Is the Iranian Theocracy in Jeopardy?

News & Politics

If you do a basic study of Shi'a Islam (as opposed to actually studying to be a religious leader of the religion), you'll quickly come to terms with the basic beliefs and the history, including the traditional quietism of the faith in all political matters. Shi'a Islam has almost always been on the defensive and rarely has enjoyed sustained periods of security from political leaders. There is a strong sense in the religion that politics is a worldly affair that is beneath the dignity of a religious scholar. Iran is probably the only place on earth where the Shi'a have felt secure enough from Sunni domination to contemplate exerting a form of political Islam. So, it's no real surprise that Iran is where the experimentation occurred.


When Ayatollah Khomeini introduced the innovation of velayet-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists), it broke centuries of precedent. And most Grand Ayatollahs have never accepted the principle of velayet-e faqih as valid. In Iraq, for example, Grand Ayatollah Sistani did not embrace the principle. He did not ask that Islamic jurists be put in control of the Iraqi government. But Iraq is different from Iran because, even though the Shi'a make up a plurality (maybe even a majority) of the population, they have not enjoyed political representation there for centuries.

What makes Iran's internal politics so difficult to understand is this unique and unprecedented experiment in political Shi'a Islam. For example, take Neil MacFarquhar's assertion in today's New York Times:

One of the country’s most influential clerics, Mr. Rafsanjani has been notably silent since Mr. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner last week, and there has been speculation that Mr. Rafsanjani is in Qum trying to muster clerical opposition to the country’s leaders. But those reports are difficult to confirm with any authority.

Now, Mr. Rafsanjani is a cleric, but he doesn't have many credentials as a religious authority. Ordinarily, he wouldn't, and couldn't, be one of Iran's most influential clerics without being seen as expert in religious matters. But the system of political Islam in Iran has changed things. Mr. Rafsanjani is one of the richest people in the world, and he's been a political figure in Iran for thirty years. Because of this, he really is one of the most influential people in Iran, although his religious education has little to do with that.


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