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Dr. Wm. Millward
Abstract: Since 1979 the legitimacy of the religious leadership of Iran has been questioned. The author explores whether the legitimate authority of the present régime stems from the support of the people of Iran or from religious authority. Apr. 1992. Author: Dr. Wm. Millward.
Editors Note: Many countries throughout history have been governed by an élite or priesthood which claims divine authority: Israel after the Exodus; Rome under Caesar; several European countries under the "divine right of kings", to name a few. But whereas most modern countries now live within a relatively comfortable division of church and state, Iran faces a unique dilemma.
In his continuing series on the Middle East, Dr. Millward explores the sources from which the Government of Iran attempts to draw its legitimacy. As he points out, religious authority has increased dramatically over royal authority (the turban over the crown) in Iran since 1978, but the government continues to eye with suspicion the concept of the Iranian populace as a source of legitimate power.
Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the Commentary series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the symbol of success to which other national or Islamic fundamentalist movements aspire, is nearing the middle of its second decade as the vanguard state of the Islamic movement. Although it came to power through revolutionary upheaval, its example is a source of inspiration for kindred movements in other states with majority Muslim populations, even if the revolutionary model cannot be used to attain power. It is therefore significant that the model state for an Islamic theocracy faces serious problems. The basic issue is the question of leadership and legitimacy. When compounded by severe economic stagnation, this question will assume crisis proportions if the current leadership cannot show rapid improvement by the end of the year.
The legitimacy of the current Iranian régime has been called into question regularly since it took power in 1979, chiefly because it excludes so many Iranians from any participation in government and public affairs. The fact that somewhere in excess of two million Iranians prefer to live in exile than return to live in the Islamic Republic is a prima facie compromise on the claims of the régime to represent all Iranians. Its legitimacy will be sorely tested again in a new round of parliamentary elections in April. If the authorities proceed with a plan arbitrarily to exclude opponents of the government's policies by refusing their right to stand as candidates for election, the fallout could damage the credibility of the government even further and bring into question its legitimacy in Islamic terms.
Historically, Iranian tradition recognizes two sources of legitimate authority: religion and royalty, the turban and the crown. In the early stages of the ancient Persian imperial power the two sources coalesced in the institution of sacral kingship. Down through the centuries of Iranian history, pre-Islamic and Islamic, these two poles of authority have continued to act, sometimes together, sometimes separately, as the legitimate sources of political and social control.
By virtue of political and social developments in Iran since the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1722, the two poles of legitimacy have lived side by side in a largely uneasy, if not overly hostile, relationship, each exercising authority in its own domain. Since the religious institution had its own financial resources-taxes, tithes and land-it could and did function independently of the state.
With the advent of the Islamic revolution in 1978-79, royal authority suffered a substantial degree of de-legitimization. In the process the authority of religion and its custodians has been strengthened and made the primary legitimate bearer of leadership. This principle is enshrined in the new constitution of the Islamic Republic. Some observers believe it is the first authentic example of theocratic government in Iranian history. Others are not so sure.
In modern times, as of old, citizens of Iran were expected to pay their dues to both the spiritual and temporal poles of authority. When one of these poles collapses, as it did in 1979, the question then arises whether the remaining pole can bear the full weight of traditional authority. In relation to Iran's Islamic theocracy, this question is still open. There are serious problems ahead, both theoretical and practical.
Traditional notions of legitimate authority in Iran have undergone substantial pressures for change since the beginning of the modern era. When the first Iranian constitution (Fundamental Laws) was promulgated in 1906-07, mention was made of the rights of the Persian nation, suggesting that the people of Iran had certain rights before the law and a role to play in the making of new laws. On the basis of a three-fold division of powers, the Iranian populace was acknowledged in law for the first time to have a say in the business of government and the determination of social policies and sanctions. The idea of the people as the source of legitimacy has continued to grow in Iran despite being largely ignored by entrenched élites, both spiritual and temporal.
When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from 15 years of exile in February 1979, he was greeted by some of the largest crowds every assembled in the country's history. Many of these same people were among the crowds that had demonstrated their disapproval of the Shah's régime several months earlier. When the Ayatollah issued a decree authorizing Mehdi Bazargan, his newly-appointed Prime Minister of a provisional government, to proceed with a program to establish a constitution and a new framework for elected government, the authority of the popular approval he had received was invoked, along with the Ayatollah's spiritual authority, as a further legitimization of the action prescribed.
In February 1979 very few Iranians knew what an Islamic Republic was, what shape it would have and how it would operate. Nevertheless, they were urged to participate in a referendum in March 1979 to determine whether they approved of the new system of government to replace the monarchy. The question asked was "Should Iran be an Islamic Republic?" According to official records, 98.2% of the 20,251,000 voters responded in the affirmative. As voter participation was 89%, the result was a clear endorsement. The revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of an Islamic Republic, insofar as it was understood, was approved and legitimized.
The creation of an Islamic Republic has seemed to many observers, both supporters and opponents, to be an essentially ad hoc endeavour, with no detailed blueprints to guide the process. Whenever a structural problem in the new system is encountered, the authorities tinker with the mechanism and improvise a solution. Nevertheless, appeals to popular authority and legitimacy have been constant. At all stages of erecting a new governmental and administrative structure, including the Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution in June 1979, a referendum to approve the results of its deliberations in December 1979, and in every election since then for the Presidency and the Parliament (Majlis), the role of the people as the source of legitimate sanction has been highlighted.
Popular authority has become a virtual shibboleth in the language of all régime politicians and bureaucrats. Everyone claims to be acting in the best interests of the long-suffering, martyr-nurturing, deprived Iranian masses, including those responsible for prolonging their painful involvement in an imposed war with Iraq long after it was reasonable to expect an advantageous settlement.
The deprived masses are still an icon in the political rhetoric of régime supporters, a symbol to be manipulated in the oratory of politicians of all shades and factions. No Majlis member, regardless of the current he represents, would risk rising to speak on any vital issue without invoking this automatic talisman of his calling at some point in his discourse. In a public session of the Majlis on 9 October 1991, the deputy from Nishapur, Muhammad Akbarzadeh, gave a speech in which he presented his own understanding of the role of the masses in the pyramid of authority. "This is because the government of the Islamic Republic is sacred and takes its sanctity from the votes of the Muslim people, who are the real owners of the revolution and the country, from the selected members of their Assembly of Experts, who are chosen by the seminaries, and from the Leader, who is chosen by the Assembly of Experts". [Resalat, 10 October 1991, pp. 5, 12, quoted in FBIS-NES-91-226-S, 22 November 1991, p.19]. It is not clear in this formulation which is the primary locus of legitimacy, the people or religious authority, or some combination of the two.
The rights and duties of the Iranian Muslims are spelled out in two sources: the canon law of Islam-the Shari'a-and the Constitution of the Islamic Republic; the former is the bearer of divine will and the repository of sacred sanction in their daily lives; the latter the symbol of popular legitimacy in public affairs. By incorporating the principle of velayat-e faqih-the jurisprudent's trust-this constitution is said to have ended the division of secular and religious rule, the former being subsumed by the latter.
Under the new constitution, the government of the Islamic Republic was given a popular arm through the agency of a 270-member Islamic assembly elected by universal suffrage. Elections for this assembly (Majlis) were held in 1980, 1984 and 1988. A new round of elections is scheduled for April 1992. The membership of this body has come more and more under the control of the régime; only candidates who meet criteria established by the régime and imposed by the Council of Guardians are allowed to stand for election to it. Having long since excluded all non-religious groups and parties from access to elections for the Majlis, the current régime is said to be planning to narrow even further the popular base of legitimacy that this body represents.
In the recent past the Majlis has been controlled by a majority of radical deputies who have succeeded in delaying or rejecting a number of important legislative measures in Mr. Rafsanjani's program. It is widely anticipated that he will use his power and influence with the Council of Guardians, through the Spiritual Guide, Ali Khamneh'i, to have the credentials of radical candidates for election rejected. It would seem reasonable to suppose that Mr. Rafsanjani will show restraint in manipulating the electoral process. The balance between radicals and moderates in the Majlis would not have to change greatly to give the moderate supporters of the president a majority. Too much heavy-handed manipulation, to exclude all those of radical tendency, would lead to a hue and cry from the opposition and cost the government wide public support. The so-called radicals have become of late much more pragmatic than usual, and it would be desirable to keep a number of them in parliament where they can be watched and used as a foil in fashioning government programs. It is well known that certain radical figures, like Hojatoleslam Mohtashemipur, retain the support of a substantial popular constituency as interpreters of "the line" of Ayatollah Khomeini.
A further contradiction in the enterprise of constructing an Islamic Republic is reflected in the changes made to the requirements for the highest office in the system, the Supreme Guide (Vali Faqih), following the death of the founder and first incumbent, Ruhollah Khomeini, in early June 1989. Since the carefully groomed heir-apparent to Khomeini, his long-time confidant and former student, Hossein Ali Montazeri, had been unceremoniously dismissed in March of the same year, and as no other candidates of comparable theological rank and prestige were available, the régime authorities were obliged to lower the constitutional requirements for this office in order to accommodate Ali Khamneh'i, the only ranking régime cleric with broad political experience.
By diluting the standing of this office, the central pillar of the new structure, to this extent, the authorities delivered a self-inflicted but apparently unavoidable blow to the legitimacy and credibility of the whole enterprise. By virtue of his learning and following there was no doubt that Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the half-dozen or so senior figures in the clerical hierarchy in 1970 when he gave his famous lectures on Islamic government in Najaf. By the time he assumed the office of Supreme Guide in 1979 he was the primus inter pares of the Grand Ayatollahs in the Shi'ite clerical establishment in Iran in terms of prestige and political stature.
His successor, Ali Khamneh'i, on the other hand, was a mere neophyte in comparison. To disguise his relatively low status in the ranks of clerical learning, he was elevated from Hojatoleslam to Ayatollah by régime supporters. In the same way, he is now sometimes referred to as a Grand Ayatollah, which causes a degree of mirth in traditional clerical circles.
The basic contradiction of the Islamic Republican system as a viable embodiment of theocracy is the obvious fact that the political and religious institutions are not coterminous or congruent. The one has not been entirely absorbed or subsumed by the other. While the political apparatus of the state continues to dominate and control public life in Tehran and the country at large, the traditional clerical institution and its pillars and supporters carry on with the business of perpetuating the sacred lore of Ja'fari Shi'ism and using it in Qom, Mashad and other centres to provide spiritual and practical guidance to the masses.
The ranks of the traditional clergy in Qom are thinning at the highest level-that of Grand Ayatollah. When Mohammad Reza Golpaygani, the dean of the senior Grand Ayatollahs still living in Qom dies-he is reputed to be over 90 and in failing health-the stage will be set for the emergence of a new generation of Grand Ayatollahs in Iran. One of those figures is Ayatollah Montazeri, who was stripped of his mantle as successor to Ayatollah Khomeini and now resides in Qom with his political credentials discredited. But in the eyes of many Iranian Shi'is, including a group of 80 or more Majlis deputies who visited him last December following the Palestine Conference staged in Tehran, his views on foreign affairs are still worth canvassing and his spiritual authority is intact.
The matter of spiritual and temporal leadership in Shi'ite Iran is still evolving. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri represents only a limited threat to the régime because his traditional spiritual credentials and learning are greater than those of the present Leader, Ali Khamneh'i. And yet, ironically, he has long since embraced the theoretical principle of the governance of the jurisprudent (velayat-e faqih) as enunciated by his colleague and mentor, Ayatollah Khomeini. So long as he does not repudiate this principle, and offers his allegiance to the present leader as the political head of state, he does not threaten the stability of the régime. But his security is not guaranteed.
The paradox of the present status of the Iranian theocratic experiment is the fact that the majority of the ranking second-tier of Ayatollahs and Marja's in Qom, people like Mohammad Mehdi Shirazi, are nearly all former students of Grand Ayatollah Abol Qasem Khu'i, the acknowledged pre-eminent Shi'i spiritual leader in Najaf, Iraq, and some still subscribe to his negative opinion on the principle of velayat-e faqih. In the traditional milieu of Shi'i spirituality, some observers have estimated that as many as 80% of the believing masses acknowledge the spiritual leadership and pre-eminence of Ayatollah Khu'i through his local representative in their area.
When Grand Ayatollah Khu'i dies, the disapproval he has registered against the theocratic experiment launched by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran will continue among his followers and former students. Grand Ayatollah Khu'i does not oppose the right of the clergy to play a role in governing, but he does reject the notion that they have an exclusive right in this regard. Since he is also elderly and frequently reported to be in danger of imminent death-either natural or brought on by mistreatment from Saddam Hussein-the issue of succession to the leadership role he has exercised is engaging the attention of concerned Shi'is everywhere. Other prominent clerics in Iraq will inherit the responsibility of collective spiritual leadership when Khu'i dies. In the meantime, because of its greater population and financial weight, the centre of gravity has shifted to Iran and will likely remain there.
As long as there are significant numbers of senior clergymen in the seminaries and teaching centres in Qom and Mashhad who do not subscribe to the concept of the universal or absolute authority of one supreme jurisprudent, who exercises full legal, political and spiritual authority over all the Shi'i believers, it will be impossible to speak of a true theocracy in Iran. The former students of Grand Ayatollah Khu'i, who now have their own followers and teach thousands of their own students, are a guarantee that the religious and political institutions in Iran will never be fully merged. Ayatollah Khamneh'i's political authority and leadership can be, and for the most part is, recognized and accepted without surrendering allegiance to others for guidance on matters of religious law and spiritual ascent. The political edifice is not on the verge of being able to co-opt and subsume the traditional institution of juridical authority and legitimacy in Iran.
In terms of its Islamic legitimacy, one of the Islamic Republic's most costly contradictions is its use of a Special Clerical Court to enforce stifling rigidity and uniformity among even its own devoted followers. The government of the Islamic Republic has recently activated the special clerical court as a tool to intimidate the opposition and any rival clerics who have not lined up squarely behind official policies. Mr. Hashemian, for example, the Deputy Speaker of the Majlis, was allowed to return home after being interrogated, but without a clear announcement of acquittal. Whether some future punishment has been assigned him remains to be seen. A fellow hardliner radical, Hojatoleslam Abolfazl Musavian, the former editor of Khorasan newspaper, was not so lucky.
Appointed to the post of editor of Khorasan in 1985 Musavian, a 38-year-old cleric, published a rejoinder in the debate over the factional rivalry in régime circles. The article alleged that a moderate faction had claimed to have the support of Ali Khamneh'i, the Spiritual Leader, in its efforts to purge hardliners. In September 1991 he was summoned by the Special Court of Clergy of Tehran, and interrogated in a closed session without the invitation or presence of a jury or the press. These developments pitted the government against one of its own agencies, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, which pointed out that they were directly contrary to article 168 of the Constitution, and articles 23-24 of the Press Laws, ratified by the Majlis.
On 30 September 1991, the Special Court of Clergy issued its own communiqué to counter that of the Ministry and advise the Hizbollah nation (the Iranian public) of the basis for its own legitimacy and actions. The court affirmed that it was not restrained by laws governing the judiciary, and its actions were also sanctioned by sacred Islamic religious laws. It promised to deal decisively in future with violators and deviants at any level, and warned the opposition and the media that lies, slander and distortion were considered crimes according to religions law, which could and would be prosecuted.
The Tehran hardliner newspaper Salam led the defence of Musavian and declared that his case was important because it could set a precedent for muzzling the press. But in its issue of 9 November 1991 it carried a special report on the gathering at the mosque of Ferdowsi University two days earlier to say farewell to Hojatoleslam Musavian. His farewell ceremony, before his departure for Qom and three years of internal exile, was attended by hundreds of students, clerics, businessmen and various representatives of the people. It was difficult to disagree in retrospect with the observation made earlier in the ministry's statement that disregard for the constitution and other laws would no doubt occasion social disillusionment and stagnation and militate against the people's professional, social and political security.
The Islamic Republic of Iran today bears scant resemblance to the royal court of James I and Charles I of England in the early 17th Century, but the parallel between the Special Clerical Court and the Star Chamber at the Palace of Westminster is too close to escape notice. The Chamber met in secret, without a jury, wielded arbitrary powers, and dealt severely with opponents of the King who were too powerful for ordinary laws. The message of the Clerical Court was especially chilling in the sense that Musavian was a stalwart upholder of the régime and the principle of the clergy's right to rule. It would be hard to imagine a step the authorities could take which would cause greater unease and insecurity amongst its supporters.
Failure to provide built-in structures for the accommodation of dissenting views and programs, and the insistence of government officials on "unity of thought, word and action" represents a systemic contradiction of the Islamic Republic. Alternative opinions and viewpoints are ipso facto sedition. Not even champions of its basic principles are immune from reprisal. In any system based on the authority of God and his law, as interpreted by an all-powerful jurisprudent (Supreme Guide), there is no room left for input from that other source of legitimacy below, the people. And yet it is the source which makes revolutions and overthrows/installs régimes. When the perception finally dawns that the régime which has been calling also on popular approval for its policies cannot guarantee the security of its own staunch supporters, nor deliver practical results which raise the standard of living for the masses, the issue of authority and legitimacy will become moot.
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