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.

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.


Testimony in the U.S. House of Representative

Axis of Abuse: U.S. Human Rights Policy toward Iran

Featuring Mehdi Khalaji
September 22, 2011

House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia

The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to be among the foremost countries in the world that systematically abuse human rights. The mechanisms of suppression in Iran have become so sophisticated that many of them are invisible. For instance, Iran is the largest prison for journalists in the world, yet a much larger number of journalists and political and human rights activists are not allowed to leave the country or lead an ordinary life even after being released on bail. They are also periodically subject to harassment by security and intelligence authorities. By enforcing its techniques of intimidation, the Islamic Republic has made society livable only for those who are loyal to the government.
The Western campaign against human rights abuses in Iran has proved to be extremely helpful. When Western governments or human rights organizations have responded in a timely and proper manner toward cases of abuse in Iran, the regime has felt the heat and become visibly more cautious. For example, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, initially sentenced to death by stoning, was saved only by pressures applied on the Islamic Republic by Western states and human rights organizations. In most of the cases in which prisoners’ situations were publicized or Revolutionary Court sentences against political and religious victims were highlighted in the West, the Islamic Republic either backed down or became more aware of the consequences of its decisions and actions regarding these specific cases…
Download Mr. Khalaji’s full prepared remarks (PDF).