The Shiite Clergy Post-Khamenei

Balancing Authority and Autonomy


Since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became Supreme Leader in 1989, Iran’s clerical establishment has been utterly transformed, experiencing unprecedented growth in both its domestic and international networks and in its finances and personnel. Concurrent with this growth, Khamenei continues to tighten hardliner control over management of the Shiite clerical establishment. After Khamenei’s death, the guiding principle for the Islamic Republic will not change: a clerical regime needs clerical bureaucrats to ensure its rule and export its ideology. The government has therefore sought to consolidate its power through the mass production of clerics, the creation of organizations to employ and control them, and the remaking of non-Iranian Shiite communities in Iran’s image. On this count, the regime’s totalitarian tendencies have increasingly expanded from areas such as the military and industry into the religious domain.

In this new Research Note, Mehdi Khalaji takes a hard look at the statistics supporting this trend and their implications for the dwindling autonomy of Iran’s clerics. He also discusses at length the summer 2016 appointment of Ali Reza Arafi as executive director of the country’s seminaries, which should be regarded as a turning point in the further radicalization of the Shiite clerical establishment.

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The Rise of Persian Salafism

This article first appeared in The Washington Institute for Near East’s website
Iran consistently accuses the United States and its allies in the Middle East of provoking tension between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Among these accusations is the notion that the West funds Persian-language satellite television networks whose sole goal is to ignite sectarian conflict. Tehran’s paranoid claims aside, many Persian broadcasters inside and outside the Islamic Republic are in fact engaged in a satellite war, and their various propaganda salvos point to a new phenomenon in Iran: the rise of Persian Salafism. The fact that a unique, puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam is taking root in Shiite-ruled Iran has raised worries among the regime’s elite and the traditional Shiite establishment.

Since the early twentieth century, Salafism has been spreading throughout Muslim communities from Europe to Indonesia. Yet few expected it to gain much traction in Iran given the innate antagonism between Sunni and Shia Islam. Traces of it entered the country before the 1979 revolution, but the sect did not gain popularity until fairly recently, after more than three decades of Shiite governance and regime propaganda. Today, it commands numerous active followers in Sunni areas such as Kurdistan and Baluchistan and in large, predominantly Shiite cities such as Tehran and Isfahan.

The Iranian regime views religious pluralism in general as a security threat, but the rise of Salafism — a sect that regards the state’s official religion as heresy — presents more serious problems. For example, the Bahai faith is also viewed as a threat to Iranian Shiism, but its structure makes it more containable than Salafism. Bahai adherents in Iran are well organized, highly centralized, and apolitical, making them easier to track and less of a direct threat. Yet Salafis are scattered throughout the country and represented by multiple organizations with theological and ideological variations. More important, they are becoming politically active in some Sunni areas, at least in terms of publicly criticizing the government, questioning its religious legitimacy, and accusing it of discrimination against Sunnis.

Since the 1950s, Salafi thought — in its general sense, which includes Muslim Brotherhood ideology — has entered Iran from the east and west. Following World War II, Sayyid Gholam Reza Saeedi (1895-1990), an Iranian religious author and translator, traveled to India and acquired extensive knowledge about the international Muslim community and elite. When he returned home, he began to translate works by Abul Ala Maududi — the main ideologue of Pakistani group Jamaat al-Islamiyah and a prominent Salafi — as well as other Muslim thinkers (e.g., Muhammad Iqbal). A prolific author, Saeedi played a significant role in introducing Persian readers to Indian Muslim concerns and the challenges of founding a new country, Pakistan. His works opened a new window to Iran’s religious world, influencing younger readers who were seeking new ideas on Islam in order to ease their frustration with the religious establishment and confront ideological threats (especially the communist wave that was taking over Iran’s intellectual environment at the time).

Meanwhile, other prerevolutionary Iranian thinkers introduced the country to the Salafist ideas of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. In the late 1940s, cleric Navab Safavi formed Fadayan-e Islam, the first Iranian Islamist group to establish relations with the Brotherhood and produce Persian translations of its writings, including the works of theoretician Sayyed Qutb. Another prominent cleric, Sayyid Hadi Khosrow Shahi (b. 1938), translated writings from Algerian, Tunisian, and Palestinian Islamists in addition to Brotherhood works. These and other translators were essentially political activists who sought to raise their countrymen’s awareness of Muslim issues outside Iran. For example, the Islamist works they reproduced eventually created a new political question in Iran: the Palestine question.

While these translations were mostly received as ideological efforts to mobilize Iranians against Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s regime and Western imperialism, Salafi thought also spurred some religious thinkers to fight “superstitions” in Shiism. Haidar Ali Qalamdaran (1913-1989) was heavily influenced by such writings and sought to purify Shiism of various prayers, rituals (e.g., pilgrimages to the shrines of the Shiite Imams of old and their descendants), and beliefs (e.g., the notion that the Shiite Imams had supernatural power and knowledge). He escaped an assassination attempt ostensibly motivated by traditional clerics in Qom and spent his whole life in isolation and poverty. Although he was not a political activist, his views had political implications in later years, such as refuting the legitimacy of the type of religious governance instituted by the Islamic Republic. He and others who criticized Shiite “superstitions” — such as Muhammad Hassan Shariat Sanglaji (1855-1943) and Sayyid Abul Fazl Borqei (1909-1992) — were also influenced by the Salafi conception of Islamic dogmas, especially the sect’s interpretation of the unity of God.

Under the Islamic Republic — a regime that legitimizes the exclusive rule of the ayatollahs, makes Islamic law the main basis for legislation, and imposes it on all aspects of daily life — many youths and other Iranians have turned away from Shiite convictions and embraced atheism, skepticism, Sufism, Sunni Islam, the Bahai faith, evangelical Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and New Age and Latin American mystical trends. Various regime organizations, including the Bureau of Religions and Sects in the Ministry of Intelligence, monitor these religious minorities and work against their proselytization efforts. Even Sufi circles — which are officially Shiite — face frequent repression.

In this environment, Salafism has rapidly spread all over the country through the internet, social media, and satellite television. In addition, various underground organizations offer training courses for young volunteers and run exchange programs to introduce Iranian Salafis to Arab Salafis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This is one of the reasons why the regime does not allow Sunnis to build mosques in Tehran or other large cities — it is deeply concerned about Salafis using them to recruit young Shiites who are frustrated with the Islamic Republic’s ideology.

There are two major Shiite trends in Iran: the official regime creed, and an extremist version that defines itself largely in opposition to Sunni Islam. While the regime usually dismisses Sunni-Shiite tensions and advocates pan-Islamic approaches to foreign policy and other matters, the extremist Shiites (called gholat or velais) refuse to hide their animosity toward the first three Sunni caliphs (i.e., the Prophet Muhammad’s successors, whom Shiites believe usurped Imam Ali’s right to rule). These extremists are backed by clerical authorities, and their explicit anti-Sunni propaganda has caused trouble for the regime both inside the country and throughout the wider Muslim world.

In recent years, the gholat have relied in large part on satellite television to disseminate their propaganda, sparking an escalating virtual war between Salafis and Shiites. Today, Salafis use Persian-language satellite outlets such as the Global Kalemeh Network (based in Medina and Dubai and probably funded by Saudis) and Wesal Farsi (based in London and the Persian Gulf) to fight the “Safavid government,” as they call the Islamic Republic and its Shiite ideology. They broadcast religious programs, take calls from Iran, and engage in debates with Shiite satellite networks such as al-Kawthar TV, the Global Ahl-e Bait Network (whose programs are hosted by an Afghan cleric), Imam Hussein TV, and Salaam TV (based in Virginia and supported by the Shirazis, a clerical family with significant influence among Gulf Shiites).

Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood also use various websites to fight the propaganda battle, some affiliated with organizations such as Jamaat-e Dawat va Islah-e Iran (the Society of Mission and Reform in Iran). On the other side, extremist Shiites run dozens of their own websites to confront the Salafis. Both sides are very active in social media as well.

Many Iranian youths are disappointed in the Shiism professed by the regime and traditional clergy but wish to maintain their Islamic faith, leading them to convert to Salafism. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafi trends tend to focus on the unity of god and the desacralization of all human beings and worldly things — a unique way of secularizing and rationalizing Islam in order to attract young students, especially those who study science. Unlike traditional Sunnis in Iran and Salafis elsewhere in the world, Iranian Salafis tend to question the Islamic Republic’s religious legitimacy and purposefully exacerbate Sunni-Shiite tensions. To be sure, they do not share the global Salafist aspiration of taking over political power, knowing that any Islamic government in predominantly Shiite Iran would be a Shiite government. Yet Iranian Salafis are organizationally connected to potent groups in Saudi Arabia and other countries, and most of their ideology and funding comes from outside the Islamic Republic. Given these factors and the increasing resentment among Iran’s Arab, Kurdish, and Baluch population, the growth of Salafism is a clear security threat to the regime.


Shiite Clergy’s Silence toward Syrian Crisis


November 5, 2012

In times of conflict, being impartial does not necessarily translate into neutrality; silence in such circumstances may signify taking a side. This is indeed the Shi’ite clergy’s narrative about the violence in Syria.

The number of Muslims who have lost their lives during the course of last two years of crackdowns in Syria greatly exceeds the number of Arabs killed by Israel in the last thirty years. Thousands of Muslims are killed by an Alawite government backed by the ayatollah-led Islamic Republic of Iran.

The clergy’s silence doubtlessly helps Bashar Al-Assad justify his aggressive policy toward his opponents. Yet the position of the clerics is not explained simply by the proximity of the Iranian and Syrian regimes. To understand the former’s posture one needs to comprehend the internal politics of the Shi’a clergy — especially the dynamic between the two main seminaries at Qom and Najaf — which are complicated by history, politics, and geography. These tensions have been building since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and were exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979. In this context, the silence of the Shi’a clergy towards the violence perpetrated by an Alawite against his (predominately Sunni) citizens is merely another symptom of a system that encourages silence from the clerics unless they are under direct attack.

In one of her first visits to her father after the downfall of Saddam Hussein, the daughter of Ayatollah Ali Sistani asked why her father did not purchase an air conditioner for his house during the summer. “When I see [that] all residents of Najaf are able to afford buying an air conditioner for their homes, I will buy one for myself,” her father replied. Sistani receives millions of dollars annually from his followers worldwide in the name of religious taxation. He owns a great deal of property — dozens of madrassas, libraries, seminary campuses, religious centers, and so on — in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Europe. In comparison to Catholic authorities who live in luxury residences and follow highly sophisticated protocol, Sistani’s simple life is astonishing; however, he is not the mastermind behind his lifestyle. In Shi’ism, if a man wants to become a jurist with many followers — or an ayatollah — he should prove his piety and disinterest in worldly pleasures and passions. On the other hand, he must create a broad network of people and institutions to collect revenue. People do not give money to a greedy person; as such, the divine man should live a pious, simple life.

But being pious and disinterested in living a luxurious lifestyle does not necessarily mean that the jurist should not take the issue of power seriously. Historically, Shi’ite jurists were able to collect money from people and run their own institutions only when they established very sophisticated relations with the political rulers. Not only is it their stance toward the political authorities that shape their attitudes and even influence their religious views about social and political affairs, but it also represents the internal power struggle among various ayatollahs.

When Sistani was trying to assert his religious authority (marjaiya) in Iran in the early 1990s, the Qom clergy was not welcoming at first. Their ambition was to totally transfer the Shi’ite authority from Iraq to Iran and end several decades of rivalry between Najaf and Qom after the death of Ayatollah Abul Qassim Khoi. But two things prevented them from imposing serious obstacles to Sistani’s project in Iran. First, Sistani was the wealthiest ayatollah in the Shi’ite world — and he had not become rich by relying on government support. He also had the broadest network of representatives and followers worldwide, whom he inherited from Khoi, his late mentor. Ayatollahs in Qom either had a small circle of followers and were consequently not as financially well off as Sistani, or they were indebted to the Islamic Republic for their social and financial strength. Second, the clergy in Qom and clerical rulers in Tehran realized that it was impossible to convince the entire Shi’ite community to deflect their attention from Najaf after Khoi. They found themselves incapable of being attractive in the eyes of Arab Shi’ites and other non-Iranian Shi’ites, who are not necessarily fond of the Islamic Republic. The situation involving Sistani in Najaf was still much more appealing for the traditional members of the Shi’ite community.

For Sistani to run a large office in Qom (headed by his son-in-law, Javad Shahrestani) — along with dozens of other institutions there and in other cities — he needed to prove that he was a threat to neither the Islamic Republic nor its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. His associates promised government officials that Sistani’s projects and activities in Iran would be limited to providing financial assistance to seminarians and similar services such as libraries. But this was the minimum that could satisfy the Iranian government. Ayatollah Khamenei expected Sistani’s network outside Iran and Iraq — especially in countries like Lebanon that are of the highest strategic value to the Islamic Republic — to be available to him whenever he deemed necessary. Such a deal could have been very beneficial for both parties; without Khamenei’s consent, Sistani would lose his Iranian support, and without Sistani’s network outside Iran, Khamenei would limit himself to his own political network and deprive himself from the religious network that is more useful in traditional milieus.

This deal became much more significant after the collapse of the Ba’ath in Iraq in 2003, which opened the way for the Islamic Republic to expand its activities there. Despite Western misinterpretations of Sistani as a man who theologically opposes the notion of velayat-e faqih (political leadership of an ayatollah), Sistani has proven to be harmless in opposition to the Islamic Republic over the last nine years: he has never spoken or acted in a manner that could be interpreted as a challenge to the republic. Sistani’s policy to calm tensions in Iraq was universally useful, but despite his official declarations asserting that he does not intervene in domestic political affairs he has been very supportive of the Da’wa Party and its political ambitions, although this has decreased over the last two years. His ideal of an Iraqi government has rarely conflicted with that of the Islamic Republic. “Quietist,” a description of the ayatollah used by the Western media, was misleading. Instead, Sistani’s pragmatism enabled him to have strong relations with various Shi’ite groups, the Iraqi government, and the Islamic Republic in order to continue his business: being a marja.

There are several ways Sistani could justify his relations with the Islamic Republic. First, he could argue that he believes in the traditional view embedded in Shi’ite jurisprudence that the sultan of a Shi’ite territory should be supported as long as he protects the interests of the Shi’ite community. Many have questioned Khamenei’s religious credentials, but there is no doubt that he heads the government of the most important Shi’ite country in the world. Any attempt to undermine Khamenei’s authority as a de facto sultan of a Shi’ite country is religiously “illegal.” Second, the Islamic Republic is providing exclusive financial, social and political benefits to the Shi’ite clergy. This positive form of discrimination has been internalized in the constitution, and has made the Shi’ite clerical establishment the wealthiest it has ever been. Weakening such a government would affect the clerics, deepen the tension between various factions, tarnish the clergy’s reputation amongst its followers — and discourage them from trusting the clergy, paying their religious taxes, or agreeing on religious affairs. Third, criticizing the Islamic Republic would strengthen its critics. There are two main forces that could challenge the Islamic Republic’s status quo: the democratic movement and the military elite. Both alternatives to the republic are anti-clerical. In the minds of the clerics, the current government in Tehran should remain so long as there is no potential replacement for the Islamic Republic that would provide the same advantages to the Shi’ite clergy. Fourth, the decline of the power of the Islamic Republic would affect the power equation in the region against the Shi’ite community. The Islamic Republic was very successful in tying itself up with the fate of Shi’ite clergy and community.

In recent years, especially after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Western media tried to distinguish between the Najaf school of Shi’ite jurisprudence and the Qom school of thought. According to them, the Najaf school tends to take a quietist stance toward politics mostly because clerics there do not believe in velayat-e faqih, so they have no aspiration to take over political power. They declare that in Qom, clerics in the tradition of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini believe that an ayatollah (a Shi’ite jurist) has not only a religious right but a duty to lead the government, and thereby give it Shi’ite legitimacy. According to Khomeini, Muslims should rise up in the face of corrupt, Westernized governance; by handing government over to Shi’ite authority or to Islamists, a maximum effort to implement Shari’a is made. For Khomeini, the government was the practical philosophy of Islamic jurisprudence, but Shari’a becomes meaningless and prophetic law-making becomes futile without governing rule. Therefore, taking political power is an essential element of being Muslim. Being indifferent toward politics is a deviation from Islam and a Western plot to colonize the minds and spirits of Muslims, according to Khomeini. No one in the history of mankind has insulted Shi’ite clergymen who opposed his political views as much as Khomeini; he labeled them backward, pro-American, ignorant, stupid, and said they had “colonized minds.”

But Ayatollah Sistani’s clergy in Najaf — at least in the narrative of Western media — do not believe in the theory of velayat-e faqih and do not share Khomeini’s political ideas. They hold that a proper government does not need to be religiously legitimate, but rather that a secular government can also be acceptable if it does not explicitly violate Islamic law. What Western media did not take into consideration is history, both of the Qom seminary and of that in Najaf. Both seminaries have become involved in politics whenever they felt such involvement was harmless to the clerical establishment or useful in strengthening its authority. Iraqi Shi’ite clerics who lived under the Ottoman Empire until the early 20th century were extremely involved in Iranian politics. They were divided over supporting the monarchy or the constitutional movement, and each camp played an important role in shaping developments in Iran. During the 18th century, a fatwa issued by Mirzaye Shirazi that banned tobacco in order to force the Qajari king to refrain from giving the trade monopoly to a British company was a spectacular power maneuver that revealed that the Shi’ite clerics’ social power base can be used for political purposes.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Shi’ite clerics in Iraq played a significant role in mobilizing people against foreign forces. Under Saddam Hussein, they became more cautious due to Saddam’s uncompromising and aggressive attitude, but they did not completely abandon political activity. On the other hand, the Qom seminary was very careful not to get involved in politics in its first two decades in early 20th century. Sheikh Abdul Karim Haeri Yazdi, the founder of the current seminary in Qom, was very concerned about Reza Shah’s anti-clerical agenda. The shah had forced a new discipline on clerics, leading many to leave their careers and become either businessmen or government employees. Reza Shah was also imitating Atatürk’s model of authoritative modernization, and they were both Westernizing their societies and cultures. Among many issues that upset the clergy was Reza Shah’s anti-hijab agenda, which was enforced by police and often led to violent incidents. Haeri was among those who did not dare to oppose Reza Shah’s anti-clerical and anti-Islamic policies because the clergy was not in a strong position at the time — meaning opposition to the government could have potentially crippled the clerical establishment. When Haeri was asked by his students why he was not publically criticizing Reza Shah’s anti-hijab initiative, his response was that they had “a higher priority, which is safeguarding the survival of the Qom seminary.”

One can safely conclude that there is little theological difference between Najaf seminary and Qom seminary. When it comes to Shi’ite jurists’ right to intervene in politics, the determinative parameters are social and political conditions. In response to a question posed on his website, Ayatollah Sistani states that the Shi’ite jurist is allowed to lead the community if conditions allow. Consequently, the fundamental difference between Sistani and Khomeini might not be their different views on relations between politics and religion, but the historical and geographic circumstances that shape them.

Clerics have generally been reluctant to publicly oppose or criticize the Islamic Republic, which may help to explain why they have not spoken out against the Iranian-supported Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad. To begin with, the supreme leader — although himself a jurist — was declared to be a jurist unlike any other. To enforce his rule within the hierocracy, the supreme leader is able to exert his authority through a range of coercive instruments — including, most notoriously, through a body known as the “Special Court of Clerics” (Dadgah-e Vizheh-ye Rowhaniyat). This special court operates under the direct supervision of the supreme leader, and it does not follow the juridical procedures and laws of the rest of the country.
Since its establishment, the court has become well-known for its brutal and humiliating treatment of clerics of all ranks. Ayatollah Shariatmadari was one of many “tried” in this court. He was accused of being involved in a military coup to overthrow the Iranian government and assassinate Khomeini, when in fact his real “crime” was attempting to challenge Khomeini’s legitimacy as a ruling jurist. His dossier was closed after many of his followers and relatives were arrested or executed, and Shariatmadari himself was paraded on state television as making a “confession” and begging for Khomeini’s pardon.

In addition to the court, the Islamic Republic has developed a range of other mechanisms for enforcing its rule within the clerical establishment. Among other things, the Islamic Republic claimed direct responsibility for the day-to-day management of clerical institutions, and this fundamentally altered the clergy’s access to financial resources. The Islamic government confiscated much of the property that had belonged to Iran’s traditional religious authorities. In turn, this property was placed under the control of the supreme leader. For example, Dar al-Tabligh (the House of Islamic Propaganda), which was owned by Ayatollah Shariatmadari, became a base for Daftar-e Tablighat-e Eslami-e Qom (the Office for Islamic Propaganda), the head of which is appointed by the supreme leader.
In more recent times, Khamenei’s office has spearheaded the computerization of the management of the clerical institutions, which has helped the supreme leader establish even more control over the clergy’s financial resources and dealings. Before Khamenei, every marja had his own financial section where subordinate clerics registered to receive their salaries. But under Khamenei’s financial system, all payments from marjas to clerics, or from one religious institution to another, first have to pass through a centralized office run by the Center for the Management of Qomi Seminaries. These payments therefore ultimately require approval from the supreme leader’s representatives. The Center for the Management of Qomi Seminaries also maintains a comprehensive database of the marjas’ properties, assets, and income. The supreme leader utilizes this data to manage the marjas’ financial activities.

Even Ayatollah Sistani — the preeminent marja of Najaf, who has always enjoyed considerable autonomy from the Iranian hierocracy, and who represents a more traditional Shi’ism — cannot operate his office or manage his religious–financial network within Iran (and in some cases in other countries in the Middle East such as Lebanon and Syria) without cooperating with the Iranian government.

Before the revolution, ordinary clerics were financially dependent on marjas. Today, however, most clerics also receive financial support through institutions run by the state and by the supreme leader. In order to demonstrate his financial and religious supremacy, Ayatollah Khamenei pays salaries to clerics much higher than the amount paid by the marjas. While most marjas supposedly rely on religious taxes, the supreme leader presides over the wealthiest and most profitable economic institutions in Iran, such as the Oppressed Foundation, the Imam Reza Shrine, and affiliated companies. Today, religious marjas together provide only a small percentage of the clerics’ financial needs. By contrast, the government — and Khamenei himself — are primarily in charge of financial issues in Shi’ite seminaries, especially in Iran. As such, the economic role and authority of the marja has been systematically reduced, just as the Islamic Republic’s authority and power over Shi’ite financial networks has been enhanced.

Moreover, since its establishment the Islamic Republic has created an entirely new network of institutions — seminaries, research institutes, community centers, and libraries — whose principal purpose is the propagation of an ideology favored by the republic. The government actively uses this influence to promote ideas beneficial to its goals while at the same time sidelining those ideas and religious teachings that are not. This has ultimately allowed the Islamic Republic to dominate the intellectual life of Iran’s clerical establishment. This has been the case especially since the deaths of the Grand Ayatollahs Abul Qassem Khoei, Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, and Shahab Al-Din Marashi Najafi, all eminent scholars who opposed many aspects of Khomeini’s agenda. Following their deaths, the traditional centers of religious authority that operated as a religious and political check on the newly-formed hierocracy went into steep decline, and a younger generation of clerics reared by Khomeini’s republic has come to occupy positions of great religious and political influence.

For clerics who are on the Iranian government’s payroll, life is full of special privileges and perks. The government underwrites a hefty budget for religious institutions, making today’s Iranian clerical establishment the wealthiest of any period in history. Well-connected clerics and marjas favored by the Islamic Republic are involved in lucrative business deals, receive exclusive governmental benefits, and can borrow large amounts of money from banks without sufficient guarantees for repayment. Even more, many charities in Iran owned by marjas, and high-ranking clerics are doing business through corrupt dealings with the government.
The Khomeinist doctrine of velayat-e faqih requires that all clerics be subject to the orders of the supreme leader and jurist — just as any other Shi’ite worshiper would be. This doctrine is premised on the view that the ruling jurist is the heir of the Prophet Muhammad and the representative of the infallible Hidden Imam, and benefits from all of their divine authorities. The supreme leader thus has the authority over matters beyond the Shari’a and the country’s constitution, granting him — at least in principle, though there are always limits to this in practice — enormous powers over society in general and the hierocracy in particular. According to Khomeini, expediency and government interest overrule all Islamic laws, and this justified the ruling jurist’s authority over matters beyond Shari’a or the constitution. In this vein, some have claimed, for instance, that marjas cannot use religious taxes without the approval of the ruling jurist. It has additionally been argued that “fatwas by marjas that deal with public issues can come into practice only after the approval of the ruling jurist.”

Within the Islamic Republic, what an individual jurist believes or the quality of his scholarship is of little significance; what matters most is how, within the structure of the hierocracy, the ruling jurist chooses to define his relationship to other individual jurists. In other words, jurists do not deal with the supreme leader and his office as a fellow or even as a superior member of a religious community, but instead as the head of an expansive military–economic–political corporation.
There are abundant rewards for members of this corporation in good standing. The very constitution of the Islamic Republic is based on a series of discriminations in favor of clerics. For instance, the head of the government, the head of the judiciary, all the members of the Assembly of Experts, the six members of the Guardian Council, the Minister of Intelligence, and several other positions must be mujtahid or jurists. A secular democratic government that removes all discrimination, including policies that favor clerics, would not be an ideal government for the overwhelming majority of jurists and clerics, whether they like the existing political system or not. What the Iranian people might consider an ideal alternative to the current system is not so idyllic for the majority of clerics. The Islamic Republic has systematically sought to deprive clerics of their independence and tarnished their reputations. Despite this fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran is still widely viewed as the most favorable government for clerics in the history of Islam.

In order to understand the Shi’ite clergy’s mindset, it is extremely important to recognize its priorities. These often crystallize in their reactions to certain events. For instance, if one examines the incidents to which the ayatollahs in Qom have reacted in recent years, their intellectual and religious sensitivities can be understood. They have strongly opposed Iran’s approval of an international convention that eliminates all forms of discrimination against women, preventing the Iranian parliament from adopting it. When the reformist parliament wanted to include Sunni MPs in their leadership in 2001, the ayatollahs objected because (according to them) Iran is a Shi’ite country and Sunnis should not hold any leadership role in it. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed his willingness to allow women to attend sports arenas to watch football games, clerics once again publically criticized him for undermining Islamic law and underestimating the danger of men and women being together in such places. But when Ayatollah Khamenei publically announced that the government would not tolerate demonstrations against election results in 2009, and police and Basij militia consequently cracked down on pacifist demonstrators in the streets — prompting even the government to admit that a number of male demonstrators were raped in prisons — clerics in Qom kept silent. Clerics who claim they support the Palestinian cause, because Palestinians are Muslims and they have a religious duty to advocate the rights of all Muslims in the world, did not utter a word when the Chinese government killed more than 150 Muslims in China in 2009, strictly because doing so may have threatened Iran’s relationship with the Chinese government.

The Syrian crisis is another example of such silence, and should not come as a surprise to anyone who followed the record of the clerics’ sensitivities. The Shi’ite clergy, as a religious-economic organization, does not break any boundaries set by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Any individual cleric who crosses the red line is aggressively exposed, if he lives inside Iran — or marginalized, if he lives outside it. The heavy specter of Ayatollah Khamenei overwhelms the Shi’ite community throughout the Middle East. Beyond that fact, the clergy does not care about things that do not directly threaten or strengthen it. In his diaries, Sadeq Tabatabi (the brother-in-law of Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Ahmad Khomeini) recalls his trip to Najaf when Khomeini was there in exile. In a conversation with him, Khomeini complained about the Najaf clerics’ indifference toward Israel and their conflict with Palestinians. Khomeini said when he asked clerics to react to this issue, they questioned why they should react to something that is not their business. Israel would not attack Iraq or Najaf: so why would they be concerned about it?

The Islamic Republic’s utilization of an array of both coercive instruments to punish anti-government tendencies as well as incentives and other perks to encourage and reward pro-goverment behavior — not to mention the clerical establishment’s own desire for self-preservation and well-being — helps to explain why a great majority of Iranian Shi’ite clerics have, on balance, kept silent not only about the government’s violence against peaceful demonstrators following the 12 June 2009 presidential elections, but also the Syrian government’s violence against thousands of its Muslim citizens. This is worthwhile to mention that Shi’ite clergy is sacrificing its reputation for material benefits and jeopardizing its image as a group of pious individuals who care most for well-being of Muslims.

Explanation of the Shi’ite clergy’s silence toward such grave issues would not be complete without mentioning their reluctance to adopt modern, liberal legal concepts such as “justice,” “citizenship,” or “human rights.” In the absence of such understanding, the cleric’s perception of politics is rather tribal. They view the Shi’ite community as their tribe and provide them with all sorts of rights to defend their supremacy whenever and wherever they can. Such an outdated perception will likely cause them to gradually lose their influence over younger generations of Shi’ites, who are as eager to live under a liberal democratic government as most others in the world. By averting their eyes from the violence imposed by brutal governments in Iran and Syria, the clergy is only able to indirectly reinforce the Shi’ite desire to have a secular government in countries like Iran, which has been exposed to a Shi’ite-run government for quite some time.


Supreme Succession; Who Will Lead Post-Khamenei Iran

This policy focus was originally published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Although Ayatollah Khamenei has given no signs of imminent departure from the political scene, both the confrontational nature of his recent actions and the still-ticking Iranian nuclear clock raise important questions about what will happen upon his death. Will the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps subordinate the new Supreme Leader and focus on domestic issues, thereby cementing its status as the main player in Iran’s political, military, and economic spheres? Or will the new government become even more radical than Khamenei’s and carry on his bellicose foreign policy? Answering these questions requires a clear understanding of the Islamic Republic’s current power structure, its past approach to leadership transition, and the closed-door nature of its most important political decision.
In this Policy Focus, Iran expert Mehdi Khalaji shows how the succession question could present a unique opportunity for Washington to soften the regime’s anti-American posture or, failing that, to ensure that the IRGC’s ambitions do not jeopardize other regional states.

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Iran’s Regime of Religion

This article is published in Journal of International Affairs (Columbia University) Vol. 65 No. 1 Fall/Winter 2011 page 131

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has modernized and bureaucratized the clerical establishment, redefined religion and created institutions to enforce this new definition. The effect has been a transformation of religion into a symbolic form of capital. By monopolizing religious affairs, the political system has become a regime of religion in which the state plays the role of central banker for symbolic religious capital. Consequently, the expansion and monopolization of the religious market have helped the Islamic Republic increase the ranks of its supporters and beneficiaries significantly, even among critics of the government. This article demonstrates how the accumulation of religious capital in the hands of the government mutually influences the nature of the state and the clerical establishment and will continue to do so in Iran’s uncertain future.


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Green Dreams

Tablet Magazine, February 22, 2010
During a campaign speech at the University of Uroomiyeh in northwestern Iran a few months before the June presidential election there, Mir Hossein Moussavi, the main reformist presidential candidate and now opposition leader, was interrupted by angry groups of basiji, the regime’s paramilitary enforcers, carrying pictures of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Palestinian flags. “I see the root of some [of our] problems in this hall,” Moussavi said when he saw the flags. “For instance some people are carrying a Palestinian flag. Though we like Palestine, we are in Iran and the province of Azerbaijan…. I stepped into the campaign exactly to confront this [kind of] radicalism.” Mousavi’s loss in what was widely believed to have been a rigged election brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the streets, many of whom could be heard chanting, “No Gaza, no Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran.”
Might Iran’s relationship with Israel change if the democratic opposition comes to power? Though the so-called Green Movement, the pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets after the disputed election, represents a significant development in Iran’s politics, the answer is far from clear. What is unmistakable, however, is that a large swath of Iran’s population no longer accepts at face value the statements of the Islamic Republic’s leaders, who have said the Jewish State must be “wiped off the map.”
The Islamic Republic’s attitude toward the Israel emerged from a pre-revolutionary alliance of Islamic clerics, leftist intellectuals, and political militants belonging to the communist Tudeh party, the Islamic and socialist Mujahedin-e Khalq, or the People’s Holy Warriors, and the Marxist Fedayeen e-Khalq, the People’s Freedom Fighters. Since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has had no problem in improving and expanding its relation with socialist and communist regimes: Iran’s best friends today are China, Russia, and Venezuela. A main similarity between Islamic ideology and Marxism is that the concept of the nation-state is absent in both. Instead of a “nation,” Islamic ideology is based on the concept of the “Umma,” or Muslim mass, while Marxism uses the term “class.” Marxism’s international class conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie parallels the conflict in Islamic ideology between the Muslim Umma, also called the mustazafin, in English “the oppressed,” and the mustakberin, in English “non-believers,” or the arrogant ones. Just as the secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union was both head of state and head of all Communists, the leader of an ideological political order like the Islamic republic does not see himself solely as head of state, but as the “ruler of the Islamic world,” or the wali-e amr-e muslimin-e jahan.
When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, he declared nationalism contrary to Islam and said “nationalism is opposed to Islam and it is the source of Muslims’ misery. Nationalists are the army of devil and are serving the superpowers and enemies of the Quran.” The Islamic rulers of Iran called the country Muslim world’s “Ummo al-Qura,” a quranic term used for Mecca that describes it as the mother of all cities. Therefore, by calling Iran the mother of all cities, they meant that they are the leaders of all Muslims and Iran is the capital of Islamic world. Just like international communism, pan-Islamic ideology defined its policies beyond national borders and legitimized political and military intervention in other countries in order to support Muslims against foes like “western imperialism” and “Jewish occupation of Israel”.
Many Muslims were attracted by this passionate new discourse, but disillusionment rapidly followed. While support for Palestinian groups as well as Shiite extremists in Lebanon and other places in the region became one of the main components of Iran’s foreign policy, there was plenty of evidence that Iran’s support and sympathy were hardly unconditional. Imam Musa Sadr, moderate charismatic Shiite leader who was the head of Shiite community—and had benefited from the Shah’s financial and political support to Lebanese Shiites—was kidnapped by the Libyan government and then disappeared in August 1978. The Islamic Republic, despite its close relationship to Libyan government and its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, did not make any effort to liberate Sadr. After more than three decades, moderate Shiites not only in Lebanon but also in other countries still wonder why Iran did not show any interest in pursuing Sadr’s case.
The situation of Sunni Muslims in Iran proved that the regime’s claim to lead all Muslims worldwide is motivated by politics rather than religious conviction. Since the Iranian revolution, Sunni Muslims in Iran, who comprise more than 10 percent of the population, suffer from systematic discrimination in various levels. Many of their leaders were executed or imprisoned without legal justification. Sunni seminaries in southwestern Iran were destroyed by the government and teachers arrested. Sunnis are banned from any significant political participation. Sunnis are not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran, even while Christians and Jews have churches and synagogues.
In foreign policy, the Iranian regime pretends that it supports Palestinians simply because they are Muslims and a Muslim cannot keep silent when he sees the sufferance of his fellow Muslim. Yet in the recent conflict between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan, Iran supported Armenia. In July 2009, when a series of violent clashes erupted between Uighur Muslims and Chinese state police, which led to the death of more than 190 Muslims, the Islamic Republic of Iran did not react to it at all—because the regime’s relationship with China took precedence.
The anti-Western approach that created common ground for Islamists and leftists during the revolution remains major component of the Islamic Republic’s public rhetoric. Israel, as the main ally of the West in the Middle East, was an immediate and appealing target on both “Islamic” and anti-capitalist grounds. Iran has had repeated conflicts with Arab countries (from Iran-Iraq war to controversy over three islands in Persian Gulf to dispute over Bahrain), which stem from four centuries of rivalry between Iranian monarchies and the Ottoman Empire. Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s leaders attempted to swing the power equation to their benefit by making an alliance with the West. After the revolution, Iran lost the West’s support and saw itself as having been forced to create a new anti-Western political alliance to restore the balance. The collapse of the Soviet Union made Islamic Republic’s leader believe that they can in fact lead an anti-Western and anti-Israeli front in the region by using pan-Islamic ideology and undermining national identity. The enmity toward Israel is not driven as much by Islamic motivation as it is by a lust for power.
Many critics of Islamic radicalism believe that both radical leftists and Islamic fundamentalists share an old communist principle, that the end justifies the means. They hold that Iran’s approach to the Palestinian issue is totally instrumentalist, and that the success of peace process will create a fundamental problem for Islamic Republic by depriving the regime of a “big enemy” to which it can attribute all its political and economic failures and use to stigmatize its opponents. Especially after three decades, the Islamic Republic can hardly explain why Islamic ideology has not realized its promises to bring worldly prosperity for every Iranian citizen—or why it has failed to resist what it calls the “cultural invasion” of the West. Iranian youth are the most Westernized in the middle east after Israel’s. Hence, the Islamic regime does not have any soft power to influence Muslims by showing them an alternate model for culture, economy, or politics.
Islamic Leaders hold that there are only two ways for becoming a superpower in the region: the way that the Shah chose, of making an alliance with the west and Israel, and the way Iranian revolutionaries have chosen, a defiant Islamic-Marxist alliance against the West and Israel. For most Iranians, the second way has proved to be economically and internationally costly with no evident success.
For many Iranians, especially the younger generation, it does not matter whether Israel is a good or legitimate country: They want Iran’s leaders to place Iran before anything else. In 2008, the Tehran city council allocated $3 million dollars to aid construction in Lebanon. This decision was widely criticized by reformist politicians as well as the general public for depriving Tehran of funds that could have gone to more pressing needs, like addressing its pollution crisis or transportation problems. A Persian proverb holds that “if a house needs light, the mosque does not deserve it.” What Iranians, especially the newer generation, care about most is not Palestine or Lebanon but the concrete economic problems of the country and integrating Iran into the global community.
What are the future prospects for Iran-Israel relations? No one can predict for sure. But what is certain is that so long as the government in Iran is not perceived by its people as legitimate, its policies, including its opposition toward Israel, will have no legitimacy either. So far, the Islamic Republic has substituted the Iranian people’s “national interests” with the “expediency of the regime,” as defined by the Supreme Leader, who considers himself the ruler of Islamic world. In a democratic Iran, “national interests” would be defined by the consensus of free political parties and an open civil society, aided by a free press.
Iran’s complicated relations with Arab countries will certainly play an important role in shaping a new government’s policy toward Israel. But Iran’s new generation has shown that it cares more about Iran’s immediate national concerns than it does about the Palestinian cause. This leaves hope that a future government of Iran would examine the Arab-Israeli conflict through the viewpoint of Iran’s “national interests” rather than the ideologically-driven “expediency” of the current regime, and reverse Iran’s current enmity with Israel.


Loyalists and Radicals

On August 19, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad submitted his list of cabinet nominees to the Majlis (Iran’s parliament). The president’s choice of individuals clearly shows his preference for loyalty over efficiency, as he fired every minister who, while strongly supportive of him on most issues, opposed him recently on his controversial decision to appoint a family relative as first vice president. Ahmadinezhad’s drive to install loyalists involves placing members of the military and intelligence community in the cabinet, as well as in other important government position. Despite the president’s positioning, Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains in firm control of the country’s vital ministries.

Cabinet Approval

On August 23, the Majlis will either approve or challenge the president’s cabinet appointments. Ahmadinezhad has a relatively free hand to choose the majority of cabinet seats, but the country’s key ministries — intelligence, interior, foreign affairs, defense, and culture and Islamic guidance — are, in all practical terms, preapproved by Khamenei before the president submits their names. As such, the Majlis is all but guaranteed to accept these particular individuals. The president is also empowered to directly appoint the secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security (SCNS) — the individual responsible for Iran’s nuclear dossier and negotiations — but because this position is of particular importance to Khamanei, it also must be preapproved.

Economic and Foreign Affairs

Ahmadinezhad’s nominations suggest that he is not bothered by the ongoing criticism of his foreign policy and economic agenda, since the ministers of foreign affairs, industries and mines, economic affairs, cooperatives, and roads and transport will remain unchanged. Masoud Mir Kazemi, previously the oil minister, is the president’s choice to become minister of commerce. Ahmadinezhad is also expected to reappoint Said Jalili as secretary of the SCNS — a development that seemingly dims hope for a change in Iran’s nuclear strategy.

IRGC in Charge of Internal Affairs

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said recently, “There was a perception that confronting hard threats was the top priority, but after careful study, we came to the conclusion that it was the IRGC’s duty to confront the regime’s soft threats, including cultural, economic, political, and social ones.” Ahmadinezhad’s first presidential term was characterized by the ascendance of the IRGC into Iran’s political system. Considering the makeup of the president’s new cabinet nominees, this trend — backed by Jafari’s suggestion that the IRGC should take over crucial political and cultural government positions — will continue into Ahmadinezhad’s second term:

Interior minister. Sadeq Mahsouli, the outgoing interior minister, was not renominated. Known as a “billionaire IRGC general,” Mahsouli was the main Iranian official responsible for the controversial presidential election in June. By replacing him, Ahmadinezhad may be trying to prevent further Majlis discussion of the election, since there would be considerable debate about the minister’s record. The president was likely also dissatisfied with Mahsouli’s handling of the election, with the widespread allegations of fraud and popular street demonstrations. The man nominated to succeed him, Mustafa Mohammad Najjar — a career IRGC man — was Ahmadinezhad’s defense minister for four years and has a close relationship with Khamenei.

Culture and Islamic guidance minister. Mohammad Hosseini comes from the intelligence community, and if confirmed by the Majlis, he can be counted on to follow his predecessor, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, in putting restrictions on publication houses, the press, the movie industry, and the arts in general.

Oil minister. Masoud Mir Kazemi was the head of IRGC Center for Fundamental Studies for many years.

Defense minister. Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi is connected to Iran’s Qods Force, and he, along with Mohsen Rezai, former IRGC commander-in-chief, and Ali Fallahian, former intelligence minister, is wanted by Interpol for involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina.

Intelligence minister. Heydar Muslehi is a cleric who was Khamenei’s representative in the IRGC and Basij militia, and was the head of Endowment and Charity Organization. He was trained in the Imam Khomeini Institute for Education and Research, which is run by Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a radical cleric in Qom. In a recent speech to Basij members, Mesbah Yazdi, who is known for his support for Ahmadinezhad, stated that “obedience to the president is obedience to the Hidden Imam and God.” Despite Muslehi’s inexperience in the intelligence business, the Majlis is not likely to question Ahmadinezhad’s decision, since Muslehi was presumably preapproved by Khamenei.

Gap Widens Between Clerics and Ahmadinezhad

Ahmadinezhad considers himself an authentic representative of pure Islamic ideology, one that has no need for clerical guidance on political issues. As such, the relationship between Ahmadinezhad and Iran’s clerical establishment has soured over the years — though not so with Khamenei, who is more of a politician than a cleric.

Ahmadinezhad’s nomination of three women to his cabinet — for the ministries of health, education, and welfare and social security — could exacerbate these tensions. Many members of the Majlis consider these female nominees unqualified, and many conservative clerics in Qom, such as Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi, see the move as a violation of Islamic law.

A major episode that revealed the depth of the clerical-Ahmadinezhad split was the president’s unconditional support of Rahim Mashai, who is closely related to Ahmadinezhad by marriage. Mashai drew the ire of the conservatives when he said that Iran has no quarrel with the people of Israel, even though it may dislike the state of Israel. In the last weeks of his first term, Ahmadinezhad appointed Mashai, then director of the Cultural Heritage Organization, as his first vice president. Facing unprecedented clerical and conservative pressure — and the opposition of many previous cabinet members — Ahmadinezhad did not reverse his decision until Khamenei intervened and forced him to do so. The president then appointed Mashai as his chief of staff, the head of the president’s office. In addition to his statements on Israel, the clerical establishment dislikes Mashai because he, along with Ahmadinezhad, believes in the imminent return of the Mahdi (the Twelfth Imam) — an event that would make the clergy superfluous.


Ahmadinezhad’s list of cabinet nominees reveals his self-confidence and readiness to be challenged by the predominately conservative Majlis. Leading Majlis figures have already expressed concern about Ahmadinezhad’s potential nominees, but the president ignored their objections. Reportedly, he believes that since he received more votes than all the Majlis members combined, he should not have to compromise with them. Ahamdinezhad’s new cabinet nominees are also the result of unofficial coordination with Khamenei. Although the Majlis will likely disagree with some of Ahmadinezhad’s selections, the president’s first-term policies will essentially continue into his second term, as evidenced by the same people occupying key ministries — with Khamenei’s approval — and the increasing number of IRGC and intelligence personnel taking top government positions.

This article was first published in the website of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy


How to Fix Iran’s Election

Rarely does a country have such a clear choice as Iran did on June 12. On that day, nearly 40 million people voted for a president. The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pledged to continue his economic policies and his anti-Western, Holocaust-denying, nuclear-confrontational approach. His main opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, promised economic reform, increasing openness with the West, human rights, and nuclear negotiations.

While some polling stations were still open, the Interior Ministry declared Ahmadinejad the winner by a landslide. The opposition rejected it, and despite arrests and beatings, the protests have continued. Ahmadinejad’s and Mousavi’s supporters both proclaim their candidate won.

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But to all others, it is clear there were substantial irregularities. Although Ahmadinejad’s crackdown appears designed to end questions about his legitimacy, even conservative clerics are demanding answers from the state. Here is what we know happened — and a plan to prevent fraud in the next election.

Using even a minimal standard, there are good reasons for Iranians not to trust election results. The president-controlled Interior Ministry conducts elections in Iran. It denies opposition observers access to polling stations and counts the votes. Only half of Mousavi’s observers were permitted to observe polling stations in the capital city of Tehran; they had even less access in the rest of the country. None of the observers were permitted to see whether the ballot boxes were empty when the vote began. Nor were they permitted to accompany the mobile ballot boxes, which collected nearly one-third of the votes. And no Mousavi or impartial observers accompanied the ballot boxes from local wards to the provincial committees and finally to Tehran for the count.

Before the election, the reformists’ Committee for Safeguarding the Votes expressed concern that 54 million ballots were printed — millions more than for past elections and 8 million more than the number of eligible voters. Moreover, some ballots did not have serial numbers. About 40 million people voted, but no one accounted for the other 14 million ballots.

The Committee for Safeguarding the Votes also said it found a large number of Mousavi votes after the election, including some in the northern forests of Iran. It surmised that these votes were removed from the boxes and replaced with votes for Ahmadinejad. Mousavi himself claims he has evidence that the total number of votes exceeded the number of eligible voters by as much as 40 percent in more than 170 constituencies. Some of the party observers claim ballots for Ahmadinejad featured the same handwriting in the same ink.

These accusations of fraud are credible. Even the conservative Guardian Council has acknowledged that as many as 3 million votes might have been fraudulent. But, given the way the system operates, no one knows with certainty how many votes were legitimate and how much fraud occurred.

In many other countries with rigged electoral systems, opposition members boycott. That did not happen in Iran — and now, millions are risking their lives to compel the authorities to count their votes accurately. As the protest moves to its next phase, the country could stave off a crisis by agreeing to four fundamental electoral safeguards.

The single most important step is to transfer election responsibilities from the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council to a nonpartisan and independent national election commission. Iran should also create a nonpartisan elections court, composed of judges and lawyers. All the major political parties should have a veto on nominees so as to ensure that the judges are acceptable to all the parties.

Second, the Election Commission should certify the candidates according to clear and fair criteria, and they should prevent any intimidation, and guarantee access to the entire electoral process by domestic and international election observers. Domestic observers are absolutely essential to assuring a free election and detecting fraud; and international observers help the process by magnifying the voice of the domestic observers.

Third, the ballot boxes should be opened for all to see before the election begins, and observers should accompany mobile and other ballot boxes through the day.

Finally, counting should occur at every polling site. Observers should watch the count, sign the declaration of results, and keep a copy. The final announcement should publicize the results of each of the polling stations, so that people can detect any vote discrepancy.

Much else needs to be done to build confidence in the electoral process and assure votes are counted fairly. But if these four fundamental elements of electoral reform are accepted and implemented, the next election in Iran would be much freer and fairer. The reforms would also allow Iranians and the world to locate and denounce any fraud. The opposition has asked for a new election, but without these four reforms, that is unlikely to be any fairer than the previous one. Only with such reforms can Iranians know when their votes count, and when their voices are stolen.

What role should the West and the United States play at this time? It is obvious that Ahmadinejad and his allies would like to blame all of Iran’s problems on the West — especially the United States and Britain. The government’s case against the opposition is that its members are surrogates of the West. For these countries to be seen as meddling in Iran’s affairs would be counter-productive.

On the other hand, the democratic community cannot be silent; it needs to find the most appropriate and legitimate way to express its support for democracy in Iran and elsewhere. The best way to reconcile these two somewhat conflicted messages — avoid meddling but provide more support for Iran’s democrats — is if the world’s great Muslim democracies, which have diplomatic relations with Iran — like Indonesia and Lebanon — to carry the message. Those countries should propose a resolution to the U.N. Human Rights Council, calling for an end to repression and for genuine electoral reform.

It now appears that Ahmadinejad will try to consolidate a hard-line government and will ruthlessly suppress all legitimate protest movements. If he chooses this path, he will further undermine his efforts to win legitimacy.

The battle for reform has just begun. The only question is when it will prevail. Within Iran’s regime, a group of clerics holds that the Islamic Republic should be genuinely democratic. In the end, the major hope for democracy will depend on their acknowledging the flaws in the electoral system and deciding to reform it.

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of Apocalyptic Politics; on the Rationality of Iranian Policy.

Robert Pastor is a professor and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University. He developed the election-monitoring initiatives of the Carter Center in Atlanta and has organized the observation of elections in about forty countries.

This article  was first published in Foreign Policy


Moqtada Sadr & the Life in Qom Seminary; An interview

This interview was first published in the Foriegn Policy website.

Born in Qom, Iran, as the son of an ayatollah, Mehdi Khalaji knows what the long path to Shiite scholarship looks like. His father dreamed that he might someday join the ranks of these high scholars as an ayatollah, and from 1986 to 2000, Khalaji studied theology and jurisprudence in the traditional city center. Almost a decade after a difficult decision to leave and pursue his work in journalism independent scholarly research, Khalaji, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke with Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickinson about what life in the seminary is like, and why ayatollahs are not made; they are born. Excerpts:

On growing up and entering seminary:

I was sent to the seminary when I was very young — when I was 11 years old. My father was hoping that someday I would become a grand ayatollah. But I betrayed my father’s dreams and I got out of seminary, finally. I studied until the highest level, when you attend courses of the important ayatollahs. I studied Shiite theology, jurisprudence and Islamic philosophy.

Since my father was an ayatollah, I’d been familiar with a clerical life. When [former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came to Iran in February 1979, after two months he came to Qom, my father was the one who welcomed him publically. My father was well-known, and he had a good relationship with other revolutionaries. Actually my father was in prison before the revolution.

On daily life in seminary:

The daily life of a religious student in my time was much different from what it used to be before the revolution, and from what it is now.

Life was traditional. You get up early morning because you have to pray. Many good clerics even get up at two or three o’clock in the early morning to pray. After the morning prayer, for example at 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, they start to read. And at 7 o’clock, the courses start. Usually the courses are 45 minutes. Each student chooses a fellow [student] to discuss each course with him each day. Sometimes I play the role of teacher for you; I teach you the same thing I was taught yesterday. If I say anything wrong, you correct me. Tomorrow you’re going to be my teacher. In this way, [students] repeat the courses and correct each others’ possible misunderstandings. Usually, you take three or four courses per day.

At noon, you go back to your home or, if you live in a traditional school, you go to the school. You eat something, and you get some rest. At four o’clock, you start your classes until sunset. At sunset, you pray your sunset prayer. After that, you go home and you start to read. You go to bed early because you have to get up early.

That was the typical life at that time. But now, everything is mistaught, after [current Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei injected lots of money into the clerical establishments. They destroyed the traditional structure and the educational program. They created some schools that are more like a military base rather than a traditional, clerical school. And every morning, [the students] do something like a parade, which is a military practice, not a clerical practice.

کاشيکاری زير سقف گنبد مدرسه معصومه قم

Masoumyeh Madrassa (clerical school); Qom

On reasons for entering seminary:

In my time, nobody went to the seminary to gain money or credits, because in the society it wasn’t one of the favorite jobs you could have. Before the revolution, [attendance] was based on religious convictions and your own personal decision — the feeling of religious responsibility. After revolution, people were agreeing to go to seminary because they had been revolutionary idealists. They were looking at the seminary as a place for ideological training.

But gradually, clerics were put in charge of sensitive positions. Being a cleric meant that you could gain lots of political power and economic advantages. So now, people are not going to the seminary for the study of religion; people are going because the seminary became a place for training employees for the government. They are going to become wealthy and to become close to the political circles. After 30 years, the new generation of the seminary is intellectually very poor but economically very rich — just the opposite of what it used to be.

On who can enter seminary:

When I entered the seminary, there was no ideological control; everybody was free to enter the seminary, provided that he attend the courses and pass the exams. But if you want to enter the seminary since Khamenei came to power 20 years ago, you have to pass an ideological investigation. They investigate where you are coming from, how your family is in terms of loyalty to the government, whether any member of your family was involved in political activities, and whether your family is religious or not.

What I’ve said in some of my writings is that Khamenei has modernized the seminary, bureaucratized the seminary, and through modernization, put control over the seminary. We were free to attend any course we wanted. But now, it’s like entering the military. In my time, everyone was allowed to teach, and I was free to choose my teacher: volunteer teacher, volunteer student. Now? You cannot choose your teacher, nor your student.

On leaving the seminary:

I’m part of the generation that entered the seminary after the [Iranian] revolution. We had some illusions about Islamic ideology, and we thought that the Islamic ideology was like its leader’s promise — able to provide worldly happiness, and otherworldly salvation. Islamic ideology provides everything that other ideologies provide for you, like economic growth, freedom of speech, and cultural flourishing, but there is also an added value: While liberalism doesn’t promise anything for you when you die, Islamic ideology will provide you with salvation in the afterlife. This is what we were thinking — this utopian world that we would believe in. But after a decade, we found that the result was not so promising.

Actually, when clerics got power, they started to eliminate other groups, political groups, and political figures who were involved in the revolution. For example, many prominent clerics lived [near us in Qom], and our next-door neighbor was a cleric who had been a member of the parliament since I was a kid. Suddenly, we found out that he had been executed. He had some boys, I think one or two, who were the same age I was at that time. We’d been watching their suffering, and it was really painful. Many clerics who really believed in Islamic ideology and were active in the period of the revolution — just because they criticized Khomeini, they’d been kicked out, put in jail, executed, or tortured. This was one of the reasons that we thought “OK, this wouldn’t work. What we wanted was not this; this is against the romantic perception of the Islamic utopia.”

Second, what was very influential for me was the emergence of the religious intellectuals, especially Abdolkarim Soroush. Dr. Soroush started to come to Qom when I was 17 years old. I was going to his class every Thursday in a small house. We were discreetly attending, because clerics were mad at him for teaching a different interpretation of Islam. Dr. Soroush opened the eyes of me and many other clerics of my generation to modernity, to Western philosophy, and how to look at Islam from a modern perspective.

Finally, I started to study Western philosophy and especially Immanuel Kant, who was very influential for me, and the modern philosophers like Nietzsche and other philosophers like him — Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Derrida, and so on. Through philosophy, I started to criticize theology.

On Moqtada al-Sadr:

Nobody can decide to go to the seminary and study and become an ayatollah. Becoming an ayatollah is not something like getting a degree. You can get a Ph.D. in philosophy. It’s possible. But in the seminary, an ayatollah is the equivalent to a theoretician. We have thousands of people in the world who have Ph.D.s in philosophy, but we have few people who are really philosophers — who introduce new theories and philosophies.

We have many people who have studied 30 years, they are very old — like 70 years old — but they are not an ayatollah yet. You can be an ayatollah when you are young or when you are middle aged, provided that you are very intelligent and you study very hard, and you are a dedicated person. You just don’t want to get it quickly and go back to Iraq and get involved again in the Mahdi Army. It’s not the way that system works.

It is extremely ridiculous to hear Moqtada al-Sadr say “I’m studying to become an ayatollah.” It really doesn’t make sense in any language but English. If [he says] this in Farsi or Arabic, everybody ridicules him. So he can say this only to foreign media.

Also, if you want to study at the highest level in theology, whether in Qom or Najaf or other seminaries, you have to attend the important courses taught by big figures. Big figures don’t teach clandestine[ly]; they teach in the mosque, and many people attempt their courses. In the course of the last few years when Moqtada claims that he has been in Qom to study religion in order to become an ayatollah, nobody has seen him in these courses. So where is he? I don’t know. What he does, I don’t know. But we have to be very clear: Nobody talks about him because nobody sees him in Qom.


Ayatollah Khamenei’s Coup? Interview with Mehdi Khalaji

translated by kaveh_r | source: DW-World originally published on June 16

What has happened in Iran? Is it one of the usual conflicts between political factions? A manifestation of the ongoing internal dispute over the share of power? In an article published in “Washington Post”, Mehdi Khalaji talks about a «coup». This is an interview with him.

On Monday, June 15, Washington Post published an article by Mehdi Khalaji, Islam expert, political analyst, and a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His article discusses the current upheavals after presidential elections in Iran. The underlying thesis of the article is expressed in it’s title “Khamenei’s coup”. Our interview with Mehdi Khalaji focuses on this thesis.
DW: Mr. Khalaji, in your article published in the Washington Post you referred to what Mir Hossein Mousavi called “Magical elections” as “Khamenei’s coup”. Other political analysts, however, speculate that a group of revolutionary guards commanders predetermined the result of the election, and that the supreme leader was under their control in some way, or was faced with a fait accompli. What is your argument for the invalidity of this hypothesis?
Mehdi Khalaji: Ayatollah Khamenei, the official and absolute supreme leader, is not just a single person, but the fundamental pillar of an systematic establishment. Military–security networks, religious institutions and organizations (especially the clergy), large-scale business enterprises not under the government’s control, and the judicial system are all part of this integrated and entangled system. Ayatollah Khamenei , as the embodiment of the “absolute supreme leadership” [or Absolute Guardianship of Islamic Jurists (velayat-e motlaghe-ye faghih in Persian)] ideology, is the thread that runs through all these dispersed parts and gives them unity and cohesion.
He is the cornerstone, symbol and the main focus of this establishment. Without his leadership, military commanders would lack ideology and would be unable to communicate with other components of the collection. Without him, there would be a barrier in communication between military-security institutions and the lower layers of society. Complex economic networks would be disintegrated as well.
Ayatollah Khamenei is just as much a “captive” by the military commanders as they are his captives. Without his commanders, he would be nothing, as without him, the commanders would be nothing. The association of this huge hierarchy is based on the supreme leader’s house [what his office is called, a normal phrase used for the offices of Grand Ayatollh’s too]. The boundaries of his house, however, are beyond its physical walls, its invisible walls extend from the streets of Qom [a religious city, largest center of Islamic schools in Iran] to the black lines of the Kayhan newspaper, from Evin prison to his representative offices in colleges and universities. Any small crack in these walls would destroy the entire supreme leader’s house.
“Khamenei’s coup” refers to the wrathful dominance of this hierarchy over other weak “democratic” organs of the Islamic Republic such as the president’s and the parliament. On June 12th, a coup, in the form of an election, happened to bring three decades of grueling challenge between these establishments and weak strains of democratic organs in the Islamic Republic to a determining point.
DW: Does this mean that now the “Sultan” has complete dominance?
Mehdi Khalaji: The supreme leader is not a “Sultan” and the Islamic Republic system is not a Sultanate. Although the system of government tends to run on hierarchy orders, but not all such forms of governments should be reduced to a “Sultanate”. The Islamic Republic is a totalitarian establishment. A totalitarian system is a much more sophisticated and layered system than a Sultanate. It’s more difficult to both establish and overthrow it.
If the Islamic Republic was a Sultanate, it would not have been based on ideology and would not have generated a supporting intellectual disciple. The Islamic Republic has its own Grand Ayatollahs, its own filmmakers, and university professors and even has its own music composers, webloggers, and journalists. Intellectuals that support the Islamic Republic gives legitimacy to its ideology.
DW: What are the specifications of a regime that you describe as totalitarian?
Mehdi Khalaji: In a totalitarian system, such as the Islamic Republic, the border between the public and private role of the rulers is blurred. Seemingly there is no intention to achieve personal power and wealth; instead, the demand for power is wrapped in the attractive cover of “religious duty”. Rulers feel a “religious duty” for gaining power and for that reason they compete with each other. Hence, they pretend to have a simple lifestyle to show that they are not taking advantage of the power to gain personal wealth.
Also in the Islamic Republic system, unlike a Sultanate system, having public support is constantly needed and crucial. Without the continuous “presence of people in the scene” and showing off people’s support of the regime, in the form of seemingly civil institutions such as “Islamic Associations” in universities and factories or participation in elections, the legitimacy of government dwindles. “Public participation” within the aspirations of the government is highly encouraged. The Islamic Republic, as a totalitarian and unlike a Sultanate system, is organization-based and also tend to create organizations. Such a system that tolerates limited political and social pluralism has created a variety of structures. These structures allow for a limited amount of diversity and make the political system consolidate and durable. Furthermore there institutions and organizations train a class of elites, and allow the system to select from them fresh members and replace the older and inefficient ones with them, so it would always have a fresh group of political and intellectual elites. Finally, unlike traditional Sultanates, the Islamic Republic claimed the rule of law, at least by keeping the face; they constantly refer to their own constitution and legitimacy.
“Ayatollah Khamenei”, in this definition, means beyond a single person who can be captured by others. He is the lord of a “house” that is the core of the totalitarian regime in Iran.
DW: In your article in “Washington Post” you discussed the “anti-Ahmadinejad movement”. What type of social movement is this? But can you first explain about the “Ahmadinejad movement” and its qualities?
Mehdi Khalaji: That was a brief article written for a general audience. The term “movement” was not used in the precise sociological sense there. In fact, I am not sure whether or not we can categorize the current massive protests in the streets under the term of social “movement”. This mass has a specific demand and doesn’t have a general theoretical framework for social action. A chain of social, political and economical dissatisfaction has brought people to streets. But still there are significant confusions about the leadership, organization and ideology of this movement.
Perhaps it’s soon to judge this movement and we have to wait until seeing its consequences, effects and achievementst. What we see today might be explained as a “mass movement”. However, we could see that Ahmadinejad is obviously a symbolic indicator of what Ayatollah Khamenei is; using force, prison, privacy violations, religious superstition, and religious capitalism. But it is still unclear how this movement is going to target the heart of the totalitarianism and, for this reason, whether or not it is properly prepared in terms of intellect, language, and actions.
DW: Do you think that the coup will succeed? In other words, the “anti-Ahmadinejad movement” may be completely inhibited?
Mehdi Khalaji: It is difficult to have a prediction on Iran’s political issues. But, considering the history and the nature of leader’s methods, I believe that sooner or later Ayatollah Khamenei will make the Iranian society choose one of two radical options: either the government will establish its coup by suppressing the movement, and will move toward a situation similar to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power, or the movement will stay active and continue with an increased number of victims. Then its demands become more rooted and fundamental. In this case, the possibility of compromise with the government dwindles and people’s only option would be to deny and reject the entire regime.
Both possibilities can be considered as a fundamentally important move similar to the revolution back in 1979, which led to the fall of the Shah’s regime. In the 1979 revolution, a Sultanate system was overthrown. This time, the task is much more difficult – and if successful – more fundamental and profound because people are not confronting a Sultan, but they are fighting against a totalitarian system crystallized in the form of the absolute supreme leader.
Interviewer: Reza Nikjoo
Editor: Farid Vahidi