Bye Bye Ayatollah, Iranians have spoken

Government in Iran is a struggle between mosque and state. Recently the Iranian population has demonstrated its discontent with the current government in the cost of living, high unemployment, the cost of foreign expeditions, corruption, the rule of the Ayatollah, and the dictatorial nature of the regime etc. Is this the writing on the wall for the start of the end of government by the Ayatollah?

Understanding the governance of Iran through the study of Persian and Iranian cultural, literary and intellectual history and the role this has played in interpretations of political and clerical authority rests in part in the wide diversity of the lives and works of certain key figures in modern day Iran.

This ranges from those who articulated the country’s responses to European imperialism, such as Mirza Malkom Khan, a prominent modernist, to the ideologues of the Islamic revolution of 1979. These include Jalal Al-e Ahmad and the left-leaning zealots and poets who used a mix of Marxism, Islamism, the Shia tropes of martyrdom and Frantz Fanon’s third-worldism to give Iran’s Islamic revolution its distinctive characteristics. Another facet and maybe more important is the big themes in Iran’s history dominated by it being a Shia powerhouse state.

In all of these there are competing tensions within Persian Shiism of temporal and spiritual legitimacy, intertwined with messianic revivalism, mysticism and dissent. Persian Shia political philosophy creates a natural separation of mosque and state, as long as the state allows freedom and safety of Shia religious practice.

Until 1979 the state or moreover the crown had the upper hand. The clergy were there to preach, educate and sit in judgment on the nation’s souls. A politically active clergy was, and still is for many leading Shia thinkers, a heretical innovation. Then in 1979 things changed and the clergy dominated over the state after the removal of the crown.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, the “guardianship of the jurist”, and its application as the ideological and constitutional blueprint for the Islamic revolution, was the first time in Iran’s Shia history that the clergy had explicitly articulated a theory of government. Before that they always preferred to remain scholarly and juristic.

An explanation why the clergy launched the 1979 Islamic Revolution is as an act of revenge because Shiism was derided under the Pahlavi monarchs and sidelined in the dash to achieve Western modernity after the discovery of oil. It was not a complete triumph, for the 1979 revolution and its aftermath crushed the clergy’s centuries-old independence from the state. Their bid for power challenged the very soul of Persian Shia orthodoxy.

Given that the revolutionary generation of the clergy has been supplanted by the next due to mortality leaves us wondering about the ultimate place of the Islamic clergy in the government of Iran. How might the relations between mosque and state develop? Just wondering has been strengthened by the recent street demonstrations of discontent.

This shows that the writing might, one assumes, be on the wall to demote the clergy. The clergy have seen this potential and in attempt to placate it have recently relaxed regulations in the dress code for women. Some important questions arising are:

Would any reforms be enough to make a difference for Iranian citizens? Would it change two apparently mutually exclusive forms of identity – Iranianism and Islamism? Will the Islamic Republic of Iran be the harbinger of the destruction of the Iranian clergy, both in the minds of the Iranian people and as a political force? Have the clergy become so crippled by association with the horrors and corruption of the Islamic Republic that they have lost all moral authority with the man in the street? Might there be an upsurge in orthodox clerical opposition to the Islamic Republic as this uneasy experiment in Shia political activism?

The recent street demonstrations show the potential for a counter-revolution. Should this materialize then the field would be open for speculation on local, regional and global implications. At the fore is the question whether government after a counter revolution would be still under the dictum of Persian Shia political philosophy that creates a natural separation of mosque and state, as long as the state allows freedom and safety of Shia religious practice?

If so or not one thing about a counter revolution is for certain; it would be an opportunity to overturn the apple cart in relations with the Sunni world and Saudi Arabia, with supposed proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, with intervention in Syria and globally with the West and Israel for example the current Iranian nuclear and missile programs.

History shows the once the people have spoken then change is inevitable. The Ayatollah shouldn’t ignore the inevitable. The longer they wait the more likely there is for a violent counter revolution. The people have spoken and the time has come for the Iranian clergy to step down peacefully from a direct and active role in government.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
Related Topics
Related Posts