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Jan 14, 2004 | 23:59 GMT

7 mins read

The Twisting Maze of Iranian Politics

A woman holds a picture of outgoing reformist President Mohammad Khatami on July 31, 2005, during a ceremony in Tehran marking his last week of service.
(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Tensions between Iran's unelected traditionalist and elected modernist clerics have again risen, following the Guardians Council's disqualification of thousands of candidates from the February parliamentary elections. This crisis underscores a structural problem within the Iranian political system. The struggle between the two camps represents an evolution in Shiite political thought and could have widespread ramifications for Iran in its domestic and foreign affairs.

On Jan. 12, Iran's Guardians Council, a powerful oversight body of conservative clerics, rejected 44.2 percent — 3,605 of 8,157 — of the candidates intending to run in the Feb. 20 parliamentary elections. This has split the Iranian leadership between the modernist camp, led by President Mohammed Khatami, and the traditionalists, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Those who openly have opposed the rejection include Khatami and most of his Cabinet, Parliamentary Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, numerous Parliamentary members and governors of several provinces. The crisis has reached the point that Khatami and his Cabinet are threatening resignation if the decision is not rescinded. Meanwhile, the leaders of the two camps have urged all Iranians to be patient. Khamenei has called for his loyalists to allow resolution through the country's legal system.

A Shift in the Balance of Power?

The final resolution could pave the way for a balance-of-power shift in Iran. Clearly, neither camp wants the political system to implode, but neither wants to be marginalized either. This power play is intertwined with their respective ideologies, which point to the fault line built into the Iranian political structure. Iran's Islamist government is a peculiar and complex fusion between modern Shiite theocracy and Western parliamentary democracy. Iran's Shiite clergy has historically been close to the corridors of power even when not directly ruling. Its financial independence from the state and influence over the educational and legal systems since the 19th century gradually facilitated its rise to power.

While the ulema (religious scholars) were in the process of positioning themselves in Iran, the country was undergoing a constitutionalist movement (1905-1911) that sought to check the powers of the monarchy. It was not until the late 1960s — when the founder of Islamist Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) led a movement against the then-monarch Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi — that the Iranian ulema began to seek a more direct governing role. In a series of lectures, Khomeini argued that a true Islamic government is led by those knowledgeable about Islam, i.e., the clerics. These lectures were published in 1971 in book a book entitled Velayat-e-Faqih: Hukomat-i-Islami (State of the Jurist: Islamic Government). Velayat-e-Faqih literally means state/government rule of the jurists. It is in essence a modern Shiite political system.

Theological Underpinnings

But Khomeini was not the sole creator of the notion of Velayat-e-Faqih. Shiites have always believed that Allah ordained that the Prophet Muhammad would be succeeded by divinely appointed imams who were his blood descendants. According to this belief, there were 12 such infallible imams: Ali bin Abi Talib (660-661) Hasan bin Ali (625-670) Hussein bin Ali (626-680) Ali Zayn al-Abideen (658-713) Muhammad al-Baqir (677-733) Jafar al-Sadiq (702-765) Musa Al-Kadhim (746-799) Ali al-Rida (765-818) Muhammad al-Jawwad (811-835) Ali Al-Hadi (827-868) Hasan Al-Askaree (846-874) Muhammad al-Mahdi (869-) The 12th and last imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is believed to have absented himself from the physical plane in "ghaybat-i-sughra" (lesser occultation) around the year 874. Seventy years after this lesser occultation, Shiites believe al-Mahdi went into a state of ghaybat al-kubrah (greater occultation) — a deeper hidden state. Due to the last imam's long absence, Shiite scholarship faced a lack of Islamic leadership, and a need for a wider interpretation of everyday issues in the light of Islamic law. This era also was also marked by debates between the "akhbari" and "usuli" schools of thought of Shiite scholarship. The former took the literal understanding of the divine texts (Koran and Sunnah) while the latter opted for a more general and broader understanding of them.

The eventual victory of the usuli position over that of the akhbari within Shiite Islam came about around the middle of the 18th century under the leadership of Aqa Baqir Bihbihani (1706-91), who paved the way for the formation of the concepts of Velayat-e Faqih (jurist's government) and "Marjaa-i-Taqleed" (locus of mass following). Both concepts were the result of further ijtihad (the juristic process of deriving rules for new situations from the Koran and Sunnah) on the Shiite doctrine of the divinely appointed Imamah. It was Mullah Ahmad Naraqi (1771-1829), a student of Bihbihani, who actually formulated the theory of the jurist's government. The basis of Velayat-e Faqih is the appointment of a deputy of the imam who could administer certain aspects of governance until the imam returned. This deputy had to be a "mujtahid" (the scholar qualified to perform ijtihad) but a "marjaa-i-taqleed" (a senior mujtahid who has reached the level that he is to be emulated by laypeople). In the 20th century, it became fashionable to refer to such an individual as ayatollah (sign of Allah).

A significant portion of the electorate sees clerics as incapable of political leadership.

Borrowing from Western Democracy

Ayatollah Khomeini and his allied clerics, in an effort to implement the Velayat-e-Faqih, heavily borrowed from parliamentary democratic theory. In the past 25 years, this system has evolved into a complex arrangement of elected and unelected clerics. The Iranian electorate directly elects the president, who can serve up to two consecutive four-year terms. Theoretically, he is the second-highest ranking official and appoints his Cabinet. Every four years, Iranians also elect the 290 members of the unicameral Majlis, or Parliament. This legislative body also has the power to summon and impeach ministers and presidents. However, the Guardians Council must give its approval to all legislative activity. Iranians directly elect the 86 clerics in the Assembly of Experts, which appoints its supreme leader, oversees his performance and removes him if he is unable to execute his duties. The Guardians Council also screens the candidates who run for the assembly. 

The Guardians Council is the most influential branch of the Iranian government. It comprises 12 clerics who serve six-year terms: Six are theologians appointed by the supreme leader and six are jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by the Majlis The terms are on a phased basis — half the council's membership changes every three years. The Guardians Council ensures that all legislative activity conforms to Islam. It also vets all candidates to parliament, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts. At the apex of this system sits the supreme leader who, in addition to the six Guardians Council members, appoints the head of the judiciary, the commanders of all the armed forces, the Friday prayer leaders and the heads of radio and TV. He also confirms the election of the president. The Expediency Council advises the supreme seader and is the final arbiter in legislative disputes between the parliament and the Guardians Council. The supreme leader appoints this council's members, who are prominent religious, social and political figures. The Iranian judiciary defines legal policy, guarantees that Islamic law is enforced, and nominates six members to the Guardians Council. 

Rising Tensions

Tensions arise in this maze of elected, quasi-elected and appointed figures between those whose power base is popular support and those who claim the divine as their power base. Both sides are driven by ideological and material interests and both sides invoke Islam when arguing their respective positions. The modernist clerics and their nonclerical supporters want to reduce the power of the unelected clerics who overrule decisions of the executive and legislative branches. Conversely, traditionalist clerics say that the ulema are the only ones who can ensure that rulers act in accordance with Islam. A significant portion of the electorate sees clerics as incapable of political leadership. What appears to be a fight over the meaning of an Islamic democracy is also about the political interests of the two groups. The clerics, who have enjoyed power for a quarter of a century, now believe they will be marginalized should the modernist camp emerge triumphant. Nonclerical aspirants to power cannot attain it if they do not measure up to Guardians Council standards. Judging from previous crises, this current snarl will be overcome in some form of a compromise, but what that will entail is not apparent at this stage. However, the balance of power in the Iranian political system will shift in favor of one camp or the other.

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