Not Fanatics and Not Friends

The leaders of post-revolutionary Iran may claim to be keeping the faith—but they know how badly they need the West. What should we do when they say it's time to let bygones be bygones?
More
Clerical Politics

In 1985 Khomeini authorized Rafsanjani to negotiate with his two most detested "Satans," the United States and Israel. The Iranians, desperate to find an effective means of combating the Iraqis' advantages in tanks and planes, compromised principle for the possibility of obtaining American TOW and HAWK missiles. Today Rafsanjani is once again nearly desperate, while the revolutionary passion inside the country, particularly among the clerics, has faded. Is it so unlikely that Rafsanjani will one day hear Khameneh'i declare that the Great Satan has been thoroughly humbled for fourteen years by the Islamic Republic, thus vouchsafing the return of the American embassy?

Khomeini's death has compelled the Iranian clerics to devise a system of government to replace the state and constitution that were essentially created by him, and it has thrown Iranian society into a search for another rahbar, or supreme leader. Though Rafsanjani has attempted to assume Khomeini's political mantle, he cannot possibly hope to achieve the unassailable political stature of the man who felled the Shah. As talented as Rafsanjani is (and he is very talented), he has been hard pressed to coerce or oblige others to go along with his decisions. So far he has gathered sufficient power to ensure that he will be held responsible for the fate of the country, but perhaps not sufficient power to ensure that he has the authority necessary to command reliably the fractious mullahs and their crisscrossing support networks.

Rafsanjani and Khamaneh'i sit atop a clerical political system that is perhaps terminally headless. We should not forget that the Ayatollah Khomeini waged two simultaneous and to date successful revolutions in Iran. One was against the Shah and the West; the other was against traditional Twelver Shi'ism (the dominant form of Shi'ism in Iran and Lebanon), which had been more or less regnant in Iran since the middle of the sixteenth century and which had discouraged the superintending participation of Iranian clerics in affairs of state.

Iran's Islamic Revolution was made by the clerical second tier—the hojjat ol-Eslams, who rank below the ayatollahs. The senior ayatollahs, other than Ali Montazeri (whom Khomeini had at one point designated as his successor), were enthusiastic fans neither of Khomeini nor of his politico-theological construct, the velayat-e fagih (the "guardianship of the jurist"), which was both the idea and the office that ultimately provided Khomeini with unquestioned political and religious authority. Under Khomeini young clerics like Rafsanjani, Khameneh'i, Khoteiniha, Mahdavi-Kani, and Karrubi flourished and collected power, state offices, and titles. "Ayatollah" Khameneh'i has moved very far very fast—from being a juridically unimpressive hojjat ol-Eslam in 1978 to the presidency in 1981 and thence to his current position as the nation's revolutionary guardian upon Khomeini's death, in 1989.

This domination has been gained probably at considerable cost to the traditional clerical order, with its centuries-old system of education, its pedagogic standards for promotion, exclusion, loyalty, and leadership, and, perhaps most important, its financial independence from state coffers. The state- sponsored demolition of the old order was practicable because Khomeini, a grand ayatollah with immense prestige even among his clerical enemies, was at the helm. And when it came to dealing with refractory clergy Khomeini could be tougher than any Pahlavi Shah.

Iran is currently experiencing a resurgence of traditionalism in the clergy, which calls for the clerical political role to be more advisory than participatory, and a corresponding rejection of the activist mullahs who helped to lead the revolution and much of the war effort against Iraq. Rafsanjani and Khamenehti have forcibly brought about a compromise whereby junior mullahs, juridically mediocre and of fading revolutionary glory, give orders to their more knowledgeable elders. The compromise has been tense. The reigning clerical power, be it Rafsanjani or Khameneh'i or both, cannot help feeling that as Khomeini's shadow recedes, so does the legitimacy of his velayat system of clerical rule. And any system of clerical rule, if it is to pretend to legitimacy, must reflect with some plausibility Twelver Shi'ism's system of juridical seniority.

The Iranian government is now headed in the opposite direction, as Rafsanjani, a hojjat ol-Eslam, tries to eliminate or reduce centers of power other than his own. Khameneh'i continues in theory to hold considerable power (according to the constitution, immensely more than Rafsanjani), but caliphs in Islamic history have done far less well than sultans in the never-ending battle for power.

Rafsanjani will have to contend with Iran's peculiar form of democracy. Unlike the Arab Muslim countries of the Middle East, Iran has a pronounced democratic current running through its nineteenth- and twentieth-century history. But this current has repeatedly been diverted and drained by Persian shahs and clerics both, and there is little evidence to suggest that Rafsanjani will reject the Pahlavi tradition of arranging and rearranging Iran's parliament according to the ruler's needs.

However Rafsanjani tries to rearrange the Iranian political landscape, he is unlikely to abandon, in rhetoric or practice, certain elements and methods of the revolution. His use of terrorism and especially assassination abroad will probably continue, for such violent diplomacy enhances the fearful stature of the clerical government both abroad and internally. It has served as an effective means—indeed, the sole means—for revolutionary Iran to take revenge against those who have insulted or harmed the Islamic Revolution. Such violent diplomacy has been indispensable to maintaining a clerical pride severely wounded from without by Iran's near total isolation, and from within by the post-revolutionary erosion of the nation's self-esteem.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Remote Warehouse Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In