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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Politics and the Clergy

Published in Iran Primer

* For several decades, Iran’s Shiite clerical establishment has proven extremely effective at mobilizing the Iranian masses.
* The Shiite clergy were historically independent from government. But especially under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian government seized control of the “sacred” and co-opted the clerical establishment.
* Since 1979, Iran’s theocratic regime has deprived the entire clerical class of its autonomy—but also made it rich and powerful.
* Any serious crisis in Iran could jeopardize the clergy’s favored position in government. To retain its legitimacy and religious standing, the clergy may have to distance itself from politics.



 Shiite clerics have been able to mobilize the Iranian masses far better than any other socio-political authority. Clerics form the broadest social network in Iran, exerting their influence from the most remote village to the biggest cities. So while most opposition groups participated in the 1979 revolution, the clergy established hegemony over Iran’s new political system after the shah’s ouster. They emerged from a crowded field for several reasons. First, Islamic revolutionaries ruthlessly eliminated their rivals. Second, the regime tapped into the popularity and legitimacy conferred by its call to Islam, a force rooted in Iran’s social history. None of the other revolutionary political factions benefited from the traditional legitimacy and social network provided by the Shiite clerical establishment.

The new Islamic government tapped into the clergy’s power to achieve its agenda—not only on religious or political matters. After the Iran-Iraq War, clerics were dispatched throughout the country to encourage families to have fewer children. A soaring birth rate after the revolution had almost doubled the population within a decade from 34 million to 62 million, which threatened to stifle future economic growth. The government’s ploy was effective; the Iranian birth rate declined dramatically.

The regime and the clerical establishment now have a symbiotic relationship that shapes both politics and production of the next clerical generation. The alliance no longer tolerates clerics who think or behave outside the framework of the regime’s specific Islamic ideology. Prominent clerics such as late Ahmad Ghabel, Mohsen Kadivar, Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari and Mohammad Mojtahid Shabestari have been excommunicated for heretical interpretations of Islamic theology.

But relations between the clergy and the government have also had adverse effects on the clerics’ social authority. In the 1997 presidential election, the clerical establishment supported the conservative speaker of parliament, while the majority of people voted for the dark-horse reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami. In the 2005 election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won in part because of voters’ frustration with government clerics, who were increasingly associated with corruption and elitism. He was the first non-cleric to win the presidency since Khomeini had a falling out with early technocrats shortly after the revolution. But Ahmadinejad lost his clerical power base due to failed economic policies, corruption and mismanagement that exacerbated pressure from tightened international sanctions on Iran. In 2013, Iranian voters again elected a cleric, Hassan Rouhani, against six lay candidates.

The political guardian

Support from Shiite clerics was traditionally one of the monarchy’s sources of political legitimacy. But the 1906-1911 Constitutional Revolution ended clerical control over Iran’s educational and judicial systems. Reza Shah Pahlavi’s forced secularization and modernization campaigns in the early twentieth century further marginalized Iran’s religious leaders. His son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, initiated land reform that alienated both of the monarchy’s traditional power bases: the clerics and large landowners.

Feeling abandoned by the state, major landowners formed an alliance with clerics incensed at the gradual decay of their own social and political power. The shah attempted to protect himself from waves of Islamic revolutionary sentiment by using minor clerics, such as Ayatollah Ahmad Khansari and Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari. But they lacked sufficient clout to prop up the monarchy.

After the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and declared that ultimate political authority would rest in the hands of a senior cleric, the velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist. The idea represented a revolution within Shiism, which had for centuries deliberately stayed out of politics and never before ruled a state. A clerical front soon emerged to oppose the specific idea of a velayat-e faqih and the broader concept of reinterpreting Shiite theology. Many clerics believed the velayat-e faqih’s absolute authority was actually non-Islamic.

Khomeini moved swiftly to stifle clerical opposition to his rule. Many opponents were killed, jailed, exiled or marginalized. He labeled his clerical critics “stupid,” “ossified,” “colonized” and “loyal to American Islam.” To widen his influence, the charismatic revolutionary leader also tried to assume control over the international Shiite community. But several grand ayatollahs from the Iranian holy city of Qom and Shiism’s theological center in Najaf, Iraq still enjoyed large followings. The stature of these religious figures—including Abul Qassem Khoi, Mohammad Reza Golpayegani and Shahab Al-Din Marashi Najafi—prevented the regime from swallowing the clerical establishment. Eight years of war with Iraq also prevented Khomeini from doing more to eliminate his clerical rivals all at once.

The successor

Khomeini died in 1989, and the Assembly of Experts selected Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new supreme leader. Khamenei was not a natural successor of Khomeini. He lacked serious religious and political credentials and was noticeably devoid of charisma. Many other figures in his generation were closer to and seen as potential heirs to Khomeini’s rule.

Khamenei’ chief rival was Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, who had actually been appointed Khomeini’s successor years earlier. But Montazeri had been fired after sharp disagreements, particularly after the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Khamenei’s appointment disappointed the traditional Shiite clergy; he was able to assume control only with the help of Iran’s security apparatus and state propaganda.

Clerical purge
 Khamenei gradually began to consolidate his hold on power. He was aided by the deaths of grand ayatollahs, such as Mohammad Reza Gopayegani and Shahab Al-Din Marashi Najafi, who had fought to guarantee the clergy’s independence from government. But the regime also launched a second concerted attack on the clerical establishment. It began with an attempt to monopolize management of the clergy, many of whom ran their own seminaries, had their own followings, and earned their own incomes.

The regime computerized and unified data on the clergy of all ranks to make information on their economic and intellectual lives accessible to the government. It also co-opted the clerical establishment through hefty government stipends as well as other exclusive and profitable privileges. Khamenei increasingly became the ultimate authority over all religious seminaries, as well as supreme leader of the Iranian government. By throwing in with the regime, the clergy also increasingly abdicated their role as the exclusive “managers of the sacred affaires” of Iranian society. The clerical establishment effectively became the central ideological apparatus of the state. And the government increasingly gained control of defining the “sacred.”

The Islamic regime now uses its control over mosque and state to suppress both “popular Islam,” Sufism and religious intellectualism, which have all gained ground among the public since the mid-1990s. “Popular Islam” is the faith as lived and practiced by ordinary people, and does not necessarily correspond with theological Islam or official Islam imposed by state. Sufism is an interpretation of Islam which focuses on spiritual content of the Prophet Mohammad’s message, rather than Islamic law. And religious intellectualism centers on liberal democratic interpretations of Islam. All three extend the borders of the “sacred” far beyond what is acceptable to the Islamic Republic. All three threaten the regime’s version of “official Islam.”

The regime’s expanding power over traditionally independent clerics has stifled religious thought and even forced clerics to disconnect from the establishment. Many do not have the intellectual freedom even outside the seminaries; they are still harassed by intelligence services. Another clerical minority has tried to withdraw from politics and avoid public activities, instead devoting themselves to worship and education. But the majority of clerics prefer the benefits of government financial resources and the political advantages of a close association with the regime.

Important organizations

  • Supreme Council of Qom Seminary: A group of clerics who are in charge of policy planning in Iran’s seminaries. Members of the council are appointed by the supreme leader and can be dismissed by him. The executive director of the clerical establishment is appointed by this council.
  • Center for Management of Seminaries: The executive management body of the clerical establishment which oversees all educational, administrative and economic activities of the clerics.
    Association of Teachers of Qom Seminary: A group of conservative clerics which oversees the Supreme Council of the Qom Seminary under supervision of the supreme leader. This group does not include all important teachers or scholars of the seminaries.
  • Association of Teachers and Scholars of Qom Seminaries: A group consisting of former officials of the Islamic Republic, as well as a few middle-ranking reformist clerics. This reformist group is marginal and has little support from the grand ayatollahs.
  • Association of Militant Clerics of Tehran: A group of clerics who participated in the revolution. It includes current and former members of the government. Along with the Bazaar – the traditional market – this group forms a pillar of old conservative establishment in Iran.
  • Al-Mustafa International University: A university owned and run by Ayatollah Khamenei. It specializes in educating non-Iranian clerics and has branches in several other countries.
    Special Court of Clerics: A court which works outside the judiciary system and does not respect the country’s juridical codes. The court’s head is appointed and dismissed by the supreme leader. The court is one of the government’s main tools for controlling clerics.
  • Imam Sadeq 83 Brigade: A military unit whose members are clerics. This unit was created during the Iran-Iraq War but now serves as the police force of the clerical establishment and works under supervision of Ayatollah Khamenei.


 Prominent clerics

  • Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani: A grand ayatollah in Najaf, Iraq. Sistani enjoys the most widespread following in the Shiite world. But his followers outside Iraq mostly look to him for answers on private religious matters rather than political issues.
  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: Current leader of Islamic Republic and the de facto head of the Shiite clerical establishment. Khamenei’s authority over the Shiite religious network extends beyond Iran, and is the richest and most effective Shiite religious network in the world.
  • Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi: A pro-regime ayatollah who has thousands of followers inside Iran. He is best known for his extra–clerical economic activities and benefits from government which have made him one of Iran’s richest clerics in Iran.
  • Mohammad Mojtahid Shabestari: A cleric who reads Islamic texts by modern hermeneutics and the methodology of historical criticism. He believes that Sharia or Islamic law is not valid in anything related to the public sphere. He unconditionally defends the universal declaration of human rights. Since the early 2000s, he chose to forsake his robe and turban in order to disassociate himself with the pro-regime establishment.
  • Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi: Originally Iranian but born and trained in Iraq, he was the leader, then the spokesman of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, he approached the new supreme leader and refashioned his political identity and agenda. Shahroudi had a major role in helping Ayatollah Khamenei with issuing fatwas. He was appointed by Khamenei as a member of the Guardian Council and then the judiciary chief for 10 years. As of 2015, he portrayed himself as a marja’ (source of emulation) and ran a religious office in Najaf, Iraq as well as Iran. Shahroudi, who benefits from government advantages in his international business, is considered to be among the wealthiest clerics.


  • Compared to the pre-revolutionary era, the quality of seminary education in Iran has declined significantly. Government intervention in all aspects of clerical life, including seminary curriculum, has changed the clergy’s traditional way of thinking and living.
  • The clerical establishment is now producing mostly missionaries and preachers, rather than true scholars of Islamic law and theology. The symbiotic relationship between the clergy and the country’s judicial and political order will continue the qualitative decay of Islamic education. Ironically, as Islamic scholarship decays, so too will the clergy’s ability to provide convincing religious justification for the government’s actions.
  • Since 1989, more non-clerical power centers have emerged or have gained power. Power centers, such as Revolutionary Guards, have different and sometimes incompatible political and economic interests, which make them the clergy’s rival rather than ally.
  • Although the clerics in the Assembly of Experts will carry out the legal process of selecting the next supreme leader, they are unlikely to have much of a say in the decision. Due to the supreme leader’s role as commander and chief of the armed forces, the Revolutionary Guards have a vested interest in the appointment of Khamenei’s successor and may therefore play a bolder role in the process. Political shareholders in the intelligence, judicial and business communities may also try to ensure a result that benefits them.
  • Iranian reformists such as the pro-democracy, student and women’s movements have secular demands: they call for elimination of various forms of discrimination embodied in the constitution. This vision for Iran leaves little room for clerics’ leadership. Even if a minority of clerics would like to join civil society movements, it would be as followers rather than leaders.

Great Expectations

The Washington Quarterly
Fall 2015

Regardless of whether the nuclear deal succeeds or fails, Iranian society is undergoing substantial changes that make the Islamic Republic’s longer-term future difficult to predict.

12235008_10153607943696357_431259391222262661_nThe implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) heralds a new era for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the region. Over the past decade, by resisting unprecedented economic as well as political pressure and ignoring UN Security Council resolutions, Iran managed to significantly advance its nuclear program while avoiding a major military conflict. More recently, despite mounting opposition from critics in Tehran, Washington, and elsewhere, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and lead U.S. negotiator John Kerry, as well as President Obama, have overcome historically deep-rooted problems and perils, arriving at the JCPOA.

The nuclear deal’s significance in the Islamic Republic’s history is comparable only to UN Security Council Resolution 598, in 1987, which called for a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq after eight years of bloody war. If Iran and the P5+1 comply with the JCPOA for the next fifteen years, Iran’s economy will become fully integrated into the global economy and its peaceful nuclear program will then be thoroughly legitimized. What happens after those fifteen years depends on many factors and actors. It is likely that Iran will have a new Supreme Leader, given Khamenei’s age (he was born in 1939); however, it is impossible to predict whether a significant political shift will accompany this leadership change. Iranian society is also changing rapidly, a reality that further complicates these considerations.

For Iran’s immediate future, the most urgent questions relate to the nuclear deal. The JCPOA’s sustainability is uncertain, and all parties need to identify parameters to strengthen the agreement’s implementation. Since the JCPOA is neither a treaty nor a convention, Rouhani’s government does not understand it to be legally binding, and as a result, to require the approval of the Majlis, or Iranian parliament. This approach to the JCPOA by both sides reduces issues of compliance and enforcement to a question of political will, which means Iran and the United States need to gradually build confidence after decades of no diplomatic ties. Bolstering political will is tricky, however, since it is a force that can go either way; political will helped bring about Iran’s nuclear program in the first place, so using it to ensure the JCPOA’s success is uncertain. But it is the key to the agreement’s future…

View the full version of this excerpt on the Washington Quarterly website.


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.


Forget the Fatwa

Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
National Interest
March 14, 2013
Even if the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons were enshrined in a UN document, strong monitoring and verification measures would still be the indispensable core of any agreement.

Iranian experts are set to meet their P5+1 counterparts in Istanbul next week to discuss the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. They are likely to reprise a long-standing claim: Iran will never build nuclear weapons, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa banning “the bomb.” (In fact, Khamenei restated his position on this matter just a few weeks ago.) They will explain that this fatwa is an important confidence-building measure that the P5+1 have yet to adequately acknowledge. But there is more to consider than what will likely be conveyed during these expert-level talks.

Khamenei has spoken on this topic numerous times in the past decade, and such oral pronouncements do indeed have the same legal standing as a written fatwa. Khamenei’s precise formulation, however, has varied. He has at times appeared to tacitly permit the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, but not their use. On other occasions, he has categorically forbidden stockpiling and development, as well as the use of nuclear weapons.

This should not be surprising. Fatwas are not immutable, and can be altered depending on circumstances. The founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, modified his position on a number of issues — taxes, military conscription, women’s suffrage, the legitimacy of the Shah’s monarchy, and apparently even chemical weapons. And Ayatollah Khamenei could alter his fatwa regarding nuclear weapons should he deem it necessary. Because this could undermine the value of the fatwa as a confidence-building measure, some former Iranian officials have suggested that the Iranian parliament could pass legislation making the fatwa the law of the land. Conversely, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has suggested that the fatwa could be adopted as an official UN document as a way of building confidence.

Yet these proposals would not solve the confidence problem, because it is the principle of maslahat (the interest of the regime) that guides the formulation of Iranian policy. Before he died, Ayatollah Khomeini ruled that the Islamic Republic could destroy a mosque or suspend the observance of the tenets of Islam if its interests so dictated. And the constitution of the Islamic Republic invests the Supreme Leader with absolute authority to determine the interest of the regime. He can therefore cancel laws or override decisions by the regime’s various deliberative bodies, including the Majlis (parliament), the Guardian Council, and the Expediency Council. Likewise, Iran’s checkered history of adherence to UN documents and resolutions (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a raft of UN resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program) raises questions about the utility of making the fatwa a UN document.

Further muddying the waters, spokesmen for the Islamic Republic have a habit of proffering convenient interpretations when it comes to fatwas and foreign policy. When Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie sparked a crisis in relations with Europe, Iranian foreign-ministry officials tried to downplay its importance, claiming that the fatwa only reflected Khomeini’s personal opinion and was not binding on the Iranian government. Now Iranian foreign-ministry officials want the international community to believe that Khamenei’s fatwa is a binding religious ruling that would prevent the Islamic Republic from getting the bomb. So which one is it?

The history of Iran’s chemical weapons fatwa, moreover, raises additional questions. During the Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Khomeini reportedly issued a fatwa regarding chemical weapons. But it is unclear whether the fatwa banned the development and production of chemical weapons, or only their use. It is also unclear whether it was eventually altered in the face of escalating Iraqi chemical warfare. Whatever the matter, the fatwa did not ultimately stop Tehran from producing a “chemical weapons capability” (which is the vague formulation used by representatives of the Islamic Republic) during the latter phases of the war — although it seems that Iran did not use this capability against Iraq. After the war, the Islamic Republic reportedly dismantled and destroyed its chemical-weapons capability and signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

This precedent raises two very different questions of particular relevance to this discussion: If Iran’s chemical fatwa did not preclude it from subsequently acquiring a chemical-weapons capability, would Iran’s nuclear fatwa preclude it from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability? And just as Iran eventually gave up its chemical-weapons capability (so it seems), would it be willing to negotiate away its nuclear-weapons potential?

Regarding the first question: for now, Tehran appears to be seeking a latent breakout capability that will effectively provide “nuclear deterrence without the bomb.” It is treading this path, at least in part, because it was unable to build a secret parallel nuclear program — which is what it was apparently trying to do by building undeclared enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow.

As for the second question: Tehran strongly supported the creation of the CWC, and likely hoped to gain international legitimacy for the Islamic Republic and for its nuclear program by complying with its terms and giving up its declared chemical-weapons capability. By contrast, Iran insists that its participation in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) confers on it an “unalienable right” to enrichment — providing it with a de facto nuclear breakout capability. For this reason, Iran’s nuclear fatwa — even if enshrined as a UN document — is no substitute for strong monitoring and verification measures, which are the only way to have any degree of confidence that Iran is adhering to its treaty obligations.

Some U.S. officials believe that the nuclear fatwa provides a diplomatic opening for Washington, and an opportunity to press Tehran to live up to its professed religious principles. Experts from Iran and the P5+1 should explore this issue further in their forthcoming meeting in Istanbul. The goal should be an agreement in principle to translate the tenets embodied in the Supreme Leader’s nuclear fatwa into robust monitoring and verification arrangements for any future agreements with the Islamic Republic regarding its nuclear program. As during the Cold War, “trust, but verify” remains the essential basis for any sustainable nuclear deal with Iran.

Michael Eisenstadt directs the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute. Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Institute. They coauthored the 2011 study Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy.


Deja Vu in Cairo

March 1, 2013
I arrived at the hotel at 4:30 p.m. I left my baggage in the room, picked up the map and went out. I had read on the plane that there was a demonstration in Tahrir Square organized by Salafists protesting against the drafted constitution, and instead arguing for Shari’a as the sole basis of legislation. I walked for about fifteen minutes and found my way through the square. It was my first time in Cairo. The polluted sky was darkening. The square was packed with women and men. There were two podiums in two corners of the square on which organizers were chanting slogans. People were shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” in approval of the speakers’ messages. Some were holding signs supporting the place of Shari’a in the constitution, while others decried Mursi’s record as president.

A sign caught my attention: “Shari’a is the main component of Egyptian identity, Muslim and Christian.” I continued walking around the square, listening to the speakers and observing the protesters’ expressions. The Nour party — the major Salafi party — and Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be absent. The square was full of radical Salafists, who did not take any part in the revolution that took place in Tahrir Square. In Egypt, the Salafists have only recently become politicized, in the aftermath of Mubarak’s collapse.

My father was a revolutionary prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution. He spent a few months in prison until the shah left Iran and Khomeini came into power. Despite the fact that I was five years old at the time of the revolution, the events that transpired stimulated my interest in politics, especially the modern political history of Iran. The atmosphere of Tahrir Square conjured memories of my childhood. The looks of frustration and anger, groups of unfortunate women occupying the streets, and slogans advocating the superiority of Islam and the incorporation of Islam into political and social life were all too familiar from my life in Qom — the center of the Shi’ite clerical establishment — where political activism occurred with great frequency. Although it was my first time in Egypt, I could not help but feel a certain sensation of familiarity with my surroundings.

Two days later, while I was meeting a friend at Cairo University, I ran into Hassan Hanafi, a professor of philosophy and a prominent leftist-Islamist intellectual. When I was introduced to him as an Iranian scholar residing in United States, his expression changed. He approached me and began to murmur: “When the Islamic revolution first took place in Iran, we were all excited here. Now we are deeply disappointed, because of Iran’s support to Bashar Al-Assad.” I wanted to respond, but he continued: “We don’t care about the three disputed islands, we don’t care about referring to the Gulf as ‘Persian’ or ‘Arab,’ but we do care about Syria. Iran shouldn’t damage its revolutionary credentials by funding Assad in his crackdown on Muslims.” There was no room for me to respond at this point. He seemed optimistic about the Muslim Brotherhood’s new-found power in Egypt. I had heard that President Mursi addressed Hanafi in a meeting of scholars and intellectuals; the president had told him he owed much to Hanafi intellectually, and that he had read much of his work.

The university was full of young students. I have never seen any university, in any country, that was so crowded. To my surprise, almost all of the women were wearing hijab. I was told that only Christians were likely to forgo it, and that nearly all Muslim women were covered. As I entered the university, I thought to myself that compared to Egypt, Iran could not possibly be considered Islamic. In Iran, wearing hijab was a matter of choice before the revolution. It was only when Islamists came to power in 1979 that wearing hijab became mandatory for all women regardless of their faith. Nowadays Iranian women, especially those in metropolitan areas, accessorize the garment and use it more as a public statement, in a quasi-defiant act to show that the law is their sole reason for wearing it. It was my belief that when Islamists came to power in Iran, there was a need for the government to re-Islamize society. But in the case of Egypt, society has been greatly Islamized by organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists over the last forty years under Egypt’s military government.

A friend of mine, who also teaches philosophy at Cairo University, asked me to give a lecture to his class on Iran’s revolution and the consequent writing of a new constitution, so that his students could compare the Iranian experience to that of Egypt. I agreed.

I entered the class of around 150 students and proceeded to lecture in standard Arabic for about an hour and a half. I explained that immediately after the Iranian revolution, there was a dispute over the role of Shari’a, similar to the ongoing dispute in Egypt. Ayatollah Khomeini promised the implementation of Shari’a if he came to power, but his statements prior to the revolution insisted on concepts such as democracy, freedom of speech and the will of the people. Khomeini held that since Islam is superior to all other religions, it would translate into effective lawmaking, in turn creating the best society on earth. Who is the best person to take on the responsibility of implementing Shari’a? Who is best suited to rule an Islamic society or government? Khomeini’s response was clear and decisive: an ayatollah, or Shi’ite jurist, one who is an expert in Shari’a and knowledgeable of its intricacies. As a result, the concept of vilayat-e faqih, the “rule of the Shi’ite jurist” was embedded into the constitution in 1979 in the office of the rahbar, or “leader.”

Just as Egyptian liberal secular forces requested more time to draft the constitution while the Muslim Brotherhood was in a hurry to ratify it, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted on ratifying the constitution quickly, neglecting those who were not yet convinced of the concept of vilayat-e faqih. By accelerating the ratification process, Ayatollah Khomeini terminated public debate over critical disputes within the constitution and marginalized secular, liberal intellectuals and political activists.

However, when Khomeini actually implemented Shari’a, he soon realized that Shari’a was not compatible with Iranian society. Conversely, Egypt initiated its process of re-Islamization under its military state, and lost the liberal spirit that thrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Iranian modernization took place under the Pahlavi monarchy, making it difficult for the population to accept a transition back to a society lacking the modern institutions they had become accustomed to. For example, under Shari’a, women are forbidden from appearing on television, acting in movies or playing music. But how could radio and television function without women? How is it possible to enforce a ban on women playing music?

Khomeini decided to loosen his grasp on Shari’a, and gradually one religious duty rose in importance above the others: the safeguarding of the Islamic regime. Khomeini’s idea was that safeguarding the Islamic government was of such importance that drinking wine or lying were permitted if it served this purpose. In other words, a ruling ayatollah differs from other Muslims in his ability to override Shari’a in instances of conflict between Shari’a and reasons of state. As such, Shari’a was placed in a position to complement the will of the ruling ayatollah, instead of being the foundation of legislation. It was what the ruling ayatollah recognized as the interests of the Islamic regime that dictated the government’s behavior, not Shari’a. To take it one step deeper, it is the personality of the ruler that replaced the institution of Shari’a; in essence, it became a complete Islamic totalitarianism.

I could see that the students were quite shocked by the contents of my lecture. The story of the Islamic Republic is not well known among the public in Arab countries. I exited the class and university and became lost in the polluted streets, which also reminded me of Tehran. Driving in Tehran is eerily similar to driving in Cairo. A passerby would have a really hard time crossing the street. Drivers have the right of way at all junctures; powerless people have fewer rights.

My hotel stopped serving alcohol in 2010, when a Saudi merchant bought it. There was once a famous nightclub that occupied the hotel’s penthouse, which had closed too. If one was familiar with Egyptian society, one should not be surprised by the influence of Islamist thought in the country. Much of Egyptian society had been taken over by Islamists long before the government fell under their control.

The really striking phenomenon of the revolution in Egypt is the presence of Salafists. In Iran, we also had religious fundamentalists who did not participate in the revolution but who demanded a share of power once the revolution had subsided. One example is Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who was not politically active prior to the revolution. He even discouraged people from participating in the Iran-Iraq War. When Khomeini died, he suddenly became immersed in the political scene. He denies every democratic interpretation of existing political institutions in Iran. He firmly believes in the sacred status of the ruling ayatollah, and is known as the ideologue of violence in Iran. Figures like Mesbah — who refuses to acknowledge elections as a democratic procedure — are useful instruments of the government for making the ruling ayatollah look moderate. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, often uses people like Mesbah as leverage to advance his policies in the face of his critics.

Salafists also seem to be useful in this sense for the Muslim Brotherhood, despite their theological differences. The Muslim Brotherhood seems moderate and a somewhat pragmatic party in comparison to the Salafists. In particular, I was astonished by the number of Salafist, anti-Shi’a books in bookstores. It occurred to me that one of the biggest challenges in the Arab world — and also elsewhere in the Islamic world, like Pakistan — is the rising tension between Shi’ites and Salafists (not Sunnis). This transcends the historical conflict between the two branches of Islam. The Salafist version of Islam is rooted more in the modern history of Islam than in its past.

In Iran, we were always amazed that the first so-called Islamic revolution took place in Iran, a country in which Islam forms only a part of national identity. To clarify, the revolution was not originally Islamic, it became Islamic after two or three years as Islamists consolidated their power. The Islamization of a revolution is a process. Many Iranian intellectuals thought that since Islam is a greater part of the Arab identity, the emergence of an Islamic government would naturally come about in an Arab country first. But history is not mathematics, nor is it based in actuarial science. Iran was the first country to install an Islamic government, but if history teaches us anything, it is that people rarely learn from it. Iran was so modernized before the revolution that the government failed to make the country an example of Islamic utopia. This was not the case in Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbor. Because that state was particularly poor in terms of modern institutions and the incorporation of aspects of modernity into its culture, the Taliban succeeded in creating an Islamic utopia, suppressing freedom and annihilating politics in the process. The Taliban government was overthrown not by the Afghan people, but through an invasion of allied forces led by the United States. Absent this invasion, nobody can guess how long it could have lasted — perhaps decades.

Things in Egypt are different. When I was walking in the streets and looking at old buildings, a sense of regret and pity overwhelmed me. Those bourgeois buildings have history, and their current state reveals many of the ideological, class and cultural failures associated with them. The buildings looked as pitiful as King Lear in Shakespeare’s play. Iranian Islamists have control over the oil reserves. This is the only way Iran could afford an eight-year war and also pursue its nuclear program. Egypt is not an oil-rich nation, and its economy is in a far worse state than that of Iran’s in 1979. Islamists — both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists — depend on foreign aid. The Islamic Republic had so much money that it was able to place the “exportation of revolution” at the top of its agenda. Egypt is a part of the Arab world. The Islamic Republic is an increasingly isolated government. The overwhelming amount of power that Islamists possess in Egypt did not start two years ago. If the government in Iran became devoid of Islamists, Iranian society would show its true secular face. The situation is complicated in both countries, and no one can predict how much longer the Islamists’ reign will last in either one.

The significant source of hope should be the intellectuals in both countries. Enabling society to reflect on its experience is the only way to escape political crisis and avoid repeating past mistakes. This is how Egyptian and Iranian intellectuals can benefit from each other most in helping liberate their political and social imprisonment, by serving as the living memory of both societies, of their triumphs and mistakes.


The Future of the Marjayia

This article was first published in The Almajalla magazine.

The current form of religious leadership over the Shi’ite community, marjayia, was founded in the 1830s when Mohammed Hassan Najafi became the first transnational Shi’ite religious authority (marja) in Najaf, Iraq. Najafi created a universal patronage network through which he received religious taxes and endowment incomes, and appointed religious representatives from Shi’ite cities in Iraq to India.
In the 16th Century, Shi’ite jurists (mujtahids) had established a new conceptual theory describing the relationship between community leaders and Shi’ite worshipers. According to the theory, each worshiper should either reach the highest educational level in Shi’ite jurisprudence (ijtihad) or follow a living person who has attained such a level. The theory of ‘following’ (taqlid) was intertwined with another significant theory, which permitted Shi’ite jurists to receive religious taxes on behalf of the infallible and hidden twelfth Shi’ite Imam. It is believed that this Imam will return at the end of time to establish a just global government. Thereafter, a new form of Shi’ite leadership emerged that both provided the monarchy with legitimacy and was protected by it, but was also financially independent from it.
Ever since, the marjas have been the highest religious authorities in Shi’ism and are followed by a large number of Shi’ite worshipers on mainly juridical issues. While there is no theological justification in classical Islam for a clerical class, today’s clerical establishment is the principal religious institution in the Muslim world, and especially in the Shi’ite world.As Mohammed Arkoun (a late modern scholar of Islam) said, “Islam is theologically Protestant and politically Catholic.” In contrast to the papacy and the Catholic clerical institution, the Shi’ite marjayia is quite a recent establishment that was only started about 200 years ago. Another way in which the marjayia differs from the papacy is that the marjayia does not need to be in the hands of a single person. The most important difference, though, is that unlike in the papacy, the marjayia’s authority is personal and not institutional.

Before the 1830s, the Shi’ite leadership was utterly local. Each region had jurists whom the lay people followed, to whom they paid their taxes, and from whom they received religious and juridical advice. The modern world—especially modern telecommunication and transportation— transformed local Shi’ite leadership into a transnational institution.
The 21st century will witness a new form of religious authority in the Shi’ite community, which is neither local nor transnational. The emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the confluence of religious and political authorities in Iran was a fundamental turning point. However, the absence of Ayatollah Ali Sistani (B. August 4, 1930) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (b. July 16, 1939) from the scene would be a benchmark for the new era.

Politics of Marjayia in the Modern Time
In theory, Shi’ite jurisprudence tasks a marja with issuing a fatwa, or a religious ruling, but leaves their followers to decide on the applicability of God’s order to specific cases and subjects. For instance, if a marja states that drinking wine is forbidden, it is his follower’s duty to make sure that the liquid inside the glass is not wine but water. Followers should ask their marja only general questions and are responsible for applying his verdict to specific cases on their own. In practice, though, followers ask their marja advice on specific issues and circumstances. Thus, the marja’s religious authority has expanded from jurisprudence to politics and society.

Masoomiya madrasa in Qom

A significant turning point was Mirza Mohammad Hassan Shirazi’s 1891 fatwa that forbade the use of tobacco. This fatwa was a response to Nasser Eddin Shah Qajar of Iran granting the British Imperial Tobacco Company the exclusive rights to produce, sell, and export all of Iran’s tobacco in return for annual royalties. Later, the Shi’ite marjas in Iraq—who were predominantly Iranians—intervened in Iranian affairs by supporting either the pro- or anti-constitutional movement. The founding of Qom Seminary in 1921 was a regarded as a necessary step in creating a powerful clerical establishment inside Iran and decreasing the influence of Iraq-based marjas’ over Iranian society and politics. The Shi’ite marjayia, however, continued to remain a transnational entity. Religiously, a marja’s fatwa is valid for his followers, regardless of where his followers reside.
Since the marja’s authority was transnational and he was not limited in terms of the subject matter he could issue fatwas on, he was free to meddle in politics—especially the politics of countries other than the one in which they resided. This was deeply problematic. Although the founding of Qom Seminary in the early 20th century partially solved this problem for the Iranian government, it did not fix it indefinitely. The emergence of the Islamic Republic and the repressive policies of Saddam Hussein against the Shi’ite community and its clerical establishments in Iraq diminished the political influence of Iraqi marjas in Iran.
Although the Islamic Republic was not able to completely resolve the tension between the clergy and the modern state, the regime’s control over the clerical establishment in the region stole much of the Shi’ite clergy’s freedom in political affairs. The Islamic Republic has made its clergy the richest in Shi’ite history and enabled them to have access to government and non-government resources that was denied to them in the past. By legitimizing its banking system, the Islamic Republic paved the way for marjas to use banks instead of accumulating cash in their houses. The Iranian regime has also provided exceptional opportunities for clergy to get involved in business. The Internet has also opened the door to a new world for marjas. These modern forces are shaping a new era in Shi’ite leadership.

Characteristics of the New Leadership
The first feature of the new era in Shi’ite leadership is that religious authority is separate from political authority. By this, I do not mean secularization or a separation between government and religious institutions. Separation, in this case, means that those clerics who do play a political role and assume political positions are not necessarily marjas or mujtahids. Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and Muqtada Sadr in Iraq are examples of ambitious clerics who did not study Shi’ite jurisprudence in seminaries enough to be considered a mujtahid.
Consequently—and this is another feature of the new era—marjas’ views on politics have become less important than before. This separation mainly started in the 20th century, when spokesmen and groups promoting Islamic ideology tried to differentiate themselves from the traditional clerical institutions. An example of this trend is Mojtaba Mir Lohi, known as Navvab Safavi, who founded Fadaian-e Islam, the first fundamentalist Islamist group in pre-revolutionary Iran. There were many other militant clerics in Pakistan and the Shi’ite Arab strongholds who were more comfortable working with lay people than the clergy. Their desire to mobilize people differed from that of the marja: while the marja represent the most conservative side of the religious spectrum, the militant clerics’ organization and ideology were motivated by radical political action. Khomeini was a historical exception.
From this separation, another characteristic emerges: the eclectic approach of followers to the marjas they followed. In the past, a follower followed his marja on all issues on which that marja had an opinion. Many political and non-political reasons have led today’s followers to selectively obey the opinions of their marjas. For instance, many practicing female worshipers follow a marja on numerous religious issues but do not follow him on those fatwa which suggest discrimination against women, such as polygamy or the wearing of the hijab. Many worshipers also distinguish between private religious issues and public issues that a marja is not necessarily an expert on. For example, in Lebanon many Shi’ites follow Ayatollah Sistani on issues related to prayer, fasting, hajj, marriage, and divorce, but not on politics. On politics and social issues, they might listen to Hassan Nasrallah, Khamenei, or other political leaders. Therefore, the relationship between marja and follower has greatly changed, and the follower is not a passive practicing worshiper. Today’s followers, especially women, have much more agency in reshaping the relationship between their community and its leadership.
Another aspect of the new era is that a marja’s financial resources are no longer confined to religious taxes. In the past, marjas collected religious taxes and endowment incomes, and stocked them in their own houses or those of their representatives. This money was then distributed among the clergy or spent on building and running madrasas, mosques, charities, and so on. Today, marjas can benefit from government aid. They have the economic advantage to run businesses, make investments, and import and export goods. In the past, a marja’s popularity and following was based on his financial capability. Today, this is no longer the case. Khamenei, for example, is the richest marja in the Shi’ite world—not because of his ability to attract followers, but because of his access to government resources. If Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, former chief of the Iranian judiciary, claims to be a marja and opens an office in Najaf , it is not because of his ability to create a vast network of patronage for himself, but rather because tremendous business opportunities were provided to him by the Iranian government. This fundamental change makes marjas more independent of their followers but also more dependent on the economic frameworks set up by governments.
However, marjas have lost their monopoly over religious institutions. Not only does the Iranian government fully control Iran’s clerical establishment (and partially Iraq’s) and other religious institutions, but in the future there will be many religious institutions that marjas will not be able to have any control or supervision over. Influential non-marja clerics, government agencies, radical lay Islamists, and other type of people will be able to run religious institutions without relying on arrangements with marjas, allowing for dozens of forms of authority parallel to the authority of the marja to emerge.
The marjas will remain the representatives of conservative Islam. Due to the ever-changing nature of the Shi’ite community’s social policies, forms of religiosity are constantly evolving. When the religious discourse of the marjas becomes less attractive to the upper-middle and upper classes, educated women, and the youth, these groups will invent their own religiosity. Reformist discourse created by religious intellectuals, which reemphasizes spirituality and morality over jurisprudence and theology, would consequently be more appealing. However, the marjas will still be a model to follow for millions of Shi’ites who adhere to an unreformed version of Shi’ite jurisprudence. As in Judaism and Christianity, where the orthodox and the catholic respectively continue to live as they have done for centuries alongside several other forms of Christianity and Judaism, conservative Islam—crystalized in traditional clergy—will also survive alongside other forms of Shi’ite authority.
In the new era, marjas will need to act more within the framework of the nation-state. If Sistani does not react to Iranian politics or Bahraini politics, it will be because the marja’s ability to influence other governments or peoples has been significantly reduced. The marjas would prefer to be quietist; otherwise they will be influential only in local politics. Despite the fact that globalization and the Internet would enable marjas to proselytize for their marjayia throughout the world and attract followers and religious taxpayers no matter where they live, the marja institution will ironically become more local. Globalized communication tools allow more jurists to claim marjayia, and the pluralism of marjayia and its competitive nature would be quite unprecedented. The age of the universal marja who could monopolize religious authority is over. Marjayia does not survive by inheritance. When a marja dies, his office will continue to run his charities and other organizations for a while. His assets would not be transferred to a new marja; therefore, every marja must build up his marjayia from the beginning. This enables more people to take the path of marjayia without the need for being the protégé of a previous marja.
Over the next few decades, the tension between Shi’ites and Sunnis will become a major element in reshaping the politics of the Middle East. Shi’ites in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Turkey will play a bolder role in the political dynamism of their own country. This change of status coincides with the decentralization of the Shi’ite leadership and a significant reduction in the role of marjas, who represent mostly conservative Shi’ites and influence their religious practices more than their social and political behavior. In the future, non-marja authorities will play a greater role. It will be interesting to observe how these authorities—the Iranian government (amongst others), clerical figures who lack high religious credentials, lay Islamists, and reformist religious intellectuals—will play a wider and deeper role in politics of Shi’ite community.


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.


read the full text of article here


Nuclear Fatwa

Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy
by Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
Free download

As the various threats posed by Iran’s nuclear efforts become increasingly clear to the international community, most published assessments of the regime’s strategy continue to overlook the role of religion. Because Iran is a theocracy, any attempt to fashion an effective policy toward its nuclear program must account for the religious values, beliefs, and doctrines that shape the country’s decisionmaking. In this Washington Institute report, Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji scrutinize popular assumptions regarding Ayatollah Khamenei’s longstanding fatwa banning nuclear weapons. Examining the process by which fatwas are issued and modified, they discuss the often contrary forces that could pull Tehran in unexpected directions as the nuclear program advances: the pragmatic doctrine of regime expediency, which often trumps religion, and the less-flexible doctrines of resistance and Shiite messianism that have been embraced by certain hardline factions.


The Iranian Clergy’s Silence

This article was first published in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology vol. 10
on July 12, 2010

“What we see is a military government, not the rule of the Shiite jurist.”

–Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri’s 2009 open letter to Shiite religious authorities in Islamic countries.

On June 13, 2010, when Mehdi Karrobi, the reformist candidate in Iran’s 2009 presidential elections, paid a personal visit to the home of Ayatollah Yousef Sanei in the Shiite holy city of Qom, dozens of militants also descended on Sanei’s residence to disrupt the get-together. The militants were members of the Imam Sadeq Brigade 83, a paramilitary unit consisting of young radical clerics that is under the direct command of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These days, the brigade functions as one of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s main instruments of suppression against clerics and others that oppose the regime. In the early morning hours after ransacking Sanei’s office, the brigade stormed adjoining offices that belonged to the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, causing a great deal of property damage. These were but the latest actions undertaken by the theocratic regime against Ayatollahs Sanei and Montazeri—both religious leaders that supported protesters and the anti-government demonstrations that swept Iran in the wake of the country’s disputed presidential elections in 2009. Indeed, only several days before the raid on Montazeri’s offices, it was reported that Khamenei traveled to Qom with plans to visit the Shrine of Masoumeh (the sister of the eighth imam recognized as legitimate by Shiites). Ayatollah Montazeri was buried at the same shrine, but the regime ensured that his tombstone was removed on the day of Khamenei’s arrival.[1]

Over a year since Iran’s hotly disputed 2009 presidential elections and the subsequent violent crackdown on the opposition Green Movement, the Iranian regime is continuing its campaign to suppress and discredit Shiite clerics. Not unreasonably, Iranian democrats and others in the opposition expect Shiite religious scholars to react to these affronts and to defend their own against the Islamic regime. And yet, by and large the clerical establishment has remained silent against the regime’s attacks. What accounts for this silence of so many?

While there are several explanations why the clerical establishment has been unwilling to defend reform-minded clerics against the regime’s attacks, what is clear is that the Shiite clergy’s silence does not stem from indifference. In fact, there is a fundamental tension between Iran’s clerical establishment and its theocratic government whose roots date back to the very inception of the Islamic Republic and, in important ways, even farther.

Relations between Shiite clerics and the Iranian state have been problematic and fraught with tension ever since the Safavid era, during which Shiism was adopted as the official religion of Iran. Before the Safavid period, few Shiites recognized or required an explicitly religious basis for political legitimacy, nor were they prone to advocate rebellion against the government. According to this classical view, everyone was obliged to support and obey the sultan—even though he acquired power by force and illegitimate means—because it was the sultan and the institutions of the sultanate that was charged with guarding and protecting the territories of Islam against infidels. However, by making Shiism the official ideology of the government, the Safavid rulers inadvertently helped to overturn this tradition of clerical self-subordination to temporal political power. In fact, many Shiites at the time believed that the establishment of a religious government before the return of the Hidden Imam was not legitimate; others within the clerical establishment believed it was necessary and sought to defend the Safavid regime.

As a consequence of this politicization of religion, Safavid rulers helped inaugurate a new historical phase of tension between Shiite clerics and the state, as well as a new era of competition within the clerical establishment itself over what the clergy’s proper relationship to political power should be. Often times, these intra-clerical rifts came to be reflected in an overtly political and bureaucratic struggle over whom among the clerical ranks would hold which offices in the government, including powerful state positions like the qadi, or judge. After the Safavids fell, influential kings tended to ignore the clerics altogether and fragile rulers invariably sought rescue from clerics. Such tensions within the clerical establishment and the rifts between clerics and kings lasted for nearly four centuries.

Ayatollah Khomeini intended to solve this tension between religious authority and political power once and for all by implementing the idea of velayat-e faqih—or, the guardianship of the jurist. In effect, his theory sought to unify the religious and political authorities in a new form of Islamic government and Shiite hierocracy; at the top of this new regime was the ruling jurist, a position that united both king and cleric. But the history of Iran since the Islamic revolution has shown that Khomeini’s vision has largely failed, and that the Shiite clerical establishment has not fully incorporated itself into the state apparatus.

The Khomeinist concept of “Islamic government” is rooted in an expressly modern ideology that has little basis within the religious and political traditions of Shiism. In 1979, when Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini mobilized people to courageously come into the streets and risk their lives for the sake of the Islamic revolution, many tradition-minded religious authorities stiffly resisted his political outlook and agenda. While Khomeini sought to overthrow the Shah and bring a decisive end to the monarchy, Shiite tradition historically accepted the monarchy and its institutions. Many Shiite scholars, in fact, considered the sultanate, not the republic, to be functionally in partnership with religion, and the kind of government that was best-suited for Muslims. For instance, Sayyed Abul Hassan Isfahani (1867-1946), an eminent religious authority, or marja, wrote that the “greatness of the sultanate is the highest dream of any devout Shiite, because the independence of an Islamic country, its security, and the immunity of Islam and Muslims depend on it.”[2]

Because of this traditional preference for the monarchy, many modernizing reform movements have faced stiff resistance from Shiite clerics in Iran. For example, after the decline of the Qajar dynasty, Reza Shah Pahlavi claimed that he sought to establish an Iranian “republic” similar to the one founded by Mustafa Kamal Pasha in Turkey, but Iranian clerics prevented him by arguing that the republican system was against Islam. As a consequence, Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to inaugurate the Pahlavi dynasty and rule Iran by continuing the tradition and institutions of monarchy.

When the Islamic revolution erupted in 1979, some high-ranking Shiite clerics openly criticized Khomeini for provoking ordinary people to rebel against the Shah and the monarchy. Exposing these people to the government’s violent reprisals was seen by many as a violation of Islam. In a 1965 meeting in Najaf, Ayatollah Mohsen Hakim, an Iraqi marja with an extensive following in Iran, confronted Khomeini, saying that “the way you resist [against the Shah’s regime] is not right, because we do not have a weapon and power. Our weapon and power is people, and they are looking to see where the wind is blowing.” Khomeini responded, “I did not do anything without research and reliable documents.” Hakim asked, “How will you answer to God for this bloodshed [that you’ve brought upon the people]?” Khomeini replied, “Imam Hossein rose up and he and some others became martyrs. Why was that? It was for saving Islam. Therefore we have to protest against Shah.”

At this point, Hakim became visibly upset. “Sir!,” he angrily retorted, “you compare yourself to Imam Hossein? Imam Hossein was an [infallible] imam whose obedience was obligatory for all worshipers and he was a knowledgeable person who was entrusted by God… shedding one single drop of blood of an innocent would bear a great responsibility before God.” According to a witness, Khomeni was at a complete loss for a response, and “then silence reigned.[3]”

In addition to the ongoing dispute between traditionalists and modernists, there are intractable struggles over the concept of Islamic government among modern Shiite scholars as well. Most modern jurists concur that, at bare minimum, an Islamic government is one that implements the Sharia, or Islamic law. Yet among these scholars, there has emerged virtually no consensus about the extent to which sharia law should, or even could, be implemented within a society for it to be properly considered ‘Islamic.’ (In the traditional Shiite legal system, the full implementation of sharia requires the presence of an infallible Imam. Since traditional Twelver Shiites believe the Twelfth Imam has gone into occultation, they consider the full implementation of Islamic law to be impossible at this moment in time—until his return.) Moreover, there is even less agreement among modern Shiite scholars over whether the implementation of Islamic law in a society requires the political rule of a Shiite jurist. This principle—that a jurist must rule, or velayat-e faqih, for Islamic law to be properly implemented—is of course the core tenet of Khomeini’s revolutionary teaching, upon which the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979. And it has laid at the crux of intra-Shiite religious and political disputation ever since.

One of the most prominent early opponents of Khomeini’s theory of the rule of the jurist was Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1905-1986.)[4] He was a recognized marja long before Khomeini, and was trusted by the Shah’s regime. Shariatmadari was also the most open-minded marja of his time. He tried, for example, to modernize the educational system of the Shiite religious seminaries, and he also sought to introduce clerics to the study of the modern humanities. Furthermore, Shariatmadari was well known for his resistance to the creeping politicization and radicalization of the Shiite clerical establishment.

Shariatmadari argued that clerics and jurists should not assume positions in government or seek political rule. He believed religious scholars should only involve themselves directly in government in the event that the government has collapsed—and even then, only for the purpose of helping to form a new government and re-establish order. According to Shariatmadari, only the absence of political institutions justifies a jurist’s direct intervention in political affairs; otherwise, the jurist is authorized only to judge a government based on Islamic criteria while sympathetically advising its rulers to respect and apply Islamic law.

In sharp contrast to Khomeini, Shariatmadari did not believe that there should be a paramount position for one special jurist to serve as the “ruling jurist,” or vali-ye faqih. In fact, while he recognized fundamental inequalities among religious scholars of differing ranks and learning and spiritual cultivation, Shariatmadari believed that all religious scholars were of an equal rank before government, or with respect to temporal political powers. He simultaneously maintained that religious authority was far superior to that of the temporal, political authorities who administered a society’s government. For these reasons, he believed religious scholars should not diminish their positions and demean themselves by seeking to occupy political office or play a political role.[5] For Shariatmadari, running a country was not essentially a religious job, as anyone who was qualified could occupy a governmental position—even an infidel, provided that he was respectful of Islamic law and rituals. In essence, a political ruler’s role was not unlike that of a plumber’s: One can appoint a ruler to govern a society just as one can hire a plumber to fix the pipes in one’s house.[6]

The learned, quietist teachings of scholars like Shariatmadari were not the only reason Shiite clerics resisted Khomeini. In fact, many clerics felt that the Khomeinist revolution did not go far enough. They had assumed that an Islamic republic would apply the sharia codes in all realms of human activity. However, when these scholars discovered that Khomeini was more tolerant than them regarding women and other issues, they condemned his government for failing to be sufficiently Islamic. (Ayatollah Sayyed Hassan Qommi, who was under house arrest for more than two decades after the revolution, is a leading proponent of this kind of criticism of the Islamic Republic.) In today’s Iran, there are still marjas who find fault with the current Islamic government from this perspective. For instance, Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani has fiercely criticized President Ahmadinejad’s decision to appoint several women as ministers of his cabinet.[7]

Of course, not all clerical resistance to the Islamic Republic has been based on principle. In fact, many Shiite clerics, both within Iran and without, opposed Khomeini’s revolutionary agenda for entirely personal reasons—just as many clerics today oppose Ayatollah Ali Khamenei because of their own personal grievances and vendettas.

Ayatollah Khomeini was especially adept at creating personal enemies within the clerical establishment. Few people in the history of Shiism engaged in publicly attacking and humiliating other clerics as frequently as Khomeini did. In his speeches and statements, Khomeini chastised high-ranking ayatollahs who disagreed with his principle of velayat-e faqih. He called them “stupid,” “blithering,” “backward,” and “monarchist clerics” who had been “deceived by colonialism,” and were “enemies of Islam and its prophet” as well as loyal to “American Islam” (a phrase meant to describe a liberal and pro-Western understanding of Islam). In 1987, Khomeini stated in an open letter to clerics around the country that “the extent to which your old father [himself] has been agonized by this petrified group [clerics who believe in separation of Islam and state] was much more than any pressure and difficulties by others.”[8]

Because of this antagonistic history between Khomeini and elements of the clerical establishment, some clerics to this day regard Khomeini—and Khamenei as well—as a tyrant who rose to power through illegitimate means and by selectively purging his clerical opponents. Others who early on championed the revolution expected that Khomeini would bring them to power; when Khomeini failed to do so, these clerics felt slighted and began to hate him. These personal disputes continue to shape the inner workings of the clerical establishment, and of the Islamic regime as a whole.

The success of Ayatollah Khomeini in implementing his theory of the rule of the jurist after the 1979 revolution has placed Shiite clerics in a very difficult position. For the first time in the history of Shiism, the revolution had installed an ayatollah in the position of the king; for many, this made the idea of the implementation of Islamic law seem possible. At the very least, it made the clerical establishment’s conventional reluctance to involve itself in political activity seem antiquated. Moreover, after decades of living under authoritarian and erratically secularist rule during the Pahlavi period, Iran became home to the only government on earth that was run by a Shiite scholar. This historic development was thus popularly invested with even divine significance—and especially within the Shiite community, which had experienced centuries of persecution at the hands of hostile governments.

The Islamic revolution thus dramatically transformed the Shiite clerical establishment’s relationship to Iranian political institutions, opening up entirely new horizons for political thought and endeavor. At the same time, the revolution created entirely new dynamics for which the clergy was ill-prepared. For example, before the Islamic revolution, a cleric might have accrued tremendous prestige and authority by popularly opposing an unjust government, and by portraying this conflict as a struggle between spiritual and temporal powers. But with the establishment of an Islamic state, any clerical opposition to the theocratic regime came to be seen as an internal fight between clerics, with both parties able to damage each other’s religious legitimacy and prestige.

In the years since the revolution, the formation of a new Shiite clerical hierarchy and the increasing concentration of power in the office of the supreme leader and jurist have rendered it increasingly difficult for clerics to register even mild criticisms of the Islamic regime in public. In fact, for a cleric to oppose the supreme leader and the religious hierarchy is seen as tantamount to dissenting politically with the most fundamental principle and institution of the theocratic regime itself—i.e., the absolute authority of the jurist.

The further institutionalization of the Islamic hierocracy has been reinforced by cultural practices within the Shiite community as well. Traditionally, Shiite jurists sought to avoid public disputes among themselves over non-scholarly issues as a way of pretending that they were pious and did not care about worldly affairs, only higher ones. While they openly squabbled amongst themselves over scholastic matters, the clerical community strived to portray itself to society at large as united on virtually all matters of consequence. After all, the clerics routinely claimed that as a class they were obligated to the highest of standards, as they professed to being the “heirs of prophets” (al-ulama warathato al-anbia) whose primary task is the safeguarding of the interests of the Islamic territories (Bayzato al-Islam) and preventing them from falling into chaos.

In addition to this, there are other important factors why clerics have generally been reluctant to publicly oppose or criticize the Islamic Republic. First of all, the supreme leader or 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, perhaps 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. For example, Ayatollah Shariatmadari was “tried” in this court. He was accused of being involved in a military coup to overthrow the regime 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 Shariatmadri himself was shown on state television making a “confession” and begging for Khomeini’s pardon.

In addition to the special court, the Islamic regime has developed a range of other techniques for enforcing its rule within the clerical establishment. Among other things, the Islamic regime claimed direct responsibility for the day-to-day management of clerical institutions, and this fundamentally altered the clergy’s access to financial resources.[9] To begin with, the Islamic government confiscated much of the property that 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.

Khamenei also exercises considerable control over the clerical establishment directly through his own office. Ahmad Marvi, a cleric and former intelligence official, is the deputy in the supreme leader’s office who deals with clerical affairs. The Ministry of Intelligence also supervises the establishment through its deputy on clerical affairs. Evidently other paramilitary units like the Imam Sadeq Brigade 83 have a significant role in intimidating the clerics and oppressing independent voices.

In more recent times, Khamenei’s office has spearheaded the computerization of the management of the clerical institutions, which has thereby 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 Qom Seminaries. Therefore, these payments ultimately require approval from the supreme leader’s representatives. The Center for the Management of Qom Seminaries also maintains a comprehensive database about 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, Iraq, who has always enjoyed considerable autonomy from the Iranian hierocracy, and who represents a more traditional Shiism—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 regime.

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. Furthermore, 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 and the Imam Reza Shrine and affiliated companies. Today, religious marjas altogether provide but a small percentage of the clerics’ financial needs. By contrast, the government and Khamenei himself are primarily in charge of financial issues in Shiite seminaries, especially in Iran.[10] As such, the economic role and authority of the marja has been systematically reduced, just as the regime’s authority and power over Shiite financial networks has been enhanced.

Moreover, since its establishment the Islamic Republic has created an entirely new network of institutions—seminaries and dozens of research institutes, community centers, and libraries—whose principal purpose is the propagation of an ideology favored by the regime. The regime 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 regime to dominate the intellectual life of Iran’s clerical establishment. This has been especially the case since the deaths of Grand Ayatollahs Abul Qassem Khoei, Mohammad Reza Golpayegani and Shahab Al-Din Marashi Najafi—all eminent scholars who opposed many aspects of the Khomeinist agenda. Following their deaths, the traditional centers of religious authority that operated as a religio-political check on the newly formed hierocracy went into steep decline, and a younger generation of clerics reared by the Khomeinist regime has come to occupy positions of great religious and political influence.

For clerics who are on the Iranian regime’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 in any period of history. Well-connected clerics and marjas favored by the regime are involved in lucrative business deals, receive exclusive governmental benefits, and can borrow large amounts of money from banks without sufficient guarantees for repayment. What’s more, many charities in Iran owned by marjas and other high-ranking clerics are doing business through corrupt dealings with the government.

The Khomeinist doctrine of the guardianship of the jurist requires that all clerics be subject to the orders of the supreme leader and jurist—just as any other Shiite 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 (velayat) over everything even beyond the Sharia 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.[11] What justifies the authority of the ruling jurist beyond the sharia or constitution is the interests of the regime. According to Khomeini, the expediency of the regime or its interests overrules all Islamic laws. 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.”[12]

Therefore, 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.

And for members of this corporation in good standing there are abundant rewards. 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 should be necessarily 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 regime is not so for the majority of clerics. The Islamic Republic has systematic 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.

The Islamic regime’s utilization of an array of both coercive instruments to punish anti-regime tendencies as well as incentives and other perks to encourage and reward pro-regime 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 Shiite clerics have, on balance, kept silent about the government’s violence against peaceful demonstrators following the June 12, 2009 presidential elections.

But the Shiite clergy’s silence and failure to respond to the regime’s oppressive violence has also brought to light something much more fundamental: that is, any clerical opposition to the regime, whether actual or potential, currently lacks an intellectually coherent and compelling Islamic alternative to the Islamic regime, and more specifically, a religiously-sanctioned theory about the relationship between Muslim jurists and the state that offers an alternative to the Khomeinist teaching that the jurist must rule.

This fact is apparent among those within the clerical establishment who claim to seek reform of the Islamic regime by making it more “Islamic.” While there is a wide range of opinions over what kinds of reforms are necessary for the regime to become more Islamic, no members of the clerical establishment have been willing to articulate an alternative to the theory of the rule of the jurist. Marjas like Ayatollah Youssef Sanei, for instance, may single out regime actions—such as the government’s violent crackdown against protesters—as being ‘un-Islamic,’ but they also make statements that unconditionally back the Khomeinist doctrine of the rule of the jurist. Other reformist clerics have voiced their frustrations with the supreme leader’s decisions, though have fallen short of criticizing the theory and institutions of the ruling jurist. For instance, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Dastgheib has criticized Khamenei because he feels that he is entitled and even obligated to do so by the constitution of the Islamic regime itself: as a member of Assembly of Experts, Dastgheib is part of a body whose job is to appoint the ruling jurist and supervise him. The assembly is also theoretically authorized to dismiss the ruling jurist if it determines that he has failed to operate properly or lost the necessary conditions.

While they might take issue with the repressive and erratic policies of Khamenei’s government, it seems that most clerics would prefer that the Islamic Republic survive. Indeed, many of the clerics who have been routinely identified as being part of the opposition appear to have reined in their support for the Green movement and sought reconciliation with the regime. They might have contentious debates among themselves over differing visions for reforming the Islamic regime, but they have been unable to offer an Islamic alternative to the rule of the jurist.

For these reasons, many in Iran and elsewhere have begun to look to Iraq for a new Shiite theory concerning how to structure the relationship between the jurists and the state. The revival of the Najaf Hawza and of a more traditional, politically quietist form of Shiism in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam regime has indeed begun to reshape the internal dynamics of the Shiite world as a whole. And yet, it may well be a mistake to assume that Najaf will provide an alternative Shiite way of organizing religious authority and political authority that would challenge Iran’s Khomeinist doctrine and institutions—at least any time soon.

In a recent meeting with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Ali Sistani expressed deep concerns about the conflict between Rafsanjani and Khamenei and what this meant for the future of the Islamic Republic. He told Rafsanjani, “If you [Rafsanjani and Khamenei] stay united, all problems will be solved. I know that you have said that for you [Khamenei’s] word is the last and that you would follow him, but I read your interviews with Mr. Ziba Kalam [a political scientist from University of Tehran] and found out that you [and Khamenei] have many [theoretical and jurisprudential] differences between you two.” The reporter who witnessed the discussion said that Rafsanjani failed to convince Sistani that he actually follows and obeys Khamenei.[13] This exchange suggests that, for Sistani, theoretical issues or matters of principle do not have the same importance as practical issues—including, foremost, the political unity and survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a powerful Shiite government grounded in the doctrine of the rule of the jurist.

Indeed, historically, Shiite jurisprudence has generally been guided more by practical considerations about the public interest than by theory-based or moral argumentation. Nowadays, the ultimate goal of Sistani and the jurists of the Najaf Hawza is to safeguard the clerical institutions and the interests of the marjas throughout the Shiite world. Their experience of living under the Saddam tyranny in Iraq taught them how quickly hostile political rulers can devastate these clerical institutions. Therefore, Sistani and Iraq’s clerical establishment will likely not take any action that will weaken or threaten Iran’s government and Ayatollah Khamenei, as they see the survival of the Islamic Republic as a powerful Shiite state as the best protection for Shiism and its most cherished institutions.

For the forseeable future, Iraqi Shiism will remain in important ways under the Iranian clerical establishment’s shadow. Iraq’s seminaries today have only a few thousand clerics, whereas there are nearly three hundred thousand in Iran’s seminaries. Wherever he might hail from, the aspiring Shiite cleric simply cannot become powerful if he is separated and disconnected from Qom.[14] Iraq’s senior Shiite clerics may not agree with a maximalist interpretation of velayat-e faqih and might sympathize with some anti-government religious strata of Iranian society, but they will most certainly restrain themselves from confronting the regime head-on or collaborating with its opponents. Iraq’s clerics, who are very much in the margin of the transnational Shiite clerical establishment, cannot afford this confrontation with the Islamic Republic, especially given their current vulnerabilities. For example, without Sistani’s office in Qom and his other facilities and properties in Iran, it would be extremely difficult for him to operate his marjayya. As such, barring the collapse of the Islamic Republic—an event that would be catastrophic for Shiite clerics, because of their unprecedented proximity to the political order—the future of the clerical establishment and of Shiism as a whole for the next several decades will likely be shaped more by developments in Qom than by those in Najaf.

While many within the Shiite clerical establishment have benefited enormously from the Iranian regime, they also cannot be completely happy with it. The clergy’s prestige and authority and wealth fundamentally depend on the people’s trust. Without that trust, those whom the clerics seek to lead will not follow them in religious or other matters, and will not pay them their religious taxes. The Islamic Republic, by providing clerics with exclusive political and economic rights and benefits, has increasingly undermined the clergy’s traditional independence from the state, and thereby placed the clergy’s future ability to win the people’s trust in jeopardy. To the extent that the clerical establishment is seen by ordinary Iranians as being close to the regime—or for that matter, complicit in its authoritarian and unjust rule—then it, too, will become the object of the opposition’s enmity.

Most senior clerics do not accept the Khomeinist doctrine of velayat-e faqih in its maximalist interpretation. After all, the maximalist interpretation of “guardianship of the jurist” effectively destroys the traditional position, prestige and functions of the jurist because it equates the jurist with ordinary people insofar as the jurist, like the people, is obligated to obey the ruling jurists in anything that relates to the public sphere. And yet, due to the intellectual poverty and the decadence of contemporary Islamic thought in general, clerics are unable to generate a new and alternative theory or conceptual framework for explaining sociopolitical realities and outlining a practical plan for reforming them.

For these reasons, many Shiite clerics have begun to return to older, pre-revolutionary Shiite theories about government, including the theory of sultanate. While this may be interpreted as a turn away from the Khomeinist principles that inspired the Iranian Revolution, it also represents an implicit acceptance of the authoritarian regime that the revolution created. Increasingly, the ruling jurist is seen as a sultan whose legitimacy from a religious point of view is of little relevance. In this theory of the sultanate, what matters most is that the sultan has the ultimate power. Since clerics can neither reform the current system from within Iran through political means nor advise the people on how to overthrow it (due to their lack of a coherent intellectual alternative to velayat-e faqih), more increasingly see the supreme leader as a sultan-like figure to whom obedience is obligatory for all. According to this perspective, even if this sultan doesn’t respect or fully implement Islamic law, and even if this Muslim leader might brutally punish his subjects (like Supreme Leader Khamenei) in the interests of protecting the Islamic regime, the jurists still dub him legitimate because a strong sultan whose strength is enhanced through loyalty of his subjects is best able to secure the Shiite territories and protect them from foreign aggressors.

Moreover, in today’s Iran, and because of the current government’s crackdown on elements of the religious establishment, a growing number of clerics have begun to take refuge in the tradition of taqiyya—a legitimate Shiite practice of deliberately disguising one’s religious or political beliefs in order to protect one’s life, money or safety. In this, Shiite clerics justify their general silence about the Islamic regime’s injustice and brutality toward the Iranian people by recalling a saying of Imam Ali, the Shiite’s first divine guide: “During civil disturbances be like an adolescent camel who has neither a back strong enough for riding nor udders for milking.”[15]

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This article will appear in Volume 10 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology published by Hudson Institute.


[1] See the report:,,5687709,00.html

[2] Manzoor al-Ajdad, Sayyed Mohammad Hossein, Marjaiyat dar Arsseh-ye Ejtima va Siasat, (Tehran: Shirazeh,1379) p. 157.

[3] Jafarian, Rasool, Tashayo dar Iraq, Marjaiyat dar Iran, Moasseseh-ye Motaleat-e Tarikh-e Moasser-e Iran, (Tehran, 1386) p. 95.

[4] For a short biography of Shariatmadari see: Milani, Abbas, Eminent Persians, The Men and Women who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979, Syracuse University Press, 2008, vol. 1, pp. 367-376

[5] Rooznameh-ye Ettelaat, 23 khordad 1358 & Nashriyah-e Khalq-e Mosalman, 1 Mehr, 1358 & 22 Mehr, 1358

[6] Hosseini Shirazi, Sayyed Monir Al-Din, Khaterat, Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, (Tehran, 1383) p. 256

[7] See Raja News report about this issue:

[8] Khomeini, Ruhollah, Sahifeh-ye Noor, Entesharat-e Vezarat-e Farhang va Ershad-e Eslami, Tehran, 1384, Vol. 21, p. 273

[9] For a detailed account of government control over the clerical establishment see: Khalaji, Mehdi, “Nazm-e Novin-e Rowhaniyat” in Iran Nameh, Tabestan va Paiiz-e 1387

[10] Khalaji, Mehdi, Last Marja, Sistani and the End of Traditional Religious Authority in Shiism, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 2006, available online:

[11] See Khomeni, Rouhollah, Sahifeh-ye nor, vol. p.

[12] Hajjarian, Said, Az Shahed-e Qodsi ta Shahed-e Bazari, Tarh-e no, Tehran, 1380, p. 90

[13] Rooznameh-e Jomhoori-e Eslami, 9/3/1388

[14] For instance, Sayyed Mohammad Hossein Fazlallah, a Lebanese jurist who entered into a bitter fight with the Iranian regime over marjayya, has in recent years finally reconciled with the Islamic Republic (he later opened an office in Qom). In early 90s when Khamenei was announced a marja, the Islamic republic spent millions of dollars in Lebanon to discredit Fazlallah and campaign for the marjayyat of Khamenei in Shiite community. This led to Fazlallah’s resentment and he cut his relationship with Iran for a number of years. But he knows very well that not having an office in Qom would pigeonhole him as a local marja, and not as a transnational leader.

[15] Imam Ali, Nahjul Balaaghah, (Potomac, MD: Ahlul-Bayt Assembly of America, 1996). 263