Is Iran an ‘Islamic Republic’?

Islamic Tehran

Religion in Iran has never really been separate from the state since the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1772), whereby Shi’a Islam was the dominant religion. The 1979 revolution enabled the unification of the religion and state, which had never been seen before in Islamic history regarding the modern [European] state.

The decline of iraniyyat (nationalism/culture) and islamiyyat under the Shah (Iranian monarch) was only contested when civil society began to experience Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s “west-toxification”, even Ayatollah Khomeini did not oppose the Shah and supported him in the early 1960s. Under the Qajar monarch in the mid-nineteenth century however many of the ulema (Muslim scholars/leaders) were politically marginalized.

The ulema thus openly criticized the Shah’s repressive regime which led to Ayatollah Khomeini’s exile and eventually the masses of Iran grew in support of the ulema. As mosques remained the only ‘free’ place for mass public gatherings it enabled the ulema to take charge and lead other sects (liberals, secularists, Christians, Zoroastrians etc.) of the Iranian population into what would become the Islamic revolution.    

The 1979 revolution had allowed Ayatollah Khomeini to implement his interpretation of shari’a fully into the constitution centered on the velayat e-faqih (guardianship of the jurist) which ignored the contestations of the other Ayatollahs (religious leaders).

Throughout the shi’a tradition there has always existed ideological differences, of which is not new to the current state of affairs. Historically there has been “no structural clerical hierarchy” according to Jahangir Amuzegar – major theologians have coexisted with their own set of followers – a trait similar to Sunni Islam.

Contemporary Iran, as argued by scholars is not based on the old shi’a principles but more so, on a new interpretation of ‘twelver shi’ism’. This emerged as a result of the failure to implement Ayatollah Khomeini’s velayat e-faqih which within the 1979 constitution was amended by the then president Hashemi Rafsanjani in 1989.

Rafsanjani’s position as president was a return to old centrism, which is not too dissimilar to the Shah as it only permitted shi’a clerics to attain high political roles. Consequently, it was not Islam that would govern Iran but merely a fixed interpretation based on conservative shi’ism as traditional shi’a interpretation is about strengthening the text rather than understanding the contextual application. A common feature of contemporary Islamism.

Furthermore, Ayatollah Khomeini had also expressed the importance of public opinion which is emphasized in Article 6 of the constitution. However, after Khomeini’s death much of his ideas regarding Islam and western modernity were modified as other conservative powers emerged under Rafsanjani’s presidency such as the Revolutionary Guard, the Bazaaris (Merchants) and the Guardian Council.

Islamic Iran

Along with Khomeini’s ideology, many of these conservatives chose to apply authoritative tactics and suppress anything they deemed secular, as witnessed by the recent crackdown on female models who were deemed to be modeling ‘un-Islamic’ clothing.

Throughout the MENA these factions and contested practices have spread since the collapse of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Islam. This was not always the case according to Sydney H. Griffith, these divisions were once dealt with through open dialogue and debate which included Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Atheists, Muslims and so on.

Along with Khomeini’s ideology, many of these conservatives chose to apply authoritative tactics and suppress anything they deemed secular, as witnessed by the recent crackdown on female models who were deemed to be modeling ‘un-Islamic’ clothing.

Iran is not a special case in the attempt to merge state and religion however, as found within the extreme cases of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Jordan, Iraq and as witnesses most recently with the ‘Arab Spring’.  As such, much like their Sunni counterparts, Iran’s politics has little foundational relationship with that of Islam historically when viewed from this perspective.

Although Khomeini did his best to avert Iran’s political system away from western thought he had initially applied it based on De Gaulle’s French Republic. Unlike other perceived Islamic states in and around the MENA such as Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt, Iran tried to re-invent the whole idea of the modern state through the platform of Islam.

On one end, the Iranian clerical-politicians mocked the ‘backward’ Sunni monarch states such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco and at the other end they despised the ‘west-toxification’ of Turkey and Egypt. In any case Iran represents a completely new idea of a state which in the words of Khomeini is neither West nor East.

Unlike other perceived Islamic states in and around the MENA such as Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt, Iran tried to re-invent the whole idea of the modern state through the platform of Islam.

If we cannot find Iranian politics in Islam, can we find the republic within it? The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero for instance defined a republic on the premise of “a community of citizens bound together by justice and common good” and this required the protection of freedom and this freedom should not occur under the domination of another.

Philip Pettit similarly writes the republic’s duty is “to promote freedom as non-domination”. In that case it seems Iran in practice goes against this idea of non-domination as freedom, as the system imposes itself upon its citizens.

If we cannot find Iranian politics in Islam, can we find the republic within it?

The two-terms (1997-2005) Khatami served as president stand as the example between the conflict of freedom and domination and what followed with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Before Khatami had been elected in 1997, the conservatives had favored his opposition Nateq Nouri who continued to critique Khatami for secularising the nation. As Khatami’s support grew, the Revolutionary Guards began to campaign against him and the Basij (reserve army) had even closed down his campaign headquarters in Tehran which was owned by the conservative, Mayor Karbaschi.

Iranian expert, Professor Ali Ansari argues this went against Khomeini’s vision for Iran such as implementing the Assembly of Experts to monitor the rahbar (Supreme Leader) and the Expediency Council to protect the rights of citizens.

Though Khatami’s reformist politics dominated the national scene during his two-terms, he was restricted by traditional conservatives who maintained control within the armed forces, media and judiciary. Even under a reformist Khatami, ninety newspapers, journals and publications were banned along with them authors and lecturers were jailed.

This occurred due to Khatami’s unexpected victory, his supporters were thus eliminated in order for his reforms to fail as they did. A similar experience could be said to await current President Hasan Rouhani as he faces similar hurdles before the election in 2017.

The inability for the President to implement republican policies going by Cicero’s definition, is largely associated with the role of the rahbar (currently Ali Khamenei) which after the 1989 amendment of the 1979 constitution by Rafsanjani, assumed absolute power.

In its quite complex structure, Iran seems to therefore represent less of a republic and more of an autocracy. For instance, the rahbar is never excluded from the appointment of the Guardian Council (pass laws) of which six are selected by the rahbar and six elected by the majles (parliament) however the elected six by both must be submitted by the Judiciary Chief whom is selected by the rahbar and reports to him alone.

Those who are directly elected such as the President, the majles and the Assembly of Experts (86 shi’a Muslim scholars) have to be approved by the Guardian Council of which is again approved by the rahbar. The rahbar can furthermore rule until his death and those who can remove him are selected by him.

In its quite complex structure, Iran seems to therefore represent less of a republic and more of an autocracy.

Yet even with one of the highest and most consistent election turnouts in the MENA much of it remains highly controlled and directed by the rahbar, as was highlighted by the Green Movement in 2009.

Islamic Iran

Islamically, Iran lacks any historical or religious reference of which it can proclaim to be politically Islamic. In addition to this, based on the republican tradition it again is not historically referable. Nevertheless, Iran has the institutions in place for a populist republic, whilst the constitution and the Qur’an emphasize the importance of liberal pluralism, yet it abides by neither in a complete-sense.

Islamically, Iran lacks any historical or religious reference of which it can proclaim to be politically Islamic.

It is a republic that has taken on concepts of different republics and placed them under the guidance of conservative traditional shi’a Islam. It seems this is what Iran’s ‘Islamic Republic’ portrays or is trying to, a constellation of Classical Republicanism with the ‘divine’ and supposedly just ruler at the head.

Though it is neither Islamic or a Republic in full, we cannot deny that aspects of it exist in contemporary Iranian politics.

Rubel Mozlu

Rubel Mozlu

Rubel Mozlu obtained an MSc International Relations from the University of Bristol in 2015. His research focused on ‘Liberal Democracy and Culture’ with a particular focus on Egypt’s revolutions and Bangladesh’s election boycott. His current interests are in the MENA region, Islamic history, Western and Eastern Philosophy and Culture.

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