The Reason Iran Turned Out to Be So Repressive

Shiite clerics in earlier centuries could never have imagined so intrusive a system.

An Iranian flag at half mast
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

The Islamic Republic of Iran has survived longer than anyone had a right to expect. Today great revolutions are rare, because revolutions require the unflinching belief that another world is possible. In 1979, when clerics took power in Tehran, another world was possible. This is the world that Iranians still live in. A large—and apparently growing—number of them don’t seem to like it. After a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died in police custody on September 16 after being arrested for wearing her headscarf improperly, anti-government protests spread across the country, just as they seemingly do every few years.

Forty-three years after its founding, the Islamic Republic sputters along as yet another repressive, sclerotic regime. What makes the Iranian system different—exceptional, even—is the arc of its tragedy and the unusual role played by an entirely novel theological doctrine. In the beginning, the Islamic revolution was popular. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have succeeded. The aggressive secularization under the shah in the 1960s and ’70s had been discredited, and millions of Iranians turned to Islamic symbols, concepts, and leaders for inspiration. If the shah’s Westernization project was the problem, then perhaps Islam could be the solution. And yet that solution took a peculiar form, one that foreordained today’s discontent: Iran’s new rulers created a system far more intrusive than clerics of previous centuries could have ever imagined.

If one could sum up the original intent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution, it was, quite simply, to preserve Islam. In his most influential treatise, Islamic Government, published in 1970, Khomeini wrote, “The preservation of Islam is even more important than prayer”—an odd if maddeningly vague claim. In practice, however, this meant something quite specific. For Khomeini, Islam could be “preserved” only through Islamic government. And this, in turn, was possible only if jurists—that is, clerics specializing in Islamic jurisprudence—led the government as guardians of Islam.

The reason this Islamic regime can seem so un-Islamic—merciless and absolutist—is because it did something without precedent in Islamic history. What came to be known as wilayat al-faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist,” married clerical and executive power and intertwined them in a sort of Frankenstein ideology. In the great Islamic caliphates of the premodern era, the legal system was decentralized and the state’s reach was limited, with clerics enjoying considerable autonomy. As the keepers of sharia, God’s law, they interpreted how it applied to matters as varied as criminal codes, business contracts, and inheritance. But these clerics had never ruled directly. Instead, the caliph—who, in most cases, was not trained as a religious scholar—was responsible for executing laws and devising new ones on issues not explicitly covered by sharia. In revolutionary Iran, such distinctions would be put to the side, with a notably sectarian element added to the mix. Iran’s clerics, like the overwhelming majority of Iranians, were part of the Shiite branch of Islam. They would take Shiism’s historical reverence for clergy and fuse it with a modern conception of the state.

Until the Safavid empire emerged in Persia in the 16th century, Shiite Muslims had largely lived as minorities under Sunni rule. Because Shias were rarely in a position to govern, Shiite doctrine had relatively little to say about the appropriate exercise of political power. Shias believed that legitimate authority was to be found in the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, unlike Sunnis, who—in theory, if not necessarily in practice—selected their leaders through a consultative process. Importantly, Shiite tradition held that the imams in the line of the prophet were divinely protected from error on theological matters.

The problem was that the 12th of these imams went into occultation in the 10th century. He was, and still is, the hidden imam. Because he was endowed with infallible powers of religious interpretation, his absence deprived the Shiite clergy of their source of authority and led them—albeit with some exceptions centuries later—toward a politics of political resignation. As the Islamic legal scholar Mohammad Fadel notes in a forthcoming paper, “All hopes for political transformation were deferred to an indefinite, apocalyptic future.”

For Khomeini, the future arrived in 1979. Any number of questions about how to govern legitimately while the imam was in occultation remained unresolved. Khomeini provided an answer—the responsibilities of the inerrant imam were to be, in effect, delegated to the jurists, and then more specifically to the jurist. It just so happened that Khomeini was that jurist.

In fairness to Khomeini, when he was giving the lectures that would form the core of Islamic Government, he probably hadn’t fully entertained the possibility that, one day, he’d return triumphant to Tehran and get the chance to implement his ideas. Beyond the sort of vague sketching that one tends to do in exile, Khomeini had offered few specifics about how he might actually govern. Some of this ambiguity was strategic. To avoid frightening leftist and liberal allies during the revolution’s honeymoon, he and his supporters downplayed the harder edges of juristic rule.

Ideas matter. Ideology made Iran’s Islamic revolution possible. But ideas do not come fully formed in a vacuum. Unusual ideas are typically the product of unusual situations. As perhaps all political doctrines are, the unadorned radicalism of Khomeini’s philosophy of government was a reaction to what had come before. The shah wasn’t just any dictator. He was an exceptionally brutal one. More than that, he fashioned himself an authoritarian modernizer, like Turkey’s Kemal Atatürk before him, who would cut Islam down to size and reorganize society on strictly secular lines—with Western backing no less. The orchestrated attack on Islam that many Iranians perceived was made more sinister by the unfortunate fact of a CIA-supported coup that had ousted the democratically elected prime minister in 1953, thereby elevating the shah.

Khomeini, along with a growing number of conservative clerics and laymen, came to believe that Islam was in danger of being extinguished. If as much as Islam’s very preservation was at stake, exceptional measures would have to be taken, with a frown and a grimace if need be. This helps explain how Khomeini could possibly declare that the absolute mandate (velayat-e-motlaq) of Islamic government was “the most important of the divine commandments … and has priority over all derivative commandments, even over prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca.” In another time and place, this would have been dismissed as nonsensical ranting, or worse, heresy.

Khomeini’s radicalism was real and deeply felt. His grievances were legitimate. But the totalizing nature of the dictatorship to come was not predestined. Another ingredient was necessary. That something else was the modern state, in all of its sprawling, overbearing glory. Until the 20th century, states simply could not be authoritarian in the fullest sense of the word. Their bureaucratic, technological, and surveillance capacity was limited. Even under despots, ordinary people could still live relatively free lives because the state could only extend its tentacles of control so far. The introduction of the nation-state removed any such constraints. Leaders could seek dominion not just over government but over society, too. Not only did they want to change your behavior; they wanted to transform the way you perceived the world.

If the shah’s strong state was what threatened Islam, a strong state—and perhaps even a stronger one—would be required to protect it from its enemies at home and from those abroad as well. This expansiveness is in the character of revolutions, when they succeed. They are wondrous events. As the longtime Berkeley professor Hamid Algar once argued, perhaps with a hint of hyperbole, the Iranian revolution was “the most significant, hopeful, and profound event in the entirety of contemporary Islamic history.” But many revolutions prove too wondrous. Because they fight against great injustice and promise, in turn, a great reordering, revolutions can’t help but forge a stronger state than the one they seek to destroy.

The irony is that the clerics were well aware of these pitfalls. As the Iranian American sociologist Said Arjomand writes, Khomeini’s original vision was one of “a withered state.” For both better and worse, this antiauthoritarian impulse is embedded in Islam. In the fall of 1979, during the early, heady days of revolution, Khomeini observed that “dictatorship is the greatest sin in Islam.” On this, he wasn’t necessarily wrong. But for the ayatollah and his heirs, the modern state—in all of its power—proved too alluring.