A Silent Revolution in Iran
The Islamic Republic of Iran was established by the nation’s Shia clergy. Although the formation of the revolutionary government was facilitated and paid for by the lives and sacrifices of thousands of people, a majority of which were non-clerical students and activists, nevertheless, the majority of the leadership - headed of course by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - were senior religious figures. This continued well into the revolution, as senior religious figures such as Mohammad Beheshti were placed in charge of the judiciary, and Mohammad Reyshahri took over as Iran's first intelligence minister. Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, also known as the “hanging judge,” was the chief justice of the courts, while Khamenei set up the Revolutionary Guards and would later become president. The same was true for future presidents such as Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. By 1997, at least half if not more of all presidential candidates belonged to the clergy.
Fast forward 30 years after the revolution, and only one of Iran's four presidential candidates standing for the 2009 elections is a cleric. This new phenomenon is the symptom of a quiet revolution which has been taking place in Iran since 2001, in which both political and economic power is gradually being taken away from the clergy, and transferred to non-clerical revolutionary figures. And the man who is behind this new revolution is none other than Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
There are several reasons why Khamenei has undertaken such an initiative. A cleric himself, Khamenei always had strong relations however with the non-clerical revolutionaries. As one of the first people in charge of the Revolutionary Guards, he saw that unlike many of the Ayatollahs who sat in mosques and spoke from the pulpits, the people who were willing to risk and do more to protect the revolution were religious urban and countryside youth.
Part of the problem was experience and know-how. At the beginning of the revolution, clerical figures were running parts of the country about which they knew very little. Educated in religious seminaries, they had little idea about issues such as defense and the economy. The history of the war against Iraq is littered with suicidal operations inspired by Ayatollahs who stayed at the back and instead sent soldiers to missions that achieved very little. One popular war tale which was repeated often was that of an Iranian fighter pilot who was placed under the command of a cleric. In one day, he was ordered to go on two long missions. According to military aviation regulations, it is recommended that fighter pilots only fly a limited number of hours per day, due to the gravity pressures which their bodies suffer during combat missions. Upon the pilot's return from his second mission, the cleric in charge ordered him to go on another mission. The pilot tried to explain that his body could not take it, and that simply going on this mission could place his life in unnecessary danger. Instead of sympathizing, the cleric chastised him for not believing in God, whom he said would protect him. Angered by the cleric's ignorance and lack of concern for his life, the pilot took off in his expensive F-4 phantom, and defected to Iraq.
There is also the matter of continuation. Many of the clerics who were part of the revolution are now getting old. For example, Rafsanjani is 75 years old and is considered too old by Iranian law to run for the presidency again. It’s believed that the new generation of clerics also lacks the appropriate skills and dedication, because they did not have to fight for the revolution or in the Iran-Iraq war. However, the same is not true about the non-clergy revolutionaries. Many of them were in their twenties when they took part in the revolution, and later on in the war against Iraq. Carrying the same values and dedication, many of them, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mohsen Rezai and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf are in their fifties and have many years ahead of them. Therefore, for Khamenei, it makes more strategic sense to invest in them.
Last but not least, there is also the question of rivalry. Since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has viewed the clergy as some of his biggest rivals. People like Rafsanjani and Khatami have posed bigger challenges to him than any of the non-clerical politicians in the country.
Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karroubi, the only cleric to run in the upcoming elections carries a heavy burden on his shoulders. Many of the country's clerics who are concerned about the dilution of their power and status are hoping that he will restore their status. The chances of his election are not good, due to lack of popular support, compared to Mousavi, and the fact that he has had difficult relations with the Khamenei family over the years. Should the current trend continue, the era of the clerical presidency may soon be over in Iran. Although the clergy will continue to occupy other posts such as the Assembly of Experts and The Expediency Council, nevertheless, the evolving nature of the revolution and its needs may mean that in the next decade, their power and prestige may also become diluted.