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Who Rules Iran?


The Shia seminary town of Qom, seventy-five miles south of Tehran, is bleak and set in semi-desert, with a dried-up river going through it. It has few orchards; it is not renowned for any fruit or pickle. Most of the vegetables you find here have traveled long distances. The townspeople produce a sickly caramel, sometimes embedded with shards of pistachio, called sohan. To escape the soporific effects of the heat the seminarians work in subterranean libraries. In the case of bachelor scholars, widows and impoverished women attend to their physical needs. Some people have likened Qom to Oxford or Cambridge, for the seminarians wear black gowns and inhabit cells inside brick-built colleges that look in on themselves. There, the resemblance ends. Never in English history were the universities as mighty as the seminaries of Qom are today.

Qom rose to prominence as a modern seminary town after Britain seized what is now Iraq from the Ottomans at the end of World War I. When the clerics of Najaf, an important Shia shrine town in southern Iraq, incited revolt against the British, they were expelled; some of these clerics ended up in Qom, which a prominent ayatollah was reviving as a center of religious learning. Qom’s development was still not assured; from 1925, the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, regarded Islam in general and clerics in particular as hindrances to his efforts to modernize Iran. He introduced military service for some clerics and banned all but the senior clergy from wearing the traditional gown and turban. He came to Qom to horsewhip a senior ayatollah who had criticized the Queen’s immodest mode of dress.

Clerical resentment of the monarchy increased under Reza’s son, Mohammad Reza, but the theologians of Qom were divided on whether Islam required that they actively oppose tyranny or concentrate on their primary duty: studying Islamic law and transmitting it to believers. In the 1960s, the activists came under the influence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; and in 1979, after the Shah fled and Khomeini returned from exile to set up the modern world’s only clerical state, Tehran was its capital but Qom was its heart.

Since then, Qom has been booming. The clerical population has risen from around 25,000 to more than 45,000, and the nonclerical population has more than tripled, to about 700,000. It is very hard to calculate the vast sums of money that flow, in the forms of alms and Islamic taxes, to Qom’s ten senior ayatollahs—called “Objects of Emulation” because their fellow clerics have pronounced them qualified to act as models whose behavior and rulings laymen and lesser clerics can follow. (Every believer is free to choose the “Object of Emulation” he or she admires most, whether they are inside or outside Iran.) These donations, along with state help for favored institutions, have pushed up the number of seminary schools in Qom to fifty-odd, and the number of research institutes and libraries to around 250. These institutions produce hundreds of books and journals every year, and they use the Internet to disseminate and publicize their findings on subjects like Islamic law and history, philosophy and political economy. The municipal council is buying and destroying buildings that stand in the path of a grand boulevard that has been projected to lead from the shrine of the sister of one of Shiism’s twelve imams to a grand modern mosque five kilometers away.1

After the revolution, a highway was laid between Qom and Tehran, making it easy for politicians and bureaucrats to go back and forth; if you have a reckless driver, the trip from south Tehran will take you barely an hour. This spring, Syria’s foreign minister, on a visit to Iran, made an unpublicized nocturnal trip to Qom; he wanted clerical support for his request, prompted by the US and Lebanon, that Iran downgrade its relations with Hezbollah. (He got an ambiguous answer.) The intelligence ministry is said to have consulted clerics in Qom on the wisdom of exploring better relations with the US. (Here, too, the response was vague; Bush, who included Iran in the “axis of evil,” has alarmed many clerics, but some have warned against giving the impression that Iran is buckling under pressure.) If the US brings down Saddam Hussein, the thousands of Iraqi clerics currently in exile in Qom will have a strong influence on their country’s future.

The word “Qom” has come to stand for the nationwide clerical establishment, since other seminary towns are subservient to it; and the influence of Qom is particularly evident at the center of power in Tehran. Iran’s Supreme Leader, its president, parliament speaker, and top judge are clerics. So are both the head and half the members of the twelve-man Council of Guardians, the powerful monitoring group whose clerical members are appointed by the Supreme Leader; it acts, in effect, as the upper house of parliament and can annul legislative acts. A significant minority of the thirty-eight members of the Expediency Council, appointed by the Supreme Leader to resolve disputes between parliament and the Council of Guardians, are clerics. The Assembly of Experts, which chooses, appraises, and can, in theory, dismiss the Supreme Leader, is made up of eighty-six clerics who have been elected by universal suffrage—but only after candidates first have been vetted by the Council of Guardians. Although most provincial governors are not clerics, in each province the assent of the Supreme Leader’s representative, invariably a cleric, is required for most of the important decisions he makes. The same is true of the heads of universities.

Lower down, clerical dominance is less institutionalized, but nonetheless striking. The thousands of seminarians who leave Qom after completing the six years of study that generally qualify them to wear the clerical gown and turban have a head start in the race for jobs in the bureaucracy. Their children tend to be granted places at the best schools. If they are suspected of breaking the law, they are tried by other clerics, usually behind closed doors. In some parts of the government and bureaucracy, such as the judiciary, an old-boy network favors appointments from particular seminaries. The senior echelons of the intelligence ministry and judiciary contain many graduates from Qom’s Haqani seminary.

Although the revolution has made the clerical calling more powerful and more privileged, not all clerics have been happy about this. Far from bringing about the end of the old debate over clerical involvement in politics, Khomeini’s revolution intensified it. At the revolution’s outset, most of the half-dozen “Objects of Emulation” who were living in Iran and Iraq either opposed the principle of clerical rule or remained silent about it. Qom’s subsequent resistance to attempts to impose on it a uniform reading of political Islam has much to do with the pluralistic tradition of the seminary. Seminarians are free to join the study circles of the “master” they most admire. He can teach pretty much what he wants, provided he does not disseminate contentious views outside the seminary.

For the past decade, the prestige of the clerics among most Iranians has been falling. This is clearly illustrated by the decline in clerical representation in parliament. In the first parliament after the revolution, clerics made up 51 percent of the total number of deputies. They now make up 12 percent. In the early 1980s, clerics were generally treated with elaborate courtesy. Nowadays, clerics are sometimes insulted by schoolchildren and taxi drivers and they quite often put on normal clothes when venturing outside Qom. Some are willing to give up the official privileges that, they believe, cause the public to resent them. I talked in Qom to clerics who said there was now increasing sympathy for Abdolkarim Soroush, a brilliant lay theologian and philosopher who argues that religion must sever its links with worldly power if it is to retain its authority. Far from improving the status of the clergy, these clerics say, involvement in government has debased it.

A small but important part of George Bush’s “axis of evil” speech seemed aimed at these clerics. In Tehran, people thought it was crass of the US president to lump Iran together with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; they remember when America sided with Saddam during the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s. Some quite unconvincingly professed astonishment at Bush’s suggestion that Iran sponsors terrorism and is trying to produce weapons of mass destruction. In Qom, however, reactions were more concerned with the US president’s observation that “an un-elected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” Although Bush was referring to Iran’s malfunctioning democracy in general, his comments recalled to many people the continuing influence of the Ayatollah Khomeini and particularly the political sectarianism that Khomeini used to entrench clerical rule: “the guardianship of the jurist.”

As early as the late 1960s, Khomeini was putting forward a novel interpretation of Shia doctrine, defending a rudimentary version of the kind of religious government he eventually installed. Using deductive reasoning and a tendentious interpretation of the sayings attributed to the Prophet and the twelve imams, Khomeini argued that religious government should not be allowed to lapse simply because there were no imams to provide it.2Instead, he said, Shiism’s leading clerics, the senior scholars of Islamic law, should assume judicial and executive authority, pending the return of the twelfth imam.

The “guardianship of the jurist” proposed by Khomeini can be understood as an expansion of the “guardianship” that Islam proposes in the case of orphaned minors, with the whole Islamic community in the role of orphan and the ruling jurist in the role of the adoptive parent. On his return from exile, following the Shah’s flight in 1979, Khomeini said he was invoking “the guardianship that I have from the holy lawgiver [the Prophet]” to appoint an interim government. He announced that opposition to this government would be “blasphemy.”

Khomeini, many people believe, may have abhorred electoral democracy; but he was forced to compromise with nonclerical Islamists who had been influenced by modern democratic notions. According to Daniel Brumberg, the author of a meticulous examination of Khomeini’s legacy,3 the 1979 constitution, which turned Iran from a monarchy into an “Islamic republic,” was “an ideological mishmash …probably unmatched in the history of constitutionalism.” It provided for the direct election of a president and a parliament, and separated the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. But it made all officials answerable to the appointed Supreme Leader and made no clear provision for the settlement of disputes between the elected lower house of parliament and the appointed upper house, the Council of Guardians. The constitution was marred by what Brumberg describes as a “chaotic division of powers” between different institutions and organs of government, and it was silent on how these competing institutions should coexist. According to some articles of the constitution, sovereignty belonged to God; but the principle of holding elections suggested a recognition of popular sovereignty as well.

  1. 1

    The twelve imams were all male descendants of the Prophet, through Ali, the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law. Shias believe that the imams were entrusted the leadership of the Islamic community, and that the twelfth of them, who disappeared in 874, would later miraculously return to establish an era of divine justice and truth.

  2. 2

    Khomeini’s lectures while in exile in Najaf were transcribed by his students, and brought out in book form in 1971. A version of these lectures, entitled Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), is available in Tehran, published by the Institute for the Codification and Publication of the Works of Imam Khomeini.

  3. 3

    Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

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