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The Iranian Revolution in the New Era

Said Amir Arjomand

The June 2009 electoral putsch in Iran ushered in a new phase in the Islamic Republic’s now thirty-one year long history. With the apparent backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the hard-line incumbent presidential candidate Mahmud Ahmadinejad was declared the election’s winner—a result that seemed impossible to many, and that immediately provoked a massive wave of protests in Tehran and other urban areas throughout the country. While several well-documented allegations of fraud were made public, these were summarily dismissed by the Guardian Council, the Islamic regime’s most powerful organ of clerical rule. And then the regime’s security services, again with the backing of the supreme leader, were unleashed to systematically and violently suppress the protest movements.

In August 2009, Ahmadinejad was officially sworn in as president by Supreme Leader Khamenei. This took place amidst a series of show trials featuring forced confessions by protestors, as well as rumors of systematic rape and torture at the makeshift Kahrizak prison, where scores of demonstrators had been locked up.

In the eyes of the Islamic Republic’s defenders in the clerical establishment and elsewhere, the electoral putsch and the subsequent suppression of the protestors represented a vitally necessary return to the theocratic regime’s founding revolutionary Islamic principles. For example, Ahmadinejad’s mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, declared the Khomeinist principle of the guardianship of the jurist (velayat-e faqih) the true spirit of the Islamic Revolution and the true basis of the Islamic Republic, and alleged that the demonstrators who were fomenting the crisis aimed to eliminate the Islamic Republic altogether.It is because the supreme jurist partakes of the rays of light emanating from the Hidden, Twelfth Imam, Mesbah-Yazdi asserted, that “the people recognize him as the legitimate lieutenant of the Lord of the Age and consider obedience to him likewise incumbent upon themselves.”Therefore, he added, “when the president is appointed and confirmed by leadership, he becomes the supreme leader’s agent and the rays of light emanating from the Lord of the Age are shed on him as well.”1

Other clerics rallied to provide their unflinching support for the Islamic regime and the principles upon which it was established. In his Friday sermon on January 1, 2010, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the Secretary of the Guardian Council, called the opposition protesters “flagrant examples of the corrupt on earth” and urged their execution, just as the counterrevolutionaries were “in the early days of the revolution.”2 Throughout the post-election crisis, Jannati and others of the Guardian Council provided Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad (himself a former Jannati protégé) with some powerful legal instruments that the regime then used to systematically crush the opposition. Equally important support for the theocratic regime came from the judiciary, including both the judiciary’s outgoing head, Ayatollah Mahmud Shahrudi, as well as its incoming head, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani.

While the events of the summer of 2009 helped to revitalize the revolutionary spirit among some in the clerical establishment, they also made clear that the Islamic Revolution within Iran had entered an entirely new era. In this new era, the clerical establishment’s political dominance, rather than being reinvigorated, has actually been declining relative to a newly ascendant political class of hardliners supported by commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. This has dramatically transformed the regime’s internal power structure, with far-reaching consequences for the very constitutional principle on which the Islamic Republic was founded—that the supreme jurist should exercise absolute sovereignty over the country. It has also given rise to a wide-ranging political clash among the Islamic Republic’s aging lay revolutionaries and clerics over the true legacy and future direction of the revolution and the republic it created. Perhaps most decisively, the electoral putsch provoked an unexpectedly vigorous and astonishingly persistent wave of popular protest, which has come to be known as the “Green Movement,” and which has been swelling up from a new generation whose political sensibilities and aspirations are post-Islamist and post-revolutionary. All of these developments among others will have dramatic consequences for Iran and for the region as a whole in the decades ahead.

While the Islamic Republic was established on the Khomeinist revolutionary principle that Shiite clerics should rule, the 2009 electoral putsch brought about a major transformation in the mosque-state relationship. In fact, some of the most scathing criticism of the supreme jurist and the regime as a whole came from high-ranking members of the clerical establishment itself. The late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri—a scholar of great prestige and influence, who had also been designated by Khomeini to succeed him as supreme leader—fiercely condemned the electoral fraud and declared Ahmadinejad’s government illegitimate. Montazeri’s condemnations were subsequently endorsed by Ayatollah Yusof Sanei, another scholar who had been close to Khomeini. The radical cleric, Hojjat al-Islam Hadi Ghaffari, who had been the founder of the Iranian Hezbollah in 1979, unleashed an especially vehement attack against Khamenei, and accused the supreme leader and his henchmen of “turning religion into lying.”3

To understand the extent to which the relationship between the Iranian government and the Shiite clerical hierarchy has changed over the past year, it is useful to look back in history—in fact, to far beyond the founding of the Islamic Republic thirty years ago. Shiism was established as Iran’s state religion through a Mahdist revolution in 1501, which was led by Shah Ismail the Safavid. As the Safavid monarch established his rule over Persia, he began to claim that he was acting as the representative of the Hidden Imam. Subsequently, he proceeded to import Shiite scholars from Jabal Amil (in modern day Lebanon) and Hilla (in modern Iraq) to convert the people of Iran to Shiism.

Initially, as Arab Shiite theologians and jurists were imported into Persian lands, there was considerable tension between two important groups. On the one hand, there was a group of “clerical notables”—the sayyeds and jurists who were at the time Sunni, but who joined the service of the Safavid Shahs and ultimately converted to Shiism. On the other hand were the immigrant Arab Shiite theologians of the 16th century. Tensions between these two groups eventually abated as they intermarried in the 17th century. Nevertheless, the social division between these two sections of the Safavid elite tended to express itself in the form of a doctrinal schism within Shiism.

The clerical notables tended to support an intellectual trend that came to be known as “Akhbarism;” the Akhbaris rejected the use of ejtehad (independent legal reasoning; Ar. ijtihad) in the interpretation of Islamic law and were, generally speaking, politically quietist. The Safavid claim to power was not entirely unopposed however. Throughout the 17th century, Safavid rule and Akhbari quietism were challenged by the mojtaheds, Shiite jurists of Arab descent who practiced ejtehad and claimed to be the “Deputies of the Hidden Imam” (according to their theory of “general deputyship,” or niabat amma). It was ultimately the Usuli movement of the mojtaheds—not the Akhbaris—that prevailed after the Safavids’ fall and emerged as the dominant stream within Shiism, creating a Shiite hierocracy that later became independent of the state.

After the overthrow of the Safavid empire by Afghan tribes in 1736, the Usuli teachings began to shape Iranian political life in important ways. In the 19th century, during the period of Qajar rule, Usuli scholars elaborated a theory of a Shiite hierocracy that was independent of the Shah, and it was on this basis that a dual structure of authority—a system of two powers—was established. This dual structure rested on the Usuli principle that “every mojtahed is [equally] right (mosib)” and the theory that the mojtaheds collectively shared the office of “general deputyship” (niabat amma) of the Hidden Imam. The lay people could therefore choose any mojtahed to follow, and the latter would become their marja-e taqlid (source of imitation)—or, as it is more popularly called today, their Grand Ayatollah (Sign of God). Needless to say, this meant that some charismatic clerics could acquire a considerable following and, by extension, political influence.

The emergence of this dual system of power in the 19th and early 20th centuries ultimately set Shiite Iran apart from the rest of the Sunni Muslim world—and especially as clerical power grew relative to the political power of the shah. Indeed, in 1815 Sir John Malcolm, the British diplomat and historian of Iran, observed the tremendous power of a few eminent mojtaheds in Persia in the early 19th century. A century later, the British Orientalist scholar, E.G. Browne, pointed out the surprising number of conservative Shiite dignitaries who played prominent roles as leaders of the opposition toward the shah during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1907. During the rule of the Pahlavis from 1925 to 1979, the independence of the hierocracy was not impaired, though its power was greatly reduced, thanks to the shah’s secularizing policies. It was under the leadership of Khomeini that the clerics’ lost power was regained with a vengeance; a theocratic republic was established under the rule of a supreme jurist and a new hierocracy organized around revolutionary principles.

Khomeini’s revolutionary innovation in the early 1970s—which came to be fully articulated in his theory of the Guardianship of the Jurist, or velayat-e faqih—rested on the proposition that if one mojtahed or jurist (faqih) succeeded in establishing an Islamic government, then other jurists were obligated to follow him. This novel theory of Islamic government became part of the Islamic Republic’s constitution after the revolution in 1979. And yet, even though velayat-e faqih was inscribed in the new Islamic regime’s constitution—and even though clerical rule was further qualified as absolute (motlaqa) in the constitutional amendments of 1989—fundamental ideological contradictions still persisted. Perhaps most important was the enduring tension between the Khomeinist idea of theocratic government, which obligated all Iranians to follow the supreme jurist, and the old Usuli theory, which held that the opinion of all mojtaheds was equally the same and thus permitted people to follow marjas other than the supreme jurist.

For obvious reasons, this created some fundamental problems for the Khomeinist regime as it sought to consolidate its power over the Shiite clerical class who were, among other things, accustomed to their independence. In fact, a number of Grand Ayatollahs became well-known for opposing Imam Khomeini in the 1980s. Between 1992 and 1994, three Grand Ayatollahs died one after the other. The regime decided to take the opportunity created by these deaths to try to reconcile the conflicts between the old Usuli teachings and the new Khomeinist principles of clerical authority once and for all. The Head of Judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, sought to do this by declaring Supreme Jurist Khamenei the sole marja in 1995.4 But this attempt proved unacceptable to the Grand Ayatollahs and failed. Subsequently, the Islamic Republic began publishing a list of seven maraje that were approved as sources of imitation for the Iranian people. Khamenei was in the third place on the list, while the top marja was the hard-line, pro-regime Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel-Lankarani (who died in June 2007). The glaring omission from the list was Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani, the Najaf, Iraq based Grand Ayatollah who represents a more traditional Shiism and who the Islamic regime has clearly sought to marginalize. Clearly, the publication of this list signaled the beginning of a new and concerted effort by the Islamic regime to promote certain maraje as sources of imitation over others. This, among other tactics, was designed to help enhance the supreme leader’s control over the religious hierarchy.

Following 2009’s contested presidential elections, a new phase of hierocracy-state relations was inaugurated. The political crisis that ensued resulted in the alienation of a considerable number of Iran’s clerical elite, including most notably former presidents Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, as well as the former Majles Speaker Mehdi Karroubi. Today, as a consequence of the sweeping militarization of the Iranian regime and the expanding powers of the military-intelligence personnel in the new Ahmadinejad administration, these and other clerical dissidents are beginning to form and consolidate a new center of clerical authority. In this, we are witnessing perhaps the emergence of a sustained Shiite oppositional jurisprudence.

Khomeini’s revolution not only transformed mosque-state relations, but continues to play a fundamental role in the structuring of Iranian politics. Since the Islamic revolution, any group that sought to participate in politics was obligated to rally behind the three sets of principles identified as Khomeini’s heritage—namely, theocratic government, the rule of law and participatory representative government, and populism on behalf of the disinherited. These were the only open avenues for political participation. The many contradictions that have emerged between the first two heterogeneous principles of the 1979 Constitution help to explain the political confrontation that emerged in the 1990s between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the pro-reform leader Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, who served as Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005.

In this clash, Khamenei emerged as a champion of theocratic government, the constitution’s first principle, and a group of conservative clerics who had risen to power largely as consequence of the Islamic Revolution aligned themselves within this camp. These clerics have been amply rewarded for their support for the supreme leader, and they preside over a broad-based system of collective rule created by the revolution that includes clerical councils, foundations (bonyads), as well as foundation-supported unofficial groups, including the thuggish Helpers of the Party of God (Ansar-e Hezbollah). Perhaps more importantly, this camp of revolutionary hardliners, who later called themselves the “Principalists,” are enormously influential in the judiciary, as well as among the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and its ancillary militia, the Basij.

The reform leader Khatami stood for the constitution’s second principle—participatory government and rule of law—and seamlessly fused this together with his frequent appeals for civil society and greater openness. This position has been increasingly referred to as the “republicanism” of the regime established by Imam Khomeini, as distinct from its “Islamicness” (ostensibly represented by the Principalists). Khatami’s political allies included regime technocrats, reformist clerics and others who had been marginalized by the hierocracy that emerged from the revolution, as well as the country’s disenfranchised middle classes, including especially students and women. As the political clash between the Islamic and republican principles of the revolution unfolded, the battlefield was slanted against the president and his pro-reform supporters, since the Islamic Constitution and the rhetoric of the Islamic Revolution in which so much of Iranian politics is conducted has generally tended to advantage the Principalists.

The rise of Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005, who took up the third heterogeneous Khomeinist principle of populism, brought about a new era in Iranian politics that has included a new configuration of social forces and the formation of entirely new political alliances. With his populist rhetoric and demands for social justice, Ahmadinejad won election as the mayor of Tehran in 2003 by declaring he had a “Basij mentality”—a position that evidently succeeded in appealing to a critical percentage of the masses. He has since touted the “Basij culture” and a return to the Islamic Revolution as the panacea for all of Iran’s troubles not to mention the world’s, and his populist style of politics—which involves regular provincial tours and an array of new social welfare programs—appeals directly to the urban poor, whose plight had been neglected by Khatami and the reformists.

The Ahmadinejad era has brought with it a steady militarization of the regime. In much the same way as the Helpers of God operated in Khomeini’s time, the Basij corps and the Revolutionary Guards have increasingly come to play a direct role in Iranian political life. In 2005, for example, the Basij were used by the regime quite effectively to alter the elections by stuffing ballot boxes. This was done albeit on a limited scale (so as not to raise the opposition’s ire), and in tandem with other regime efforts to influence electoral outcomes, such as Council of Guardians’ highly selective annulment of votes, which it did whenever it deemed necessary.5 Ever since, Iranian politics (though not always public opinion) has further swung in favor of the Principalists, especially as the supreme leader began accumulating enormous extra-constitutional powers and began planting men loyal to him throughout the executive branch.

It was from this position of relative strength that Ahmadinejad and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards decided on their preposterous electoral putsch of June 12, 2009 once their campaign, which they had been hyping as the harbinger of a “Third Revolution,” took a wholly unanticipated turn for the worse. The putsch immediately rekindled the constitutional struggle between the children of the revolution; between the “republicanism” of the reformists and the “Islamicness” of the theocrats and the hardliners.

The reformists’ instinctive reaction was to bemoan the end of the Islamic Republic as instituted by Imam Khomeini. For example, the editorial of Moussavi’s organ, Kalemeh-ye Sabz (Green Word), was entitled “Political Coup, End of Republicanism,” and asserted that the coup’s Principalist-military engineers had “put their seal on the end of the republicanism of the regime.”6

Indeed, Khamenei’s firmness and determination in dealing with the unexpected explosion of popular protest in the aftermath of the electoral fraud reassured theocratic hardliners. For example, Ayatollah Abdallah Javadi-Amoli, who was one of the major early theorists of the Mandate of the Jurist and was recently “promoted” to the rank of Grand Ayatollah by being declared a marja-e taqlid by the government, issued a fatwa in preparation for the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 12, 2010. Based on the premise that “maintenance of the Islamic order is an individually incumbent religious duty,” he declared that disturbing this order by participating in the protests was “forbidden (haram) to [each and every] individual.”7

Even moderate clerics who seemed to be sitting on the fence eventually came to align with the theocrats as well. For example, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem-Shirazi—whose passionate plea against the constitutionalization of the Khomeinist principle of the Guardianship of the Jurist in its present form attracted much attention in 1979—had originally sent mixed signals toward the putsch. This ambiguous posture encouraged a group of reformers to seek his intervention on their behalf. But Shirazi, too, ultimately toed the regime’s line. When an appellate court approved that a twenty year old student, Mohammad Amin Valian, should be executed for his role in anti-regime protests during Ashura, they based their decision on the interpretation of a speech made by Makarem-Shirazi to the effect that those who broke the sanctity of Ashura (December 27, 2009) to demonstrate were fighters against God. The court interpreted this statement as a binding fatwa and obligatory for all.8

Revolutions give birth to a new political class, and Iran’s Islamic revolution was no exception. The political class formed after 1979 consisted of a narrow ruling stratum of clerical elites and a much broader second stratum in charge of the country’s administration and political mobilization. The composition of Iran’s new political class has changed drastically since Khomeini’s death 20 years ago. Most significantly, the power of the clerical elite that originally ruled revolutionary Iran through a number of councils has gradually declined relative to the military and bureaucratic leaders that populate the second stratum, which today is led by President Ahmadinejad. This second stratum has been heavily recruited from the Revolutionary Guards and its mobilization corps, the Basij, which replaced the irregular vigilante groups that had been unofficially organized by hardliners in the revolutionary era.

On June 12, 2009, the Revolutionary Guards decided unabashedly to steal the presidential election in a bid to take over the government. And they did this with the blessing of Supreme Leader Khamenei. The electoral putsch was quickly solidified by Ahmadinejad’s new cabinet appointments following his confirmation in August 2009.9 This, in turn, has been followed by the rapid growth of a corporatist economic empire that has, among other things, rewarded loyalty to Iran’s new political rulers.

By endorsing Ahmadinejad’s re-election—and by extension, backing the coup that brought to power the president and the military-security apparatus that he leads—Supreme Leader Khamenei has effectively alienated an important segment of the ruling clerical elite. He has also seriously diminished the powers of his own office. Khomeini, for example, utilized his position as ruling jurist to act as the regime’s arbiter, and was thus able to maintain his rule by balancing competing factions within the regime and the society as a whole. Today, because Khamenei has identified so strongly with the Principalists, it no longer seems possible for the supreme leader to maintain his rule as Khomeini once did. Nor does it seem possible for the clerical elite and military-security second stratum to coexist as they have in the past.

Analysts of revolutions have remained for too long under the sway of an idea drawn from the experience of the French Revolution. The conceit is that revolutions bring about a period in which political moderates are dominated by the radicals who ousted them, and that this period is normally followed by a return of moderates—or a “Thermidor”—that marks the revolution’s effective end. The revolutions of Mexico, Russia and China, however, have all demonstrated a further possible stage in the revolutionary sequence: the return of the radical hard-liners. In contemporary Iran, this stage has also been reached with the dominance of Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards.

The parallel between Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Russian Revolution is particularly striking. From 1947-1948—a full thirty years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution—radical hardliners were politically ascendant in Russia, and the world witnessed the peak of Soviet expansionism and export of the Marxist-Leninist revolution and ideology. Today in Iran, three decades also separate the rise of Ahmadinejad and the Principalist-military regime from Khomeini’s 1979 revolution. And, much like the Soviet Union in 1947-48, the Islamic Republic today is pursuing a newly aggressive foreign policy; the Revolutionary Guard Corps—especially though not exclusively the Qods Force—has inserted itself into Iran’s foreign policy under Ahmadinejad, and Pasdaran commanders have conspicuously missed two opportunities to take tough stands on Iran’s nuclear option.10 (Moreover, it is worth noting that the Soviet Union’s victory during the Second World War was highly conducive to Moscow’s pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy—just as Iran’s regional predominance, which has been obtained thanks to the American-led destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, has been favorable to the Principalist-militarists’ radical ambitions.)

While Ahmadinejad has acquired unprecedented powers as president, it is important not to forget that his rise, and the rise of the Principalist-military regime, began with Supreme Leader Khamenei’s efforts to augment his own personal powers. The supreme leader has managed to do this, in part, by replacing the men that former Presidents Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami had appointed to the regime’s various bureaucracies with his own appointments. While the supreme leader’s power today may be weaker relative to the president’s, Khamenei’s dependencies in the government, combined with the growth of the supreme leader’s extra-constitutional powers, has introduced a strong element of unpredictability in Iranian politics.11

Dictatorships—that is, autocratic political regimes that rest on power centralized in one person—are immensely fragile during periods of crisis. In the case of Iran, the shah’s regime was fragile because it was rooted in a system of personal power in which the shah made all the decisions; the regime collapsed once the shah was mentally paralyzed by the outpouring of anti-regime forces in the late 1970s. Today, Khamenei’s clerical monarchy is similarly a regime of personal power that is also enormously brittle and could come undone in the event of either the supreme leader’s death or incapacitation. Whatever his personal reasons, Ayatollah Khamenei’s backing of the June 2009 electoral putsch now appears to have been a costly mistake—and a potentially fatal error for the clerical regime, exactly 30 years, or one generation, after the revolution that replaced the crown with the turban. Khomeini’s successor has unwittingly replaced the robust post-revolutionary developmental course of the first and only theocracy in the modern era with his own tenuous personal rule over an inharmonious amalgam of post-revolutionary clerical conciliarism and brute military-intelligence domination. This has the effect of focusing popular discontent and opposition toward the regime narrowly on the supreme leader—as was reflected in the vociferous calls of “Death to the Dictator!” that increasingly followed the cries of “God is Great!” heard from Iranian rooftops earlier in the summer. This outpouring of hostility toward the supreme jurist became especially evident in the last wave of demonstrations in Tehran, Tabriz, Shiraz and other Iranian cities at the end of December 2009.

The eruption of the Green Movement in Iran has occurred in conjunction with birth of a new oppositional Shiite jurisprudence whose roots may be traced to the reform movement that emerged during the first year of Khatami’s presidency. In November 1997, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri openly challenged the principle of supreme leadership on the basis of the Absolute Guardianship of the Jurist, arguing that supreme rule should consist only in the supervision of popular government. Shortly thereafter, in 1998, Montazeri’s student, Hojjat al-Islam Mohsen Kadivar, issued a tract that presented Khomeini’s theory as only one of eight recognized Shiite political theories. Kadivar also published a detailed refutation of Khomeini’s theory and the official view labeled the “absolute appointive authority of the jurist.” In February 2001, Montazeri further demanded that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of which he was one of the main authors, be revised in light of these new clerical rulings.12 After the electoral putsch of June 2009, this nascent dissident Shiite jurisprudence acquired greater urgency and a more systematic oppositional character.

In reaction to the putsch, Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Assembly of Leadership Experts and former president, emerged as reform candidate Moussavi’s most influential supporter and Ahmadinejad’s staunchest enemy. Rafsanjani disappeared from the political scene for a month after the election while members of his family were harassed and detained. He was finally allowed to lead Friday prayers in Tehran on July 17, 2009. Rafsanjani’s sermon—which was delivered to a massive and raucous audience, though not broadcast live—gave new voice and encouragement to the pleas of the reform movement. “We believe that republicanism and Islamicness must go together,” the former president said. “Our revolution is lost if either is hurt.” He maintained that according to the Constitution, “everything in the country is in the hands of the people. From the Supreme Leader, who is elected by indirect popular vote through the Assembly of Experts, to the direct election of the President, the Majles and the [local, municipal and provincial] Councils, everything is left to the people.”

To provide support for his call to return to republicanism, Rafsanjani cited a tradition, or hadith, of the Prophet Muhammad, which constitutes a source of law in Shiite jurisprudence. In this tradition, the Prophet, after designating the first Imam Ali as his successor, tells Ali to exercise his mandate to rule the Muslim community only if he is acceptable to the people by consensus or majority. Significantly, Rafsanjani claimed that he first learned of this hadith from Imam Khomeini himself—a claim clearly intended to provide a boost to the opposition’s calls for greater republicanism. The reform leader would later cite this hadith again, stating that it may be found in books prepared by the medieval Shiite scholar Sayyed Ibn Tawus (d. 1267).

Since Rafsanjani presides over the Assembly of Experts—a leadership council of mojtaheds that constitutionally has the power to dismiss the supreme leader—his remarks have encouraged the opposition and others within the clerical establishment who are inclined to back it. In the second week of August 2009, a group of currently serving and former reformist Majles deputies wrote to Rafsanji requesting that the Assembly of Experts hold Khamenei responsible for the Stalin-type show trials of dissidents and for the torture and rape that took place in Iranian prisons. Ayatollah Sayyed Ali-Mohammad Dastgheib, representative of the province of Fars in the Assembly of Experts, and a Moussavi supporter, took up this cause and demanded an extraordinary meeting of the Assembly.

Dastgheib published the rationale for his demand in terms of Shiite jurisprudence on his website, In a carefully worded statement, he appealed to a more traditional Usuli conception of religious authority, and reclaimed for “every jurist and mojtahed in whatever time and place, authority (velayat) over those who accept him.” He further claimed that the “protection and guardianship of the Constitution” belongs to the clerical scholars, or experts, whose duty it is to defend the constitution’s every clause. He then pointedly reminded his colleagues on the Assembly of Experts of one of the cardinal principles of Usuli jurisprudence: “the experts are mojtaheds, and imitation is forbidden to the mojtahed.” Based on this fundamental principle—which directly counters the Khomeinist argument that a mojtahed is obligated to follow another mojtahed who manages to establish Islamic government—Dastgheib called on the assembly to convene to restore the traditional authority and reputation of the preeminent jurists (marjaiyyat).

Despite Dastgheib’s demands, the Assembly of Experts never met. In fact, not only was there no extraordinary session, but even the assembly’s regularly scheduled session was postponed for a full month. When the assembly finally met on September 22-23, 2009, Rafsanjani (apparently to save his own neck) capitulated to Khamenei, and confessed to Dashgheib that he had not dared call for a meeting of the assembly to review the regime’s conduct during the electoral putsch. Despite the fact that two-thirds of the Assembly of Experts had voted to elect him their president, Rafsanjani’s capitulation is a sign that he is not willing to use his influence and power to remove Khamenei.13 His subservience appears to have been rewarded by the supreme leader: in July 2010, Rafsanjani managed to successfully ward off—with the strong support of the Majles—an attempt by Ahmadinejad to wrest the control of the Islamic Free University (founded by Rafsanjani) from its independent Board of Trustees.

But Rafsanjani was not the only cleric spearheading the oppositional jurisprudence. On August 16, 2009, in a speech in the city of Gorgan, which was disseminated electronically through Youtube and other channels, Ayatollah Sanei joined the opposition by supporting Moussavi and attacking Ahmadinejad. Without naming Ahmadinejad explicitly, Sanei said “this bastard (haramzada) is lying; the Hidden Imam has no dealing with him whatsoever!” Sanei told his audience that he had been working on Shiite political jurisprudence, and cited a hadith of the first Imam, Ali, to the effect that all confessions extracted in isolation, let alone through intimidation, were invalid. This was a direct rebuke of the regime and its ongoing show trials of Iranian dissidents.

As August 2009 came to a close, Grand Ayatollah Asadallah Bayat-Zanjani—(whom Khomeini had appointed as a representative of militant clerics to the commission that drafted the constitutional amendments of 1989)—made his contribution to the opposition in a two-part interview published in the daily Etemad. In the first part, Bayat-Zanjani echoed Sanei and the reformists by citing Khomeini’s statement, “the criterion is the vote of the nation.” The Grand Ayatollah referenced Khomeini’s pronouncement to provide a boost to Rafsanjani’s above-mentioned interpretation that it was not Ali’s designation or appointment by the Prophet but the allegiance (bayat) of the people 25 years later that entitled him to political rule over the Muslim community. Political authority invested in the ruler by the pledge of allegiance, according to Bayat-Zanjani, is purely contractual, just like any contract to buy and sell (bay), and there is nothing sacred nor is there a divine appointment involved in such pledge of allegiance.14

It should be noted that this popular and contractual understanding of political authority contradicts the fundamental idea of the Iranian theocratic government as the continuation of the Imamate of the Twelve Shiite Holy Imams, which was written into the Preamble to the Islamic Republic’s Constitution and propounded as its official interpretation. In the second part of his interview with Etemad, Bayat-Zanjani interpreted the Iranian constitution in light of this principle of popular sovereignty by establishing four sets of mutual relationships involving responsibility and accountability. These relationships include those between the supreme leader and the three powers (the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary), those between the president and the Majles, those between the judiciary and the citizens, and those between the supreme leader and the Assembly of Experts. Underlying all four of these relationships, Bayat-Zanjani maintained, is the fundamental contract between the constitution of the regime and the nation itself, which has the power to confirm or change the constitution.15

The principal objective of this new oppositional jurisprudence is to contest the authority of the supreme jurist. The authors of this jurisprudence may be aware of the fundamental shift in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s structure of power in favor of the Revolutionary Guards, but such awareness is not reflected in their arguments. Their statements clearly show a deep apprehension of Ahmadinejad and the threats he poses to their religious authority. Even so, the clerics tend to see this threat in doctrinal rather than political terms. Ayatollahs Bayat-Zanjani and Dastgheib, for example, both see the threat posed by Ahmadinejad to the authority of the preeminent mojtaheds as the latest in a string of efforts to subvert Imam Khomeini’s teachings on Islamic republicanism by a group that he disbanded after the revolution, the Hojjatiyya. This group’s aim is to expedite the return of the Lord of the Age, the Hidden Imam, and Ahmadinejad and his mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi are reputed to belong to it.16

Many dissident clerics have been arrested since June 2009, and the dissident Grand Ayatollahs have been under great pressure. Following the brutal suppression of the demonstrations of the last days of December 2009, the offices of the dissident Ayatollahs Sanei and Dastgheib were attacked and their contents impounded, alongside a massive wave of fresh arrests. The regime, furthermore, sought to forcibly demote Sanei from the rank of Grand Ayatollah by alleging that he lacked qualification as a fully competent mojtahed.

The massive marches and protests against Ahmadinejad’s electoral fraud that were staged by millions of Iranians gave rise to the widespread view that another Iranian revolution was in the making on the thirtieth anniversary of the one that toppled the Shah. The cheated presidential candidates, both veteran 1979 revolutionaries, almost instinctively thought of a replay of history, and the leading one, Mir Hossein Moussavi, claimed the internationally-inspired green color, which was selected by his young supporters, was indeed the color of the House of the Prophet. He told his supporters to fill the air of the cities at night with cries from the rooftops of “God is Great!” The idea refused to die, and was vigorously reasserted after the demonstrations and clashes that occurred on the day of Ashura, and then again in the wake of Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral in the closing days of December 2009. Although another revolution did not materialize, the last six months of 2009 revealed an evident split between Iranian society and its government that seems far wider than in the last days of the Shah thirty years earlier.

Technological advances in the last thirty years greatly favored the 2009 protesters in comparison to the 1979 revolutionaries, and facilitated their astonishing persistence. SMS and the Internet have proven infinitely superior to Khomeini’s smuggled cassettes that helped foment the revolution in 1979. On the other hand, the opposition movement’s lack of a charismatic leader comparable to Khomeini has greatly diminished the prospects for any immediate revolution. Nor does it bode well for the long-term development of an Iranian democracy. Indeed, the striking feature of the Green Movement has been the lack of effective leadership. As Mir-Hossein Moussavi soon and readily acknowledged, neither he nor Mehdi Karroubi called the shots or felt that they were in charge. Furthermore, the death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri on December 19, 2009 significantly weakened the dissident clerics and reduced what influence they had on the Green Movement.

But this has not stopped other aging children of the revolution from striving to lead the Green Movement. On January 3, 2010, just two weeks after Montazeri’s death, a manifesto by five prominent opposition intellectuals in exile referred to him as the deceased spiritual leader of the Green Movement and stated that “religious despotism” (estebdad-e dini) had completely lost its legitimacy after the regime’s violent suppression of unarmed demonstrators at Montazeri’s funeral and in a separate incident during Ashura. One of the signatories was Montazeri’s student, Hojjat al-Islam Mohsen Kadivar. It was most likely Kadivar, drawing on the nascent Shiite oppositional jurisprudence, who penned the line in the manifesto that referred to Supreme Jurist Khamenei as the “tyrannical guardian” (vali-ye ja’er).

The five signatories of the manifesto put forward their demands for reform and democratization as “a small sector of the nationwide Green Movement of the people of Iran.” They defined the movement as dedicated to civil disobedience and devoted to “the observance of human rights and acceptance of the democratic demands of the people, realization of civil society, religious tolerance, recognition of the principle of pluralism and variety in the political space, and finally the abolition of the tyrannical Mandate [of the Jurist] (velayat-e jaer__)__.” Within a few days, during the first week of January 2010, Ezattolah Sahabi, a member of Bazargan’s revolutionary provisional government in 1979, and a leader of the so-called “nationalist-religious” opposition, also put in a bid for the leadership of post-putsch opposition movement by explicitly advocating civil disobedience instead of revolution. In an open letter issued in Tehran, Sahabi warned the movement not to slide into “radicalism and violence,” stating categorically that “a revolution in today’s Iran is neither possible nor desirable.”17

It seems unlikely, however, that other graying children of the Islamic revolution turned reformists can control the Green Movement any more than Moussavi and Karroubi. The fundamentally new feature of the Green Movement is that it is driven by a post-revolutionary generation of young Iranians that includes women. Clerics like Khatami, Karroubi and Kadivar remain highly visible in the Green Movement, but for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is no room for clerical leadership in this popular movement, nor for its control by the former Islamic radicals-turned-reformists in their 60s and 70s. The massive demographic shift, in both generation and gender, during three decades of revolution and war has created a new post-Islamist, post-revolutionary oppositional movement that is as widespread as it is persistent. So far it lacks a leadership structure as its dynamism entirely comes from below.

After the electoral putsch, the Ayatollah-Dictator and the Revolutionary Guards inadvertently revealed their fears by extracting forced confessions at the show trials that followed the arrests of scores of reformists. These concocted confessions were meant to highlight the “foreign inspiration” behind the protest movement and elaborated a conspiratorial theory that a “Velvet Revolution” was being fomented within the Islamic Republic thanks to the penetration of Western social sciences. But the authorities know very well that there is no such foreign-led conspiracy. The challenge to their rule, rather, is grounded in something far more inexorable: the objective forward march of history past the aging revolutionary elite.

Today, the Iranianruling class is facing a new, hostile, and well-educated generation of women and men. While the three principles of Khomeini’s revolutionary legacy still dominate the discourse of the reform-oriented children of the Islamic revolution, they’ve struggled, in their bewilderment, to get a handle on the Green Movement. For the first time, however, the opposition cannot be controlled by the children of the revolution. The rift resulting from the mobility of women and an educated younger generation versus the structure of the Islamic Republic seems irreparable. Khomeini’s long shadow on Iranian politics no longer extends to the Green Movement. This does not bode well for the future of clericalism, nor for Iran’s aging reformists.

To allay history’s forward movement and revive a modicum of popular support for the regime, nothing is more tempting for Iran’s new Principalist-military political class than an aggressive foreign policy. It is hard to imagine a greater stimulus to bellicose adventurism and a greater boon to Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards than a strategically misguided provocation by those in the West whom the Iranian regime has declared as its foes. This is all the more disconcerting in view of the fact that the nationwide grass-roots Green Movement is committed to non-violence and civil disobedience. For this reason, it is slow to mature and subject to periodic dissipation. A year after the electoral putsch, Ahmadinejad’s hard-line government has therefore prevailed, despite the opposition of the Greens and a significant segment of the clerical elite.

Keywords: Iran, Shia, Shiite, Khamenei, Khomeini, Ahmadinejad, velayat-e faqih, Green Revolution.

1 BBC News [Persian], 8/13/2009.
2 Edward Yeranian, “Senior Iranian Pro-Government Cleric Urges More Executions of Regime Opponents,” Voice of America, January 29, 2010.
3 Arjomand, Said Amir, After Khomeini: Iranunder his Successors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) p. 187.
4 Arjomand, p. 42.
5 It is worth recalling that Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Karroubi was pushed out in the first round of the 2005 presidential election to make room for Ahmadinejad, although he almost certainly had more votes. See Naji, Kasra, Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) pp. 77-78.
6 Arjomand, p. 169.
7 Tabnaak, 2/8/2010. Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli appears to have fallen out with the regime, and he resigned as the prayer-leader (imam jomeh) of Qom in early summer 2010.
8 In an earlier explicit fatwa, Makarem-Shirazi had declared contacting internet sites that sow dissension “definitely forbidden by the Shari’a.” (IRNA, 1/12/2010, cited in Mohammadi 2010); The confirmation of the sentence on Amin Valian came in early March 2010. In May, 2010, however, as an indirect response to the international protests against the executions of the Kurdish separatists, the Judiciary commuted Valian’s sentence to three years in prison.
9 The Economist, 8/29/2009.
10 Arjomand, Chapter 10.
11 Arjomand, Chapter 9.
12 Arjomand, pp. 52-54, 102.
13 BBC News [Persian], 9/23/2009.
14 Etemad, # 2039, 8 Shahrivar 1388; BBC News [Persian], 9/23/2009.
15 Etemad, # 2040, 9 Shahrivar 1388.
16 The Hojjatiyya are also said to advocate the replacing the “Islamic republic” by what they call “Islamic government;”Etemad, # 2040, 9 Shahrivar 1388; BBC News [Persian], 9/23/2009.
17 The Economist, 1/9/2010: 27.
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