Religion and Politics in Iran

Greg Bruno
Staff Writer, Council on Foreign Relations
Wednesday, July 2, 2008; 10:28 AM


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

Birth of Political Islam

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

Revolutionary Ideas

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

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

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

A New Political Framework

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

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

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

  • Supreme Leader. At the top of Iran's political and religious pecking order is the supreme leader. The de facto leader of the executive branch, the leader oversees the military; appoints military and judicial leaders; supervises the constitution; and sets general state policy. The supreme leader also appoints senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's second supreme leader, assumed office in June 1989 after eight years as Iran's president. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that while Khamenei lacks the "popular support, charisma, and theological qualifications" of his predecessor Khomeini, the current leader remains the "single most powerful individual" (PDF) in the Islamic Republic.
  • Assembly of Experts. An eighty-six-member body of senior clergymen, the assembly elects the supreme leader. Appointed by popular vote, the assembly is charged with reviewing the leader's work; it can, in principle, dismiss the leader, but never has. It is also unclear how carefully the assembly monitors the supreme leader's activities; all notes of the group's biannual meetings are confidential. In September 2007, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected speaker of the assembly.
  • President. Officially sitting atop the executive branch, the president is in practice second to the supreme leader. Nationally elected to four-year terms, Iran's president is constitutional mandated to be a Shiite Muslim. The power of the president has varied historically; many observers speculate the office's fortunes are closely tied to the political whims of the supreme leader. In January 2008, for instance, Ayatollah Khamenei reversed a decision by President Ahmadinejad and ordered the president to supply heating fuel to remote Iranian villages. The move was seen as a major rebuke to a president under fire for poor economic performance.
  • Majlis, or parliament. A 290-member body of deputies representing all thirty of Iran's provinces, the Majlis introduces and passes legislation. Members are elected to four-year terms. Five seats are reserved for religious minorities. The approval of candidates, however, requires the blessing of the Council of Guardians, the most influential body in Iran. Hundreds of reformist candidates we barred from the 2008 election, political interference that drew widespread criticism from international monitors. Conservatives now dominate parliament. The clerical makeup of the Majlis has also changed in the last two decades. In the early 1980s, 51 percent of the Majlis were clerics. By 2002 they made up just 12 percent of the body.

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