“The World Should be Rooting For the Clergy …

… their victory will bring about the quickest end to the Islamic Republic.”

Former Middle East advisor to the Obama Administration and Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University Vali Nasr has written, for Foreign Policy, a racy summary about the real background of the current power struggle between Iran’s Supreme Leader and his President. Unsurprisingly, it all started with the 1978/79 Islamic Revolution. The current “showdown” has, according to Nasr, its origin in the President’s attempt to revitalize Khomeinism. He writes,

“Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini guided the 1979 revolution through a mix of religious zealotry and leftist revolutionary activism, with the aim of fomenting class war set to an Islamic tune. The Islamic state he envisioned was a dictatorship of the proletariat ruled by the clergy; in homage to Plato’s Republic, Khomeini privileged a class distinguished by its education in Islamic law. He advanced the claim that, in the absence of the Shiite messiah, the Hidden Imam, they represent him in the world. And Khomeini assumed the position of the cleric supreme, vali-e faqih, the all-knowing philosopher-king with divine political authority.”

Persian philosopher Al-Farabi (d. 950) describes, in his madina fadila, in fact a virtuous city with many similarities to Plato’s Politeia, which is founded by a special person endowed with an exceptional set of outstanding characteristics. After the founder, there would be other leader which ideally are supposed to be true kings, or philosopher kings. Shi’ites call them imams [1]. But was it that what Khomeini had in mind? According to Khomeini  “Islamic government is neither tyrannical nor absolute, but constitutional … in a sense that rulers are subject to a certain set of conditions in governing and administering the country” [2]. 

Nasr continues in his analysis,

“The Islamic and the leftist components of Khomeinism came apart after his death in 1989. Exhausted by war and revolution, Iran opted for normalcy. Those interested in the Islamic aspect of the revolution, the so-called conservatives, gathered around Khamenei. They ended revolutionary activism, opened the economy to private-sector activity, and erected an authoritarian theocracy run by the supreme leader.

An “opened economy to private-sector activity” by “pragmatic” Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s two-term President of the 1990s nurtured the Revolutionary Guards and horrendous corruption.

But let’s return to Vali Nasr,

“Meanwhile, the more radical Jacobin faction, which fed on revolutionary activism and favored a socialist economy, was pushed to the margins, only to resurface in the late 1990s in the guise of reformists. So it is that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leftist prime minister of the 1980s, has emerged as the face of the Green Movement.

Conservatives and reformists-cum-reconstructed-leftists have fought over power for the past two decades. Reformists have placed their hopes in elections and a Vatican II-style transformation of Shiite theology. Conservatives have resisted tampering with both religion and ideology and have used brute force to hold on to power. In the process, Iran’s Shiite fundamentalist ideology, shorn of its leftist legacy, turned stolid and unpopular, and the regime turned to repression to survive.

Ahmadinejad arrived on the scene in 2005 promising to breathe new life into the dying revolution by combining religious fundamentalism with Iranian nationalism and economic populism. This formula — the same one Khomeini had used to dominate the revolution in 1979 — proved to be a clever political strategy that won him the presidency. But the promise of unending revolution came crashing down in the 2009 election, when reformists mounted a winning election campaign and then brought millions into the streets to protest the fraudulent results.”

Nasr describes Shi’te ideology as unpopular, which is a myth. These are strong forces which have brought Ahmadinejad to power in 2005, to the delight of his boss, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad had competed with unpopular Rafsanjani who had dared to run for a third time. Ahmadinejad’s charisma which might be obvious for the delusionally religious have-nots, Iran’s majority, is perceived completely different in the West, of course. That the election had been rigged, well, all of us would be glad if there would have been presented any hard evidence. Ahmadinejad has become dangerous for the clergy when he and his close confident, former chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei appeals to Iran’s gorgeous rather than Islamic past. Naser continues,   

“Many Iranians dismiss Ahmadinejad’s cultish messianism as no more than boorish superstition and clever political positioning. The clerics see it as a direct threat. Since taking office, Ahmadinejad has charged his cabinet to sign a pledge committing them to serve the Hidden Imam, peppered his speeches with messianic themes, and even claimed that he leads the ‘Hidden Imam’s government.’ It is a folksy but religiously charged proposition.“

It has become popular in the West to discredit Imami Shi’a Islam’s centerpiece of faith, nammely the expected return of the Hidden Imam, as superstition. But that is also the centerpiece of Velayat-e Faqih, who, in the Twelfth Imam’s absence, demands allegiance. Naser’s analogy of Ahmadinejad beeing considered by many in Iran as sort of Shi’ite Martin Luther who wants to break the clergy is nonsense [3].

Nasr, who has published two years ago his, well, naïve thesis (at least in retrospect) that the rising of the new Muslim middle class in the Middle East will finally lead to a decline of extremism and more democracy, seems not to be a friend of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Ayatollah Khamenei either. The current uprisings in the Middle East have their origin in decade-long western supported oppression by autocrats and complete lack of prospects of their exploding and predominately young populations.

Nasr finishes his analysis in a most cynical way,

“Yet any victory the clergy could win against this new upstart will only be a Pyrrhic one. Ahmadinejad is a threat to clerical supremacy, but without him, Khomeinism is even more vulnerable to reformist challengers. The alternative would be a right-wing ideological state — nationalist, fundamentalist, populist, and ruled by militarism, something akin to the Japan of the 1930s. And that cannot last. In this contest between Iran’s elite factions, the world should be rooting for the clergy — their victory will bring about the quickest end to the Islamic Republic.



[1] “Like the Shi’ite imam, the true king was king and imam even if he did not rule: he was king by virtue of his mastery of the royal craft if his contemporaries failed to appeciate his merits,” as Patricia Crone writes in God’s Rule. Government and Islam.

[2] Khomeini R. Islam and Revolution. Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Mizan Press, Berkley 1981.

[3] The great reformator of the 16th century created Protestantism and effectively cleaned up church service by cutting it down to the essentials. He even put into relation the Blessed Sacrament. 

Last modification June 25, 2011.

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