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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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.

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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.

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Shiite Clergy’s Silence toward Syrian Crisis

Majalla

November 5, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Supreme Succession; Who Will Lead Post-Khamenei Iran

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

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Iran’s Regime of Religion

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

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

 

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Nuclear Fatwa

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

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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: http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,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: http://www.rajanews.com/detail.asp?lang_id=&id=34710

[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:http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC04.php?CID=250

[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

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The Iranian Republic of Fear

Guardian, January 21, 2010
Iran’s clerical regime governs by a simple formula: He who is the most frightening wins. “Victory by terrifying” is a trope that is present in many of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speeches. Indeed, it is a reliable guide to his political philosophy.
This view was not invented by Khamenei, but rather is drawn from the Quran and the Shiite tradition. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard have uniforms bearing a Quranic verse that reads, “Make ready for them whatever force and strings of horses you can, to terrify thereby the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them that you know not; God knows them.”

Furthermore, in the Shiite tradition, the strategy of the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah, will be to intimidate all his enemies upon his return to Earth.

But cultivating fear in others also makes one more susceptible to fear, and nothing is more frightening to Khamenei and the leaders of the Islamic Republic than the social dynamism unleashed by the democratic movement brewing inside the country.

The regime seems convinced that there is only a small likelihood of a military attack on its nuclear program. It does not believe that sanctions can bring about its collapse. Thus, external forces do not appear to pose much of a threat.

What has shaken the government, and indeed threatens the existence of the ruling Islamic ideology, is the pressure of the Iranian people for human and political rights. Hossein Saffar Harandi, a former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, expressed this fear when he said that “citizens who want the government to be accountable before the people (are) part of a soft war against the Islamic Republic.”

For 30 years, the Islamic Republic has relied on the heavy hand of the internal-security apparatus to silence dissidents and critics. Fear is a cornerstone of the republic. But since Iran’s postelection crisis in June, the people have become fearless and, in turn, are terrifying the government.

The extent to which Khamenei fears this social upsurge is stunning. He is afraid of the humanities, books, arts, universities, satellites, the Internet and even mobile phones. For him, the state must control public access to global culture and technology. If not, these forces will work to undermine the state.

Unlike the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei lacks charisma and deep learning. Both his political legitimacy and religious authority are highly questionable, and the street violence and prison brutality of recent months has undermined his authority and shaken his social base. Increasingly reliant on the Revolutionary Guard as the bulwark of his regime, Khamenei has cut himself off from the possibility of compromise.

Khamenei’s foreign policy is now completely subject to how the domestic situation in Iran develops. As recent months have shown, he will consider a compromise with the West only when he loses his certainty that all is under control internally. It is like a seesaw: Khamenei’s domestic weakness changes the balance of Iran’s foreign policy.

Thus, initially intimidated by the postelection crisis, the regime acceded to the Oct. 1 proposal in Geneva that would have allowed the controlled enrichment of Iran’s uranium outside the country. In November, when the government thought that street brutality had intimidated the protest movement, Iranian officials backed away from the compromise.

In this sense, the Iranian people can be regarded as a strategic ally of the West, not only because they want democracy at home and peace in the region, but because their continued protests offer the West the most effective leverage against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

This regime cannot survive in the long term with a political crisis such as the one it now faces. Continued crackdowns will result in a military dictatorship, while an accommodation with the protest movement would produce some kind of consensual semi-democratic government. In either case, however, the democratic movement would not die. It would re-emerge continuously, despite heavy repression over short periods of times, raising the kinds of challenges that pose an existential threat to any nondemocratic government.

Support of human rights and democracy in Iran is not only a matter of morality. It should be a strategic priority for the West. Empowering the Iranian people means weakening Khamenei and his military allies. And a weakened Khamenei is more likely to compromise on the nuclear front.

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