Iran's Theocracy Implodes
Swept up by revolutionary fervor in the late 1970s, many Iranians assumed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a pragmatist. However, Khomeini had assimilated theocratic ideas unsuccessfully expounded by Ayatollah Fazlollah Nuri during the Constitutional Revolution seven decades earlier. Khomeini went on to augment Nuri's belief-that clergymen must rule because secular governance fails to follow divine will-with Maslaha or fundamentalist Muslim interests.
Khomeini then used his personal popularity and revolutionary authority to install an absolutism centered on velayat-e faqih or guardianship of Islamic jurists headed by an autocratic supreme leader. The current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei follows the tenets of his late teacher, regarding himself as God's singular representative on Earth.
To a growing number of Iranians, however, religious fundamentalism is a luxury they can no longer afford. Half of them are under the age of 40 with no ideological connection to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Their difficulties and desires of life take precedence over doctrine and dogma. At least 12 percent of adults are unemployed. An inflation rate of about 20 percent saps their meager purchasing power. They face a housing shortage. They are frustrated as well by 30 years of sociopolitical repression impinging on all aspects of daily life in the name of religion. As a result, orthopraxy is equated with fundamentalism by them-and both are rejected.
Khomeini's statecraft went not only against the historically secular ideals of most Iranians but violated the politically quietist attitudes of most mullahs. Many Shiite clerics believe they should only be offering advice to lay administrators. Indeed, all 12 imams or infallible spiritual guides of Shiism as practiced in Iran warned against the lure of molk or secular power. Since Khomeini was respectfully called an imam only in the sense of a religious teacher, other Shiite clerics contend he should not have overridden established traditions.
Involvement of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, the late first supreme leader's grandson Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, and mullahs in the Association of Teachers and Researchers of Qom and in the Association of Combatant Clerics at Tehran indicates how far theocracy has fallen from grace. It is particularly telling of the un-theocratic mood in Iran that conservative madrasa students at Qom, Mashhad, and Esfahan, usually vocal about the role of their faith, are not demonstrating in favor of hardliners like Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Inherent contradictions within the Islamic Republic of Iran are gushing forth. But keep in mind that it still is possible for the fundamentalist state to prevail if mullahs put their collective self-interest before all else. A majority of members in the Assembly of Experts - which can dismiss Khamenei from the post of supreme leader - have chosen a middle path so far, chastising both their own chairman Rafsanjani and President Ahmadinejad for endangering the theocracy. Clerics close to the supreme leader are suggesting that Ahmadinejad, the proximate generator of tensions, be ditched to salvage the larger status quo of a Shiite theocracy.
As governance of the Iranian state is contested once more, the leaders and people of other nations are grappling with how they should and should not respond. US President Jimmy Carter met and toasted the last Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in November 1977 when the imperial Iranian regime was becoming not just more secular but more brutal. Iranians working toward a pluralistic and democratic society at that time felt Carter chose national security interests over humanitarian needs. Those feelings reinforced antipathy for American and British involvement with the overthrow of Iran's Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953. The negative emotions erupted publically during the Islamic Revolution. Utilizing the familiar rhetoric of "death to" and "great Satan," but switching targets, Iranians now are denouncing the leaders of Russia, China, and other countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRIC group for choosing strategic needs over basic ones by meeting with Ahmadinejad as his regime brutalizes its people allegedly on behalf of Islam.
Interestingly, external support in quashing the gholat or religious extremists is regarded by Shiites as God's helping hand. The Ottoman Turks defeating Ismail Safavi in the early 16th century is cited positively even by mullahs. Quoting Islam's Prophet Mohammad, Rafsanjani directed a pointed remark at Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, "Leave the people if they do not want you!" Montazeri enjoined as well, "A political system based on force ... is illegitimate. Taking action against it entails paying heavily, but will be rewarded greatly by God."
Historical and current circumstances suggest Iranians eventually will succeed in separating faith from state. They will not reject Shiism, but return it to its appropriate place in society. Iranians know well too that they are not under the spell of interfering foreigners. So circumstances suggest that leaders and peoples of other nations should assist vigorously those Iranians striving for liberty from ever-present religion.