Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Observations on the Islamic State in Iran

Senior Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei makes a speech during his meeting with senior officials and members of the air force in Tehran, Iran on February 08, 2020. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei makes a speech during his meeting with senior officials and members of the air force in Tehran, Iran on February 08, 2020. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“Say, ‘Shall I inform you who are the greatest losers in respect to their deeds? Those whose efforts go astray in the life of this world, while they reckon that they are virtuous in their works.’”
Quran (Cave, 103-4)

“The failure of the revolution is the revolution itself. Revolution and its failure are one and the same thing.”
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Adventures in Dialectic

p(firstLetter). Why has the Islamic State that controls Iran endured for so long? And why, moreover, has the Iranian regime managed to hold on to power in the face of one debilitating and potentially fatal crisis after another? Today, the regime faces a rolling crisis of legitimacy and loss of public trust rooted in its structural governing deficiencies, incurable mismanagement, and massive official corruption. All of this has been made worse by international isolation and crippling sanctions, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. These many challenges, taken together, might be devastating enough to bring down any unpopular government.

And yet, for over four decades, the Iranian regime has survived on the basis of revolutionary Islamism, with its delusions of religious superiority, narcissistic cravings for grandiosity, and imperialist ambitions to lead the whole of Islam. The institutionalization of revolutionary Islamism in the Iranian state and law has rendered the regime incapable of finding any effective resolution to its core flaws or of changing its predicament. Thus, at a time when so many Iranians, both secular and religious, have grown desperate for a change in how they are governed, the regime has resisted opening the doors to meaningful reform because to do so would risk ending the Islamic Revolution for which the regime stands. If anything, the regime leadership believes that overcoming its mounting difficulties requires it to keep moving forward with its revolution. In practice, the regime has become ever more militant and totalitarian, relying on violence and new surveillance and control mechanisms to oppress its subjects, paralyze civil society, and terrorize its opponents at home and in its external empire.

This paper attempts to explain the legacy of the 1979 revolution and its current crisis. It will examine the evolution of the Islamic State in Iran and its core Islamist ideology as manifested in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s teaching on Islamic revolution and Velayet-e Faghih, the “guardianship of the jurist.” For the last forty-one years, this doctrine of Islamic Government has been practiced and implemented in such a way that makes it a near impossibility that the controlling regime in Iran will pursue reform of its own volition. This, of course, is not to rule out the possibility of other pathways of political change in Iran. But it does underscore the fact that a change to a post-Islamic Republic future does not, at present, look particularly likely.

Was It Really a Revolution? If So, What Is Left?

Any response to these questions depends on how one understands the “revolution.” In the Iranian regime’s official view, the revolution of 1979 was an emphatically Islamic event that was and remains truly exceptional due to its divine motivation and ends. Its only historical precedent was the foundational event in Islam, that is, the Prophet Mohammad’s rise to the political summit of two cities in Bedouin society, Medina and Mecca. Indeed, recurrent claims about the divine nature of the 1979 revolution can be found in the official rhetoric of the Islamic Republic’s two Supreme Leaders. Both Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, have, in fact, described Iran’s revolutionary generation as superior to the newly-converted Muslim Bedouin community who supported the Prophet Mohammed in his time. Khomeini’s views on the absolute superiority of the Islamic Revolution as compared to other transformative events—whether in ancient or modern history—were made clear in his political testament released soon after his death. There, he argues:

I doubtlessly claim that the Iranian Nation and the mass of its millions [of members] in the current time are better than the Hejaz’s people in the time of God’s Prophet, and also the people of Kofa and Iraq in the period of Ali and Hossein Ibn Ali [Shiism’s first and third Imams]. Those Hejazi Muslims in the time of God’s Prophet refused to comply with his orders and were only seeking pretext for going to the war fronts…. But we see today the extent to which the [members of the] Iranian Nation…passionately sacrifice themselves on war fronts and behind them the epic scenes they create.1

In Khomeini’s view, a Muslim’s allegiance to the Islamic Revolution and its leadership was a religious obligation, and religiously the same as loyalty to the Prophet Mohammad himself, or to one of the infallible imams of Shiite tradition. Since, in his view, the Iranian people predominantly devoted themselves to the Supreme Leader in 1979 and remained loyal to him through the process of replacing the monarchy and consolidating the power of the new Islamic Government, then the Iranian Nation achieved what even the Prophet Mohammad had failed to bring about because the majority of early Muslims in the Hejaz were not fully faithful or loyal to the prophet and his mission. Furthermore, Khomeini evidently suggests that Iran’s revolution made the “utopian” dream of Islam’s founding prophet come true, centuries after his unfortunate defeat.

Likewise, the religious nature of Iran’s revolution has been a key theme in Khamenei’s pronouncements since his elevation to Supreme Leader in 1989. Khamenei believes the ultimate goal of the Islamic Revolution was not to form a government, but, beyond that, to transform the world by establishing a “new Islamic civilization.” As such, the revolutionary process continues to this day, just as Iran’s Islamic State exists to carry the revolution forward across the earth.2 Indeed, the state media now refers to Khamenei as “The Leader of the Revolution,” and, in important ways, the “Islamic Revolution” has come to operate as a substitute term for the Iranian regime itself. This widespread use of “revolution” in the Islamic Republic is, of course, a common feature in other modern dictatorships, particularly Marxist-Leninist ones.3

As Hannah Arendt had observed, “the emphatic stress on novelty” and a profound urge for “beginning anew” are salient characteristics of all modern revolutions. In this Arendtian schema, a revolution is realized in two phases: “liberation” and “freedom”—that is, liberation from fear of tyranny as a prelude to the freedom to live a political life guided by the constitution of a new political order.4 By this definition, what happened in 1979 in Iran cannot be called a “revolution” in the modern sense of the term.5 That is because the central demand of Iran’s revolutionaries—or, at least, the demand of those Islamist clerical factions that came to dominate and control the new Islamic Government—was to be liberated from the Pahlavi monarchy without any characteristically modern aspiration for a new political order.

Instead, what motivated the clerical revolutionaries—besides their own self-serving desire to “reclaim” their uppermost social and political status—was a nostalgic and utopian longing for the “renewal” of Islam as it was originally revealed and practiced. In Islamist ideology, as it came to be defined by both Sunni and Shiite ideologues in the twentieth century, the overthrow of an illegitimate “un-Islamic” government was to be followed by the recovery of an “authentic” Islamic Government that emulates the Prophet’s rule in the early period of Islam. But this utopian ideal—the Salaf Past—was and is an empty concept. The “retro-utopia” envisioned by Iran’s revolutionaries had never been grounded in any real understanding of history, or any realistic perception of the novel and incessantly changing demands of the present, let alone any practical idea of the complexities of running a modern government.

Thus, after the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy, Iran’s revolutionary leadership experienced many of the same challenges that revolutionaries elsewhere such as Vladimir Lenin had faced once they had seized power. Lenin’s Marxism and Khomeini’s Islamism provided the emotional fuel needed to mobilize the people in their collective act of subversion. But these ideological movements did not supply a blueprint or practical agenda for setting up a new political order. In Iran’s case, the lack of any practical plan for governance was a result of both the clergy’s ignorance of political things as well as their own utopian convictions.

In much the same way that Marxists believe self-destructive capitalist society is doomed to disappear and be transcended by socialism, Khomeini and the “followers of the Imam Khomeini line” believed modern civilization was destined to destroy itself and be superseded by Islam. The goal of the Islamic Revolution was to hasten this along, including by establishing an Islamic Government. However, a revolutionary reading of Shiite Islam had never been tried before. For Shiite revolutionaries, the legitimacy of their new Islamic State was mainly grounded in its absolute commitment to replace modern culture and secular legal systems with Islamic law. The “sovereignty of God” is the unique and sole authority, and sharia law, thanks to its sources in divine revelation, is believed to be unquestionably superior to any modern legal or political order based on “popular sovereignty.” The Shiite clergy therefore readily perceived themselves as the sole authority, able to run state institutions in accordance with Islamic law. But they soon discovered the profound abyss between the prescriptions of the sharia canons and the reality of a society that was, at least in part, irreversibly modernized. To deal with this, Khomeini stipulated that sharia can only benefit the umma (Muslim Nation) and respond to its worldly and spiritual needs if it is implemented under the leadership of the most learned Ayatollah. This theory of the guardianship of the jurist, in turn, hardwired the new Islamic State to be an autocracy, and to rely on terror and the ideology of permanent revolution to sustain itself.

What Was the Islamic Republic?

“Islamic Republic—no less no more.”6 This was what Ayatollah Khomeini vigorously insisted on in his March 8, 1979 public speech during the national referendum on the character of the post-revolutionary government. Initially, this strange and ambiguous syntax of “Islamic republicanism” was meant to seduce and gain acceptance from many segments of Iranian society—the traditional and religious, as well as the modernist or forward-looking elites who aspired to replace the monarchical system with a modern government based on Rule of Law. While he was in exile in France, Khomeini misled many by claiming that his theory of Islamic Government was totally compatible with these democratic principles. Many “modernized revolutionaries” in Iran came to see Khomeini as a Shiite version of the Indian anti-imperialist leader Gandhi. Once the monarchy fell, many still believed Khomeini would return to Qom and hand power over to lay politicians.

But Khomeini had never intended on sharing power with the people, nor did he want his Islamic Government to be a “republic” in any conventional sense of the term—i.e., a constitutional polity of self-governing citizens. Three months prior to the revolution, Khomeini gave a famous interview in Al-Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper. In response to the newspaper’s question about his “ideal republic and its features,” Khomeini, revealingly explained: “The nature of the Islamic Republic is that the government will be constituted based on what Islam sets as requirements and will implement Islamic law.”

On this basis, Khomeini and his followers rejected the name “The Republic of Iran,” which had been suggested by some secular organizations, as well as “The Democratic Republic of Iran,” as proposed by the provisional prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and his Muslim-nationalist faction. Post-1979 Iran, Khomeini insisted, was to be called an “Islamic Republic—not a word more, not a word less.” For revolutionary Shiism, both the monarchy and “modernity” were existential threats to Islam, and they were joined in undermining the Shiite clergy’s privileged social and economic status. The “Islamic Republic” they so desired was meant to counteract these twin threats, rather than to define and construct a new order. For them, a “republic” meant the refusal or rejection of monarchy, whereas “Islam” meant the wholesale rejection of modern culture, including its political concepts and institutions.

Popular discontent among the Shiite clergy and lay activists had originally emerged as a broad-based reaction to the authoritarianism, corruption, and rapid modernization of the Pahlavi monarchy. Following the constitutional movement of 1905-1911, the monarchy had increasingly adopted an anti-clerical agenda. The Pahlavi dynasty modernizers had also tried to reinvent Iranian national identity based on the glorified era of Persian civilization, which had come to an end shortly after the advent of Islam. Thus, under the monarchical order, the Shiite clergy was increasingly excluded from national life, demoted from their formerly distinguished social status, banned from having religious endowments and other financial resources, and all together baffled by the shock of modernity and its devastating power in discrediting their intellectual honor and spiritual authority. The Shiite clergy felt bitterly wounded by these humiliations. And yet, while clerical opposition to the Pahlavi order may have obstructed or distorted the modernization process, the clerics were unable to stop its overall momentum.

The Shiite clergy was intellectually ill-prepared to cope with the strains of rapid modernization and their declining social status. In the early twentieth century, the constitutional movement had initially enjoyed some clerical support. But those clerics failed to fully grasp the European sense and usage of modern political concepts and ideas. Understanding these concepts was all the more difficult for the more traditional clerics who were committed to fighting the constitutionalists on religious grounds. All in all, clerical involvement in rational debate on modern ideas and sciences remained strictly superficial and constrained.

In Europe a few centuries earlier, Christian theologians had enjoyed a slower pace of modernization. They were also in a far more useful and agreeable intellectual state of mind to communicate with their cultural and political adversaries. By contrast, Iran’s Shiite clergy had been introduced to modernity as late as the nineteenth century. Their limited exposure to modern ideas came from publications produced in neighboring countries. Their books on modern concerns had been filtered by non-modern mediators and suffered from a poor quality of translation. The clergy thus really had no way of learning about modern culture or constructively engaging with it. To them, modernity came abruptly as an invasive and utterly alien force that was imposed on them by the monarchy. The Shiite ulama thus became subjected to modernization in spite of themselves.

Ironically, the modernization of that same clerical elite, who simultaneously maintained their troubling anti-modern tendencies, also marked the beginning of a totally new era in Iranian religious history.7 For instance, the pluralist character of Shiite religious authority had been well-established for centuries.8 But one effect of the spread of modern connectivity and communication technology like the telegraph was to undermine the authority of Shiism’s local religious men, i.e., the marjas and faghihs. It also enabled the emergence of Shiite authorities with far greater “trans-local” and even “transnational” reach and influence. These religious leaders, in turn, refashioned the traditionally pluralist Shiite community and identity, including through the codification of sharia into law.

Moreover, modern technology actually helped the clerical establishment to achieve unprecedented financial enrichment, to reorganize its internal bureaucracy and external network on the basis of previously unknown and more centralized models, and to increasingly occupy greater space in society than its cultural rivals, the modernizing elites. This experience only proved to those clerics that science and particularly technology was a “common tool” that was able to be used in the service of Islam just as the infidels had used it. Shiite authorities saw that science and technology could be used to advance and empower their agendas without accepting modern ideas and concepts.

The emergence of this instrumentalist approach in the early history of modernity in Iran brought to a definite end any earnest engagement between past and present. In the process, “modernity” increasingly came to be seen by traditionalists as a “problem.” Since the constitutional movement especially, the fundamental “problem”—which continues to set the framework for cultural and political debates today—has revolved around a pivotal issue: modern Rule of Law, based on the concept that all law should apply to everyone equally. By contrast, the sharia canons, as a body of religious law, were shaped by Islamic theological premises and pre-modern anthropological perceptions in which the notion of justice has nothing to do with “equality.” Instead, religious justice as understood in traditional Islamic theology is based on recognizing the moral, spiritual, social, political and various other hierarchies and differences between human beings. To traditionalist clergy, the “European” values and ways of life of Iran’s modernized elites were seen as utterly impossible for a religious Muslim to adopt, and modernity itself came to be seen as something that needed to be counteracted by Islamic law.

While the Shiite clergy confronted and sought to legally proscribe the modern “cultural invasion,” more and more they began to conclude that the modernizing Pahlavi dynasty had lost its qualification to rule Muslim society because it failed to protect the interests of its religious leaders. To remedy this great humiliation, many outraged Shiites looked to modern political ideology and organizational models. After World War One, the influence of Leftism—from Bolshevism to Marxism and Leninism—grew dramatically in Iranian society. This was the direct result of the 1917 Russian Revolution and related developments in Europe, which impacted the modernized elites in Iran. It was also indirectly the result of the growing influence of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood on the Iranian clergy. The Pan-Islamist ideology of the Brotherhood and other revivalist trends in Islam allowed for and even required Muslim cooperation with “infidels” who shared the same enemy. The Shiite clergy and lay political activists, both in Qom and Najaf, discovered that Leftism had enormous appeal among the wider public. They also came to see Leftism, of all the modern ideologies, as most compatible with their own religious-cultural agendas.

Shiite ideologues started to be widely known in Iran as “Left-Islamists” or “Marxist Islamists.” Of course, this would become one of the most important contradictions in revolutionary Shiism. No modern political ideologies were as fundamentally anti-religious as those of the Left. At the same time, intensified interaction and rivalry between Leftism and emergent Islamism in Iran also led to considerable cross-pollination and borrowing between them. Both ideological movements shared apocalyptic readings of history and similar utopian visions—the “classless society” for Marxists, and “tawhidi society” for Islamists. Both ideological movements also shared unconditional faith in science and a desire to acquire modern technology insofar as it served their political power and agendas. Meantime, Shiite Islamism further embraced Leftism’s dictatorial and authoritarian political models as the most effective means by which an intellectual vanguard—i.e., the revolutionary clergy—could seize power and bend society to their will. Yet, despite the profound theoretical and organizational influence of Marxism on Shiite Islamism, Iran’s revolutionaries obsessively denied their debt to it, and insisted on their own Islamic “purity” and ideological “authenticity.”


Shortly after the April 1, 1979 national referendum that established the Islamic Government, Ayatollah Khomeini declared the referendum marked “the first day of God’s rule… in which the sovereignty of [the] devil disappeared forever and the government of the oppressed, which is the government of God, replaced it.”

By embedding the principle of Velayet-e Faghih in the new constitution, Khomeini ensured the new state would take the form, at least initially, of a theocracy. This had no precedent in Iranian history.9 Before the growth of modern Islamism, no one had questioned the eligibility of the sultan to rule on Islamic grounds, or the de facto separation of political authority and religious authority.10 Under Khomeini’s doctrine of Islamic Government, implementing religious law was the main purpose of the state and all its political institutions, including the judiciary and legislative. This scheme vested paramount authority over all three branches of government to those best versed in sharia. Thus, political power came to be concentrated in the clergy, and in particular in the hands of the most learned of all jurists, i.e., the Supreme Leader.

Not long after 1979, the revolutionary clergy discovered their duty to implement religious law was fundamentally at odds with the demands of actually governing. This led to considerable debate and conflict over the legality of fatwas and the religious legitimacy of legislation and, in the course of this, a disturbing question arose. Revolutionary ideology asserted the Islamic Government was superior to all other forms of government. But, if the Islamic Government could not commit itself to the full implementation of sharia (and the absolute rejection of Western/un-Islamic systems, institutions and ideals), then what would define the Islamic spirit of the Islamic Republic and make it exceptional?

For Khomeini, what made the Islamic Government exceptional was that it was ruled not by Islamic law per se but by the faghih —the jurist. The Supreme Leader subsequently amended or elaborated on his doctrine of Velayet-e Faghih. He took the notion of public interest, or maslahat, from traditional religious jurisprudence and twisted it to meet his ends. “Islamic law exists for the Muslims’ interest, for Islam’s interest. If we saw Islam in danger, we all have to sacrifice to save it,” Khomeini argued. The survival and success of the Islamic Government was the ultimate goal of the revolution (and thus of Islamic revelation itself), he claimed, one that stands above everything else, including even the tradition of Islamic Law. Therefore, in the event of any conflict between the interests of the revolutionary regime and the requirements of Islamic Law (as well as the country’s civic law), the ruling jurist is religiously and constitutionally authorized, even obligated, to override sharia.

This notion of the “expediency of the regime,” in effect, granted the Supreme Leader the power to (re)define all law in service of the Islamic Government and the revolution. In a famous early example of this, when the regime directed Iranians to spy on each other to root out its political opponents and safeguard the Islamic Government, it was criticized by some who said the directive ran counter to the Quran. Khomeini rebuked this criticism, and unequivocally stated to the nation,

All of you are charged to save Islam by espionage… Saving Islam is above the Muslim’s life… espionage is a religious mandate for preserving Islam and Muslims’ life, and lying is a religious mandate, and drinking wine is a religious mandate.11

In his many letters and pronouncements, Khomeini reiterated his religious calls about the duty of a Muslim to serve, sacrifice, and even to destroy themselves for the sake of Islam, that is, the Islamic Government. For him, a Muslim’s religious obligations were one and the same with their duties to the ruling jurist, i.e., the Supreme Leader. In a telling example, on January 6, 1988, Khomeini issued an open letter to then-president Khamenei in reaction to the president’s speech in which he said the ruling jurist (faghih) only implemented the sharia and that his authority was constrained by fiqh (jurisprudence). Khomeini rejected this, saying it is the ruling jurist—and not fiqh—who enjoys divine authority. The Supreme Leader candidly stated that his authority is equal to the Prophet and the infallible imams of Shiism, and that he could ignore or suspend all of sharia and “even beyond” if Islamic Law is deemed harmful to Islamic Government.

One direct consequence of this was the rollback of any semblance of constitutionalism in Iran and any functioning notion of rule of law, whether civil or religious, modern or ancient. Iran’s legal system was dramatically changed, and all laws were considered effective only up until the Supreme Leader announces that they were suspended. Thus, the Islamic Republic approaches Shiite jurisprudence as an instrument just as it does technology; law is not perceived as the essential protector of citizens’ rights or freedoms (as it is in liberal democratic societies), but as a tool which serves the revolutionary regime and its interests. This is an example of legalizing illegality and irregularity, so that neither practice nor policy can be held accountable nor expected to be predictable. As but one example, the Iranian majlis (parliament) adopted a law according to which all regime institutions (including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, State TV and radio, the Imam Reza Shrine, one of the richest financial entities in the Middle East, the IRGC, etc.) are exempt from any accountability before the majlis.

Today, the effects of this on Iran are apparent everywhere. Once this principle of expediency was established, the theocratic implementation of Islam as the defining principle of Islamic Government quickly became irrelevant. There had been disagreement among the clergy who jockeyed with one another for position and influence, but the ultimate authority was the Supreme Leader and all that mattered was what he determined was most expedient to the survival and advance of Islamic Revolution. As the Supreme Leader’s power grew, the traditional institutions of jurisprudence (fiqh), ulama, and clerical hierarchy were emptied of all their authority and meaning until the sole role of other ayatollahs was reduced to complying with the diktats of the Supreme Leader. Meanwhile, the revolutionary elites that replaced those of the Pahlavi era and enjoyed the Supreme Leader’s favor have had new opportunities—and effective official sanction—to prey on the people. Members of the clergy, the IRGC, and other elements of the regime have since built-up a mafia-like economic empire. Meantime, with every decision informed by the need to preserve the Islamic Government and extend its power, the Supreme Leader came to rule as if in a perpetual state of emergency, securitizing all aspects of domestic life and militarizing Iran’s external relations and conduct. Thus, the theocracy was transformed into a militant-Islamist autocracy.

The Theology of Jihad

The Iranian regime is founded on an Islamist political theology that presupposes a fundamental division in the world between good and evil, or between Islam and un-Islam. The regime, as the leader of Islam and the revolution, is in an inexorable conflict with evil—especially the West and particularly America, “the Great Satan”—a conflict that must be waged and won before the end of world and the coming of the Shiite messiah, Imam Mahdi. From this emphasis on a particular type of jihad as its sole purpose flow many of the regime’s defining characteristics—its implacable hostility toward the U.S. and Israel; its securitization of all aspects of statecraft; and, most important, its intransigence and inability to moderate. When the world is a battlefield and decisive victory is guaranteed by divine providence, there can be no “Thermidor”—that is, a period of ideological and political mellowing and reform that so many have hoped for—only a new “Reign of Terror.”

The Islamist regime’s worldview was captured by Khomeini’s frequent invocation of the mostaz’afin —meaning the “oppressed,” the deprived and powerless strata of society, the Islamic equivalent of the Marxist “proletariat.” Historically considered a key part of Islamic and particularly Shiite ideology, the regime also used this idea of the oppressed in the constitution and other political and legal canonical documents. The purpose of this rhetoric was to cast the revolution as a struggle of the mostaz’afin against the mostakberin —that is, the “arrogant ones,” or the worldly powers—aimed at replacing them and ruling the globe. Unconditionally defending the world’s oppressed by all means is central to the Islamic Republic’s ideological mission and identity.

This confrontation with an imagined enemy justified the regime’s perpetual “state of emergency.” It also sheds light on one of the key developments of the revolutionary era, the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Khomeinist hardliners and the subsequent hostage crisis. In a regime defined by its antagonism to “arrogant” and “oppressive” world powers, being blindly and absolutely anti-American and anti-Israeli was seen as necessary to prove one’s revolutionary and “Islamic” bona fides.

Since being elevated to Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has sought relentlessly to transform the traditional Islamic concept of jihad and to establish it as the central issue in the Islamist regime’s ideology. Neither Khamenei’s idea of jihad nor his objectives are all that original if we recall Sayed Qutb, Abul A’la Maududi, and the other architects of modern Islamism. Each one of these ideologists and their offspring, from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to ISIS, have sought to elevate jihad as the central characteristic and duty that defines being a Muslim. As the Supreme Leader, Khamenei’s novel contribution has been to develop a systematic juristic framework—an entire “political fiqh”—on the subject of jihad which aims to respond to the regime’s practical and policy needs and to positively define the duties of Muslims to the regime and the unfinished work of Islamic Revolution.

Like other Islamists, Khamenei understands jihad as politics, and politics as jihad. Through his political fiqh, Khamenei offers a Shiite Islamist version of the political theology of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt in which the state is founded upon, and defined by, a fundamental friend-enemy opposition. In redefining jihad, Khamenei makes jihad the grounding of the entire ideological system of the Islamic Republic and the sole basis of the Iranian regime’s statecraft. “Without jihadi action and revolutionary work, we cannot set the country in order,” he says. What he means by jihad can be distilled in a short statement:

The absolute necessity of faithful and full implementation of the Supreme Leader’s orders or living blindly in compliance with his will and intentions, which legitimizes every effort, avoids all kinds of impediments by disregarding legal constraints and bureaucratic restraints.12

Khamenei’s views and reconceptualization of jihad is disturbing because of their opaque formulation and legally fluid content. In effect, the rulings on jihad provide him, the Supreme Leader, with the absolute authority to make any kind of decision at any given time, according to what he regards as expedient. This allows Khamenei to extend his ideological concept of jihad to new fields and coin new terms, such as “scientific jihad,” “economic jihad,” “cultural jihad,” “political jihad,” “managerial jihad,” “jihadi discourse,” and “jihadi enlightenment.”

In traditional Islamic jurisprudence, jihad was divided into lesser and greater conflicts. The first jihad is every Muslim’s never-ending battle against his own moral vices, and the latter is his duty to go to war with the enemy under the commandership of the ruler of Muslim umma. But Khamenei introduces a new type of “great jihad,” and justifies it with a Quranic verse. He defines “great jihad…based on its Quranic and Islamic logic,” as “resistance, having a disobedient attitude, and refusal to follow infidels and pagans.” According to him, “great jihad” has many “military, political, economic, cultural and social aspects,” including the “resistance economy” and “cultural war” against the West.

“Great jihad” expands the notion of “evil” and “enemy” so much that it applies not only to foreigners and infidels, or domestic opponents and skeptics toward the regime, but also to those who served the regime but have lost their faith in its leader. Following Qutb and Maududi, Khamenei believes that any version of Islam other than “revolutionary Islam based on the total loyalty to the ruling faqih” is a heretical, inauthentic, American and corrupt. It must, therefore, be eliminated and fought as any other obvious type of kofr and sherk (paganism).

Once anyone, regardless of status or background, refuses to prove his commitment to the Supreme Leader becomes the “enemy,” state-sanctioned political violence becomes not just possible, but required. Thus, in 2018 a speech, Khamenei authorized the security forces to “fire at will” to protect the regime’s interests. “Sometimes key think tanks and cultural and political institutions fall into disarray and stagnation, and when that happens, commanders of the soft war should recognize their duty, make decisions and act in a fire-at-will manner,” he said in 2016.13 In this way, Khamenei fabricated a religious justification for what the government had already decided to do.

Complete obedience to the revolutionary regime, however, is not just a political necessity for Khamenei, but a world historical one. In 2019, on the important fortieth anniversary of 1979 revolution, Khamenei issued a carefully drafted statement, entitled “The Second Phase of Revolution: A Statement Addressed to the Nation.”14 He described the “Islamic revolution as the beginning of the world’s new time”—a time in which communism has collapsed and its historical rival, capitalism (America), is about to disappear. He insisted that the establishment of the Islamic Government in 1979 did not end the revolution, or a Muslim’s ideological duty to remain revolutionary. “The Islamic Revolution does not find revolutionary passion and politico-social order at odds, but rather it defends the theory of the revolutionary regime until the end of time.”

The “new time” that the Islamic Revolution is meant to create, according to Khamenei, involves the revival and global domination of “Islamic Civilization,” as described by Qutb in his book The Future Belongs to Islam (which Khamenei translated into Persian before the revolution). The revival and spread of Islamic Civilization is a divine promise that needed the Revolution and the Islamic Republic to make real in the world. In turn, building an Islamic Civilization, by unifying the umma and ruling the world, is the ultimate revolutionary goal of the Islamic Republic. “Islamic civilization: this is the objective of Islamic Republic of Iran,” he writes. “Achieving such civilization will be possible only after the final jihad.” Prophesying the arrival of this ultimate battle of good and evil, Khamenei, in a recent message to the Association of Muslim Students in Europe, promised that “everything indicates the imminent rise of a unique phenomenon.”15

The culmination of this logic is, as I have previously written, Khamenei’s unorthodox fatwa and thought on the legitimacy of “offensive war” (Jihad-e ebtedaii).16 In his book of fatwas (in print and online) and in his courses on jihad, Khamenei bluntly states that “offensive jihad is not limited to the time of Prophet and infallible Imam, and a qualified jurist who rules Muslims can declare offensive jihad, if he sees it expedient [for the regime].”17 The objective of offensive jihad, as Khamenei explains, is

… to remove the obstacles before calling [mankind] to [convert to] Islam. [Offensive jihad is] the one that Islam’s army, without facing any attack by enemy, wages to destroy the impediments before proselytizing Islam, conversion of other lands’ people to Islam, and expansion of Islam, domination of the true ‘Word,’ implementation of sharia, guiding infidels and pagans [to Islam] and subverting paganism and all faiths [but Islam]. In fact, offensive jihad’s objective is not territorial conquest, but rather defending innate rights of those people who have been deprived from worshiping god, monotheism and justice by infidel, pagan and arrogant powers.18

Traditionally, Shiites believe only in “defensive war”—unless an infallible Imam governs the community. Khamenei’s quasi-heretical legitimization of offensive jihad seems all the more stunning when considering the fact that Khomeini never himself turned away from the Shiites’ orthodox view of jihad in his discourse, courses, or writings, before or after revolution. Khomeini did advocate for the “export of the revolution,” provoking Muslims to overthrow their pro-western governments and encouraging them to fight for the annihilation of Israel. But legitimizing “offensive jihad” justifies any kind of intervention wherever possible around the world in support of the revolution: it is a perfect premise for legitimizing Iran’s imperialism.

Iran’s “imperialism” flows directly from the regime’s “pan-Islamic” revolutionary ideology and its totalitarian nature. In this, Iranian imperialism is different from nineteenth century European imperialism, which was “national” and “territorial.” As Hannah Arendt once elaborated, the twentieth century totalitarian movements of “Nazism and Bolshevism owe[d] more to Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism (respectably) than to any other ideology or political movement.” Likewise, Iranian pan-Islamism and imperialistic expansionism is rooted in ideas of cultural, racial, and religious superiority.

The Totalitarian Civilization

“Iranian leaders should be audacious enough to declare that the existing government is neither a republic nor Islamic.”

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, August 27, 2009

The totalitarian character of the Islamic State that controls Iran is captured by Khamenei’s concept of “managerial jihad.” The concept also captures the Supreme Leader’s approach to the mounting difficulties his regime faces today. In his rhetoric, “revolution” and “jihad” are one and the same. Unlike “jihad,” however, “revolution” is a modern idea that is absent in traditional Islamic discourse. By using the two terms interchangeably, the Supreme Leader means to show the religious “authenticity” and “purity” of his policies and the continued superiority and necessity of the Islamic Revolution. In any case, Khamenei’s “jihadi model” of regime preservation has aimed to deal with its troubles by driving the revolution forward. The regime has aimed through ideological engineering and force to remind people of their religious duties to it, and to imbue society with a new zeal for revolutionary struggle (jihad). In popular rhetoric, the regime says “everything is possible” on the principle of “we can.” Moreover, as the regime’s actions have made clear, there neither will nor can be any constitutional, legal, or administrative/bureaucratic restraint on what the regime wants. The Islamic State exists to make the Islamic Revolution, and the Supreme Leader is authorized and obligated to pursue that agenda by all means necessary.

The consequences of these dynamics can be seen on Iran’s streets. In the last two years, on two major occasions, widespread protests erupted which were quite distinct from the unrest in the Islamic Republic over the last forty years. They occurred in new places, and featured new participants and demands. The protesters predominantly belonged to the lower class and they were reacting to very specific concrete “economic” problems related to the regime’s endemic corruption: from the rise of gasoline prices, to a long delay in salary payments to factory laborers, and to the school teachers’ low pensions. The riots took place in small towns, peripheral areas, and neighborhoods throughout Iran. For the first time in its history, the Islamic Government found itself faced with a new type of internal opposition, one which came from the very strata of society that the regime and beneficiaries of the 1979 revolution had always portrayed as the backbone of the revolution: the mostaz’afin, or oppressed.

To address this shocking turn of events, Khamenei, who started out as a Left-Islamist champion of the oppressed, redefined the mostaz’afin protestors. In his meeting with the Basij militia (officially called “The Basij Resistance Force of Mostaz’afin”), he contradicted the regime’s official rhetoric, revolutionary literature, and Islamic ideological legacy. Khamenei declared,

Who are ‘Mostaz’afin’? ‘Mostaz’afin’ is misdefined… as economically vulnerable people… Quran defines it otherwise… ‘Mostaz’afin’ means potential leaders and rulers of mankind’s world, that said, future heirs of earth and its entire possessions; ‘Mostaz’af’ [singular form of the word] refers to the one who is potentially the heir of world, the potential regent of god on earth, the potential Imam and leader of humankind’s world.19

In reaction to the October 2019 protests, Hossein Nejat, the cultural deputy of the IRGC commander-in-chief, revealed the regime’s concern about the lower class by accusing Western powers of supporting and using “the lower class, illiterate and peripheral” to advance their anti-Islamic Republic agenda.20 This redefinition of the regime’s former constituency as enemies has obligated the regime to ignore the facts and use more violence to demand acquiescence to its rule. Using Sheldon Wolin’s expression, the regime’s reckless use of violence in recent crackdowns demonstrates that the “totalitarian dynamic” has visibly intensified in the Islamic Republic. “The totalitarian dynamic is the exact opposite of revolutionary dynamics: historically the latter has attacked the powerful and privileged. Totalitarian theory turns revolutionary theory on its head: the enemy are the pitifully weak and vulnerable.”21 This is the crucial point of the regime’s command that turned its forces against the people: to “close your hearts to pity.”

Indeed, the Iranian regime today lacks moral and political constraints in using violence and surveillance against the Iranian people, just as it demonstrates intolerance toward anti-regime and reformist elements within the ruling elite. One effect of the complete instrumentalization of religion and law has been the destruction of both. Shiism inside Iran has become devoid of substantial theoretical or conceptual content. Consequently, the cognitive value or intellectual aspect of religion is increasingly irrelevant, and gives way to rituals and the merely social functions of religion. Indeed, the ideological overuse by the regime of Shiite mythology, signs, symbols, and senses has led to the exhaustion of Shiism’s spiritual capital. This religious hyperinflation has also led to declining appeal of Islamic ideology, the idea of Velayet-e-Faghih, and the Shiite clergy in general.22

If we believe in Edmund Burke’s statement that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,”23 then we might conclude from all this that political change, in one form or another, is inevitable and probably imminent in Iran. Yet, the Islamic State of Iran is hardly a spent force. “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any,” said Hannah Arendt. If we take this as a criterion to evaluate the success of a totalitarian system, one needs to use caution in judging Iranian totalitarianism as a failure, or in predicting its downfall. The clergy has been deprived of its traditional exclusive position in “managing the sacred affairs”24 and in leading the community, including its role in protecting the people from abuse. The regime, thus, is unlikely to face much dissent or resistance from Shiite leaders, who are not just unwilling but incapable of playing much of a role in protecting the people or in reforming the regime for the better.

Given this, there might be other pathways of political change that preserve, rather than undo, the Islamic State in Iran. The quiet takeover of power by the IRGC and the security apparatus, specifically after the death of Khamenei, is the likeliest scenario. In other words, the Islamic Republic may survive in the foreseeable future but go through a fundamental transformation from personal religious leadership to a military-security corporate state, while keeping the constitution untouched and the institution of the ruling jurist as ceremonial.

But, in this scenario, what will happen to Shiite Islamism and to the “Islamic Revolution?” As religion’s conceptual content becomes irrelevant, the theoretical grounds for Islamist ideology may also lose salience. Among other things, the coronavirus pandemic might also give the IRGC and its allies an opportunity to provide elements of Iranian society the security and stability they want, without a serious need for a philosophical basis for their legitimacy. Furthermore, growing political resentments against the regime may also be, to a large extent, contained and neutralized. Over time, the principle of expediency and the regime’s formidable tools of repression, surveillance and control, and ideological engineering provide it with considerable tactical flexibility and capacity to suppress the opposition. Both Khomeini and Khamenei repeatedly identified the obedience to state law and the Supreme Leader’s will with obedience to the divine law and the will of God. If the regime can replace the seduction of revolutionary Islamism with the charm of cynical reason, it may well find fertile cultural and social ground for evolving a new form of tyranny that retains its imperialistic ambitions.