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The Islamic Republic of Iran in Perspective

by Dr. Miklos K. Radvanyi  Iran Leadership

Historically, Iran is an ancient civilization but a relatively young Muslim country.  The seventh century Arab-Islamic conquest of Persia was and is still viewed by the majority as a defining national catastrophe inflicted upon a superior civilization by primitive foreign invaders. Presently, after fourteen centuries, Iran is still torn between the loss of its global empire and the narrative of the self-sacrifice of Husayn, the son of Ali and the grandson of Mohammad, against the Sunni usurper Yazid in the defense of the absolute Truth and divine legitimacy.  As a result, Iran and its peoples, called the Shiite-Ali, had remained to this day a divided state and society in which successive rulers and religious authorities had oscillated between their faith in the global mission of Shia-Islam and their loyalty to their national identity.

Reunited and thoroughly Shiitized in the 17th century by the Safavid dynasty, Iran became a unified nation state with a distinctively Persian character.  In the second half of the 20th century, Iran again was torn between the well-organized and highly politicized clergy, the ulama, and the monarch, surrounded by a Western educated secular elite.  In the end of the 1970s, the struggle for the soul and future of Iran deteriorated into an increasingly bitter personal feud between the Shah and the exiled Grand Ayatollah Ruholla Mustavafi Musavi Khomeini.

Born in Khomeyn, Markazi province, but raised and educated in Arak by Ayatollah Haeri Karim Haeri Yazdi,  Khomeini became a fervent advocate of political Islam and an unbending opponent of secularism, namely, the effort to reform and modernize government by divorcing politics from religion. Thus, moving from the acceptance of limited monarchy under the Iranian Constitution of 1906-1907 to complete rejection of the legitimacy of the Pahlavy dynasty, Khomeini outlined in Najaf in the early 1970s, his thesis of an Islamic government guided and controlled by religious authorities.  In this manner, stripped of its religious and historic legitimacy, the monarchy had to rely on a tenuous claim of popular support that, in turn, clearly limited its authority.

Events came to a head at the end of January 1979, when the Shah concluded that Khomeini’s anti-American and anti-Western narrative condemned him to hover between the legitimacy of God and a rapidly widening political vacuum.  Consequently, the Shah left and on February 1, 1979, Khomeini returned.  Following a short period of prevarication and deception regarding his intentions, Khomeini proceeded to implement his vision of an Islamic Republic in which God is the only absolute, legitimate authority.

The three and a half decade existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran will defy clear sighted analysis as long as it is not understood that it could not, and why it could not, rely exclusively on the doctrine of divine mandate as the source of its earthly legitimacy.  Khomeini was certainly one of, if not the ablest scholar of Shia-Islam’s Twelver Ja’fari School, named after the law codifier sixth imam by the name of Jafar al-Sadiq.  In his writings and in his speeches, his knowledge, logic, style and eloquence were formidable.

However, throughout his controversial career, he allowed his passions and emotions to control his political judgment.  Thus, even when justifying the exclusive sovereignty of God and criticizing the global corruption of the West and the Shah, Khomeini wrapped his emotions of intense hatred and revenge in populist rhetoric.  Moreover, he was quite successful in concealing his politics of hatred under the guise of patriotism.  Therefore, it was by these personal skills and shortcomings that Khomeini was able to influence and drive public opinion in whatever direction his own personal passions moved him.  This mixture of biased religiosity and worldly populism informed his personality too.  In reality, Khomeini was more a committed Persian nationalist than a devout Muslim.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran mirrors this irreconcilable duality.  On the one hand, it states the exclusive sovereignty of God, but on the other, it enshrines the doctrine of popular sovereignty.  The inevitable political outcome of this frightful contradiction is that the absolute legitimacy of God is questioned and the existence of democratic principles is subject to ridicule.  In essence, the new order has failed, thus far, to fulfill its stated goals and aspirations.  The Islamic Republic could not supersede the monarchy that was overthrown.  Iran remains a country in transition.

The upcoming presidential elections, set for June 14, 2013, will surely take place in an atmosphere resembling that of the onset of a civil war.  Disaffection with the current President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spills over to the Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, and all the official and unofficial organs of the Islamic Republic.  Its semi-representative government, hamstrung by the officially trumpeted “guided democracy” from above, demonstrates the incompleteness and incoherence of Iran’s religious, political, economic and social fabric.  To wit, the current institutional structure is ambiguous at best and fatal at worst.

Pretending to apply the doctrine of democratic legitimacy, while disqualifying every candidate that disagrees with the Supreme Leader and his circle of trusted aides, will only result in the election of a president, who will be forced to base his policies completely on the former and an unrepresentative legislature, neglecting to seek support from the people as well.  In this situation, there is nothing fundamental, stable and enduring politically.  The destructive struggle for power among the Supreme Leader and his protégé, Ali Akbar Velayati, the current President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his favorite, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, and the former President, former Head of the august Assembly of Experts, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and his reformist allies, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, will probably end in the ephemeral triumph of Ali Akbar Velayati.  For the long Iranian history, as well as the history of all other nations, had taught mankind an eternal truth: legitimacy can only reside in a political system that is unambiguous, honest and transparent.  Conversely, ambiguity, dishonesty and lack of transparency are the sure signs of political malady.  The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran will have to decide whether they are ready to fulfill the lofty goals of Khomeini’s revolution, or risk a prolonged and even permanent instability in their country.