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The antitheocracy of Iran

by Mehdi Khalaji

WASHINGTON — Iran’s theocratic regime appears more confident than ever. Its standoff with the West over its nuclear program, together with its ties to Syria and its growing influence in Lebanon and Iraq, suggest the emergence of a strong regional power. But while Western analysts and Iran’s neighbors raise the alarm, the regime’s authority is in fact built on insecure foundations.

The 1979 revolution, which ended Iran’s monarchical tradition, created a new political order based on Shiite theological foundations and gave absolute ruling power to a Shiite jurist/cleric. Throughout Iran’s long history, Shiite seminaries exercised great influence on Iranian society and politics, but they had been considered civil institutions. It was not until the Iranian revolution that the seminary establishment came to be considered a source of political legitimacy.

The change followed Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of the “jurist-ruler.” In Khomeini’s view, the jurist-ruler could modify religious laws, depending on his interpretation of the needs of the regime. As a result, religious interpretation — previously, a highly decentralized function undertaken by various seminaries — was concentrated in the hands of a political leader.

Accordingly, the seminary establishment was no longer a civil structure managing only religious affairs, but instead developed into a unified, ideological party serving the interests of the regime.

That transformation was far-reaching. Traditionally, Shiite seminaries were rather unorganized, unstructured places, based on premodern styles of management. The concept of a decentralized religious establishment is difficult for Westerners to understand, given the highly structured administrative framework of Christian churches and ecclesiastical orders. But this fluid hierarchy, an absence of written rules and organizational order, allowed the various seminaries — and their different interpretive traditions — to survive despotic political regimes and resist intervention by different dynasties and monarchies.

This change in Shiite orientation also reflects a very modern influence on politics. Since Shiite fundamentalism is itself a recent phenomenon, the early Iranian revolutionaries inevitably rebuilt the religious seminaries along lines suggested by the Iranian opposition’s most powerful prerevolutionary discourse: communist ideology.

By “modernizing” the seminaries following a single-party model, the revolutionaries gained control over them. The seminaries became little more than an extension of the political system.

The death of Khomeini — and that of other religious authorities (marjas) like Ayatollah Abul Qassem Khoi in Najaf, Iraq — marked the end of the ideal of a ruler who had mastered both religion and politics.

Iran’s current supreme ruler, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, whose religious degree was a focus of suspicion in the seminary and among the clerical elite, was not considered a jurist by merit. Consequently, Khamenei’s evident lack of religious legitimacy has pushed the government to assume full control over the clerical establishment, further depriving the seminaries of their historical independence.

The last decades have provided the regime with near-ideal conditions to seize control over the Shiite clerical establishment in Iraq as well. Under Saddam Hussein, restrictions were imposed on the Shiite seminary in Najaf — traditionally a counterbalance to Iran’s Shiite establishment — forcing the emigration of a number of clerics to the Iranian seminary in Qom.

Indeed, growing Iranian control of the Shiite clerical establishment extended beyond Iraq. It was also strengthened by the regime’s activities in the 1980s, when it created Hezbollah as a guerrilla organization in Lebanon, thereby expanding its domination over the most important Shiite areas in the region. The Iranian regime then consolidated its mastery of the Shiite network in the Middle East, and now uses this control to further its own interests.

There is thus little prospect of an alternative Shiite power center emerging out of the chaos in Iraq. Khamenei, the supreme leader, has succeeded in politicizing the Shiite clerical establishment, primarily by controlling the financial resources of the religious authorities and Shiite institutions in Iran and the region.

Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has not been able to act independently and has avoided opposing Iranian policies toward Iraq in order to protect his fragile network of institutions. As a result, despite Saddam’s fall, the Najaf seminary remains impotent.

Ironically, it seems that theocratic theory in Iran has led to antitheocracy. With the seminaries politicized and their independence greatly reduced, the religious establishment is no longer in a position to confer political legitimacy on the regime. Nor can it exercise its traditional functions in the religious sphere to provide support to civil society in the country.

At a time when the Islamic Republic has failed in its economic and political promises to the Iranian people, the regime’s most glaring weakness may prove to be the absence of a credible religious authority that can justify its shortcomings.