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Soldiers of the Hidden Imam

Carved high in the towering rock of Naqsh-e Rostam, gazing out across the desert, are the tombs of the great Persian emperors from two and a half millennia ago: Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes. Lower down the cliff face of this imperial Mount Rushmore you see a dramatic stone relief, shimmering in the heat. It shows a later Shah of all the Shahs, Shapur I, accepting the surrender of the Roman emperor Valerian, in the year 260 AD according to the Christian calendar. The conqueror, on horseback and gloriously accoutred, towers over the unmounted, swordless, vanquished Caesar.

What happened to Valerian?” I asked my Iranian companion.

Oh, he was killed, of course.”


Early this autumn, as today’s Iranian rulers defied the new Rome by pressing ahead with their nuclear program, I traveled for two weeks through what is now the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the year of their Lord 1384, I talked to mullahs armed with laptops, regime supporters in the religious hotbed of Qom, and Islamic philosophers highly critical of the regime. I met intellectuals of all stripes, artists, farmers, politicians, and businesspeople. Most memorably, I had long, intense conversations with some of the young Iranians who make up the majority of the country’s population. I see their earnest faces before me as I write, especially those of the women, framed in the compulsory Islamic head scarf, the hijab, which they somehow manage to convert into an accessory of grace and quiet allure.

At a rooftop restaurant in the wondrous city of Esfahan, I witnessed the continuity of Persian culture, with a singer chanting verses from the fourteenth-century poet Hafez while local diners peered up at the blue, cream, and turquoise dome of the Sheikh Lotfallah mosque, illuminated against the night sky. (You do not often hear verses from Chaucer being sung in an English pub.) More typically, I was plunging through the heat, dust, eye-stinging pollution, and kamikaze traffic of Tehran, that anarchic city of 12 million people, whose drivers treat every traffic circle as an invitation to play the American game of chicken, only swerving to avoid one another’s fenders with millimeters to spare. Or sometimes not swerving.

I also got a taste of life behind the high garden walls of the houses of the middle and upper class, where the hijab immediately comes off and opinions are scathingly contemptuous of the aging revolutionary Islamic zeal of the country’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Within minutes of my arrival at one such house, bikini-clad women were teasingly inviting me to come naked into the swimming pool, while the men offered me a drink from a bottle marked “Ethanol 98% proof.”

These encounters illustrated a trait, apparently of long pedigree, to which my Iranian interlocutors constantly drew my attention: the contrast between what Iranians say outside and what they say inside those high walls. Double-talk as a way of life. I have never been in a country where so many people told me I should not believe what people said. (Taken strictly, a self-defeating proposition.) Again and again they pointed to the Shiite custom of taghiye, by which believers are entitled to lie in defense of their faith. Today’s nonbelievers have their own taghiye.

Iranians also warned me that theirs is a country rich in superstition—sometimes conveyed by very modern means. In the middle of a Tehran traffic jam, my driver received a text message on his cell phone. It asked him urgently to pray for the return of the hidden imam, the Shiites’ twelfth imam or mahdi, who supposedly went into hiding some 1127 years ago. A secular intellectual wondered aloud whether a society so rife with mendacity and superstition is at all susceptible to understanding through reason.

Amid this wild medley of ancient and modern, I sought answers to one crucial question: How might Iran’s post-revolutionary Islamic regime be transformed, whether gradually or suddenly, by social and political forces inside that country? And I added a second: How might the policies of Europe and the United States, which fortunately do not at the moment include an Iraq-style attempt to impose “regime change” by military occupation, affect those domestic forces?


The political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is at once fiendishly complex and extremely simple. Most of the Iranians I met preferred to stress the complexity. The country has at least two governments at any one time: a semi-democratic formal state structure, now headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a religious-ideological command structure headed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There are numerous shifting formal and informal power centers, including political parties in parliament, ministries, rich religious foundations, the Revolutionary Guards, and the multimillion-man Basij militia, whose mobilization helped Ahmadinejad to get elected. There are also backroom ethnic or regional mafias, and numerous competing intelligence, security, and police agencies—eighteen of them according to one recent count. No wonder Iranian political scientists reach for terms like “polyarchy,” “elective oligarchy,” “semi-democracy,” or “neopatrimonialism.”

Yet the longer I was there, the more strongly I felt that the essence of this regime remains quite simple. At its core, the Islamic Republic is still an ideological dictatorship. Its central organizing principle can be summarized in four sentences: (1) There is only one God and Muhammad is his Prophet. (2) God knows best what is good for men and women. (3) The Islamic clergy, and especially the most learned among them, the jurists qualified to interpret Islamic law, know best what God wants. (4) In case of dispute among learned jurists, the Supreme Leader decides.

This is the system which its inventor, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, justified by radically reinterpreting the Islamic concept of velayat-e faqih, usually translated as the Guardianship of the Jurist. This system is not Islam; it is Khomeinism. It would not exist without that one old man, whose grim portrait still stares out at you everywhere in Iran, though now usually flanked by the bespectacled figure of his successor and epigone, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. If you ever doubted the importance of the individual in history, consider the story of Khomeini.

I visited his childhood home in the provincial market town of Khomein—ayatollahs generally take an honorific name from their home town, so Khomeini means “of Khomein.” It’s a substantial, rather handsome, yellow-brick house, with the traditional outer and inner courtyards, and an inscription celebrating the “birthplace of the Sun of Khomein.” His father was murdered when he was four months old, his mother died when he was fifteen, and he was given over to the theological schools that trained him to be a cleric. If even one of his parents had lived, might this have been a different story? Outside, a billboard describes him, justly enough, as “the revivor of religious government in [the] contemporary world.”

Khomeini was both the Lenin and the Stalin of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The system he created has some similarities with a communist party-state. In Khomeinism, the Guardianship of the Jurist is an all-embracing political principle that is the functional equivalent of communism’s Leading Role of the Party. Here, too, you have parallel hierarchies of ideological and state power, with the former always ultimately trumping the latter. The Islamic Republic’s ideological half is almost entirely undemocratic: the Supreme Leader is assisted by a Guardian Council, an Islamic judiciary, and an Assembly of Experts. All of them are dominated by conservative clerics.The state institutions are more democratic, with a genuine if limited competition for power. However, the Guardian Council arbitrarily disqualifies thousands of would-be candidates for parliament, the regime controls the all-important state television channels, and security forces like the Basij militia can both mobilize and intimidate voters, so one cannot seriously talk of free and fair elections.

As in communist party-states, there is intense factional struggle, which Western observers sometimes mistake for pluralism. Unlike in communist party-states, factions actually appeal to voters to strengthen their position. Thus Ahmadinejad successfully presented himself to voters as a kind of plain man’s puritan outsider to the system, yet he is now wholly of it, working closely with Khamenei and the Guardian Council. His rival in the second-round presidential runoff, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, was discredited as being too much part of the resented group of mullahs in control: “A stick would have won against Rafsanjani,” an Iranian politician told me. Rafsanjani now tactically criticizes Ahmedinejad’s Islamic revolutionary– style speech to the United Nations as being undiplomatic. Yet he himself remains head of the powerful Expediency Council, which mediates between the undemocratic ideological hierarchy and the semi-democratic parliament. It was Rafsanjani who this summer declared that “the system [nazam] has decided” on the resumption of uranium reprocessing. When leaders use that specific term nazam, “the system,” everyone knows they mean the ideological command hierarchy right up to the Supreme Leader—God’s representative on earth.

In a communist party-state, the party line was to be found in the pages of Pravda or Neues Deutschland. In the Islamic mullah-state, the “imam line” is handed down through Friday prayers, two sessions of which I attended, first at the gorgeous Pattern-of-the-World mosque in Esfahan and, the next week, in a closely policed compound at Tehran University. In both places a high-ranking Islamic clergyman—the chair of the Guardian Council, at my Tehran session—delivered a fulminating political homily, denouncing in particular America and Britain. The political message was sandwiched between conventional Muslim prayers, like a kebab wrapped in nan bread. In Tehran, the final prayers ended with an orchestrated crowd chant: “Down with America! Down with Israel! Down with the enemies of the Guardianship of the Jurist!”


How can such a regime be transformed, or, as many still prefer to say, reformed? I heard the word “reform” innumerable times as I traveled around Iran. I soon realized that it meant several different things. First, there’s an ideological debate among Islamic intellectuals, turning on what in the communist world used to be called “revisionism”—that is, attempts to revise the ideology on which the state is built. As the views of revisionists in, say, 1950s Poland were also part of a wider debate about international communism, so the views of these Iranian revisionists have significant implications for international Islam.

I was impressed by the liveliness of this debate. While many Iranians are clearly fed up with Islam being stuffed down their throats as a state religion, I found no sense that Islamic ideology is a dead issue, as, for example, communist ideology had become a dead issue in Central Europe by the 1980s. Far from it. In Khomeini’s theological capital of Qom, now home to some two hundred Islamic think tanks and institutions of higher education, I met with a research group on Islamic political philosophy. Why should Islam not be compatible with a secular, liberal democratic state, I asked, as is increasingly the case in Turkey? “Turkey is not Qom,” said Mohsen Rezvani, a young philosopher wearing the robes and turban of a mullah, to laughter around the table. Islam, Rezvani said, is “anthropologically, theologically, and epistemologically” incompatible with liberal democracy. Anthropologically, because liberal democracy is based on liberal individualism; theologically, because it excludes God from the public sphere; and epistemologically, because it is based on reason not faith. Then they handed me an issue of the Political Science Quarterly—not the American journal but their own Qom-made version. Here I read an English-language abstract of an admiring article by Rezvani about Leo Strauss.

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