent is also widespread among the Iranian populace. While social unrest reached a peak during the so-called Tehran Spring of the late 1990s and early 2000s, thirst for reform continues today. "There is a rising tide of anti-clericalism among ordinary Iranians as a result of the failures of the Iranian Republic," Molavi says. Staggering inflation, unemployment, and stagnant wages have prompted a popular, if subdued, ideological backlash against the clerical elite. "Everyone will tell you the anecdotes of clerics having trouble getting taxis to stop for them on the street. This was not the case before the revolution." But Sadjadpour says Iran’s leaders have cracked down on open criticism of the regime in recent years. "That type of discussion …has really essentially died down."

A President’s Religious Views

Ahmadinejad has upset clerical insiders for an entirely different reason: his advocacy of a cozier marriage of Islam and politics. In a speech to theology students in April 2008, released a month later, Ahmadinejad went further than ever in expressing his belief that Imam Mahdi—also known as the Hidden Imam—steers the country’s political engine. The assertion deeply angered the country’s ruling clerics. The claim "undermines the cleric’s fatwas and their role in government," writes Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. If the imam were behind all government action, Khalaji says, Ahmadinejad would theoretically bear no responsibility for failure. Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, head of the Combatant Clergy Association, made the same point in May 2008. "If Imam Mahdi is managing the world’s affairs, couldn’t he do something about the economic mafia? Is the [expensive price of] rice a result of his management also?"

There is another, arguably more esoteric reason for the unrest. According to the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, Iran will be governed by a supreme leader until the appearance of the Hidden Imam (Economist). By claiming the Hidden Imam guides his moves, Ahmadinejad is seen by some as seeking to usurp the authority of the supreme leader. A recent speech (Rooz) by one of Ahmadinejad’s closest allies accusing the country’s most powerful senior clerics of corruption was interpreted an another sign the president seeks to weaken his rivals. Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, sees recent events as clear indications of the president’s political goals. "Those who have written off Ahmadinejad in the coming election have a lot of explaining to do," Sick said in an e-mail message to colleagues in June 2008. "He is a ferocious competitor … and a supremely ambitious politician who is a threat to the entire post-revolutionary establishment."

The Road Ahead

As Ahmadinejad’s foray into Islam suggests, the balance of religious and political power in Iran is fluid. In his 2008 analysis of the supreme leader’s politics (PDF), Sadjadpour concludes that the death of Khamenei could usher in an era of critical reflection on the regime’s very structure. Khamenei himself is said to have questioned whether any one cleric could replace Khomeini after his death, and before his own appointment predicted a council of three to five clerics would have to rule. Molavi says this format could again come into play following Khamenei’s exit. But Sadjadpour says rule by council has one major flaw: it would be at odds with the Iranian constitution, which states that "the leader be an individual."


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