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iran theocracy

Shiites represent 9% of muslims and were born out of the schism with the Sunnis. After the death of Prophet Mohamed in 632, his father-in-law and one of his first disciples, Abu Bakr, took over the religious movement. His nomination was not unanimous as some would have preferred Ali ibn Abu Taleb, Mohamed's cousin and husband to his daughter Fatima, instead. Nonetheless, Ali and his followers (known as “Shiat Ali”, Ali's Party)  accepted Abu Bakr's appointment.

The two following Caliphs, Omar (elected in 634) and Othman (elected in 644) were also appointed unanimously. But when it came to Ali's turn to become a Caliph, Muawiyah, the governor of Syria belonging to the same clan as the late Othman who had just been assassinated, rebelled. There followed a civil war and Ali was killed in Najaf, in Iraq, in 661 making the town a holy site for the Shiites. This is how the so-called line of the four orthodox Caliphs – those elected unanimously – ended.

From that moment onwards, Muawaiyah self-proclaimed himself Caliph giving birth to the Omayad dynasty (661/750), but Ali's followers did not recognize him as being legitimate and split. War continued and Ali's son, imam Husseyn, was also killed in battle in Kerbala (another Shiite holy site) in 680 by the Omayad army lead by Yazid.

The schism between Shiite and Sunnis is not only about who is the legitimate heir to Prophet Mohamed. According to the Sunnis, after Mohamed's death – he is considered the last Prophet (“Seal of the Prophets”) – there are no more intermediaries between God and men. This means that his succession will have to be decided through the election of political chiefs (imam) and not on the basis of blood lines or dynasty. The Shiites instead deny these principles and worship their 12 imams celebrating their sanctuaries. This is why they are considered by Sunnis to be idolatrous.

Another characteristic of Shiites is their religious predisposition to martyrdom. It all started with the killing of Husseyn, killed in battle by Yazid's troops (four thousand men against 72 people including women and children). The episode, celebrated during the Shiite ritual of the Ashura (from “ashara”, ten, referring to the date of the month of Muharran when the clash took place), has had a strong impact on Shiites whom during the feast self-lash their naked bodies with iron whips.

Even though in Islam the distance between religion and State is definitely evanescent, for Shiites it is virtually non-existent.

Khamenei and Khomeini


Iran, cradle of Shiism, is the only country where the clergy is subject to a hierarchy and/or religious career dictated by theological studies.

At the bottom of the ladder is the “Talebah” (or Taleban, student) whose studies last four about 20 years at the end of which he has to pass two tests. Those who pass the first one, but not the second, become “Mullahs” and are authorized to lead prayer in the mosque.

The students that pass both exams become “Seghat'olesman” and are allowed to interpret Koranic laws. Becoming a Seghat'olesman also means leaving their theological masters and entering the Shiite clergy and its hierarchy.

The next step, always based on theological knowledge, is to become a “Hojat'oleslam”, allowing for more in-depth theological discussions over the interpretation of the Koran.  The Hojat'oleslam is also responsible for assisting the Ayatollah in the application of the theological norms he dictates. Above him stands the “Hojat'oleslam was muslimin” whom, besides assisting the Ayatollah, is also allowed – to some extent – to interpret and dictate theological laws.

The next level are the Ayatollah, who to all effects are theology professors. They research Islamic law, teach, study and interpret both the Shaaria and the sacred books. They play and important role in Iran's social and political life.

However, is becoming an Ayatollah is usually considered the top of the ladder, Shiite hierarchy includes three more levels above this one:

- “Ayatollah al Ozma” (“Great Ayatollah”), spiritual leader of a school of thought capable of issuing edicts (“fatwa”) that are binding for believers,

- “Marja al Taqlid” (“Source of imitation”), role models in theology and inspiration for disciples

- “Marja al’a al Taqulid” (“Supreme source of imitation”), is the ultimate degree of the religious hierarchy both in Iran and for Shiites around the world.

Moving up the Shiite clergy is determined by the role played by the individual within his community and by the theological writings and studies he is able to elaborate. It is hence a mix of social and theological consensus allowing the individual a double climb to power: in Shiite clergy and in Iran's political life.

This is now a consolidated assumption in Iran's theocracy and this hierarchical pyramid defines the balance of power.


Iran's theocracy begins with the fall of the Shah Reza Pahlavi and the return from exile in France of Ayatollah Ruhollah Mostafa Khomeini to Tehran on February 1 1979. Khomeini was an Ayatollah al Ozma, a great Ayatollah, and he was the one who created the system allowing Shiite clergy to rule over Iran and which survives to date. Khomeini died on June 3 1989.

The Iranian theocracy is structured as follows:

- The Supreme Guide, post now held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the highest religious (and de facto political) authority in the country overlooking the designation of key positions in the State.  The Guide is also the Commander of the Armed Forces ad is allowed to declare war or sign peace. The Supreme is at the summit of Iran's political system. He is selected from a list of candidates by another organism:

- The Assembly of Experts (Majlis al Khobregan, article 107 of Iran's Constitution) was founded in 1982 and is composed of 86 religious members renewed every 8 years (the last renewal took place in 2007. The aim is to link its expiration to that of the Parliament. The mandate will be extended to 10 years). The Assembly can nominate the Guide and “virtually” substitute for him. It meets twice a year. The current chairman is Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, elected in March 2011;

- In the management of his authority and for the appointment of key posts,  the Supreme Guide is supported by an Expediency Council (“Shura al Tashkhis Maslehat e Nezam”), art. 112 of the Constitution. It has an heterogeneous composition: members appointed by the Supreme Guide (28 people with a 5 year mandate), ex-officio members (top clergy from the Council of Guardians and members of the Council of Chiefs), temporary members (on the basis of the subject: from Ministers to heads of commissions). The Council has a consultative role to the Supreme Guide, but is also called to settle disputes between Parliament and the Council of Guardians on constitutional or national policy issues. Its current secretary is Gen. Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran). Needless to say that both Rezai, Kani and other key officials are politically loyal to Khamenei.

- Another key group it the Council of the Guardians of the Revolution (Shura e Negahban e Mashrutiat). The organism mentioned in art. 91 of the Constitution is tasked with reviewing laws approved by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Parliament) and their conformity with the Constitution and of Islamic norms. The Council has a veto power over candidates to Parliament,  government nominations and members of the Assembly of Experts. There are 12 members to the Council, 6 of whom appointed by the Supreme Guide and 6 jurists nominated by the judiciary (who is not independent from the Guide). The clerics rule over conformity with Islamic law, the entire Council debates over the constitutionality of norms. This organism has huge power and can annul parliamentary and presidential elections. Its members are renewed every 3 years on the basis of a rotation system.
This is the basic structure of who holds power in Iran. Everything, directly or indirectly, stems from the decisions taken by the Supreme Guide. In all consultative organisms members of the clergy as Ayatollahs and Hojat'oleslams are prevalent.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

One from the top down the Iranian constitutional architecture envisages structures that are similar to those functioning in other countries where, although partially, there is a system of popular suffrage:

- The executive power is held by the President, elected for 4 years through national suffrage and for no more than two consecutive terms (presently it is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).  Since 1989 the President also holds the seat of Prime Minister abolished (this circumstance shows that formally and informally the office of head of the state goes to Khamenei, not to Ahmadinejad).  The President has the power to designate Ministers, to preside the government, to decide on the laws and initiatives that will undergo the approval of Parliament;

- The judicial power, whose designated head is the Supreme Guide (presently Sadegh Larijani), is comprised of a Supreme Court (whose head is designated directly by the Guide for a five-year term) made up of 32 designated judges – always with the approval of Khamenei – among religious jurists, an office of the general prosecutor, special tribunals (for crimes against the national security) and a special clerical court.  Here too the role of the religious guide is predominant;

- The legislative power (i.e. the parliament) is called “Islamic Consultive Assembly” (“Majlis”).  It has a single chamber composed of 290 members elected through universal suffrage with a double turn system for a 4-year term on the basis of districts (207 of them) or in representation of minorities.  The candidacy of each deputy is subordinated to the approval of the council of the Guardians of the Constitution.  The present president of the Assembly, Ali Larijani, is a loyal follower of Khamenei (and brother of Sadegh, who heads the judicial system, and of Javad, who is a loyal cousellor of Khamenei).

From a close examination of this structure of power it appears that the Supreme Guide's opinion weighs heavily on every aspect of social and political life in Iran.  The Iranian system has no balance of powers able to guarantee a democratic model within the theocratic administration.

The doctrine that supports the power structure of Iranian theocracy is that of “Velayat al Fiqh”, which means the adherence of every government act to Shia faith (or rather law) which renders every form of censure applicable.  From the theological point of view, this approach is justified by the fact that, while waiting for the 12th Imam (the hidden Imam – the Iranian Shia faith is called “duodeciman” or “imamite” according to further schisms), it is the prerogative of the lawmaker to try to create the social conditions that can facilitate the arrival of the aforementioned Imam.

In the context of the Iranian revolution that has seen this principle introduced with the arrival of Khomeini, the fact that the principle itself did not leave any room for democracy is irrelevant in the eyes of the Shia clerics.

If we were to spell out the names of the two major powers in Iran they would be the Supreme Guide (the predominant one) and the President of the Republic, who finds his strength in the vote cast by the people.  However, the power of the Supreme Guide is prevalent.  From this dualism of powers, one religious and the other with popular legitimation, there have begun contrasts between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.  The first stands on positions of ultra-conservationism, the other has a conservative-populist approach (occasionally the roles are inverted).

This tension will tend to increase in the coming months when the presidential term of Ahmadinejad (according to the Iranian Constitution he could cover a third term in office but not consecutively) will end on June 14, 2013.  The struggle to impose Ahmadinejad's own candidate, his daughter-in-law's father Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (whose daughter married Ahmadinejad's eldest son) has already begun.

Iran's definition of reformist or moderate (as are described figures such as Medhi Kharrubi, Mohammad Khatami, Mir Hossein Moussavi), traditionalists (ayatollah Mahdavi Kani), conservators (ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi), ultra-conservators, technocrats or pragmatists (as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has often been dubbed) or others (there are additional factions within these groups) are just words that have no political implications, but rather bring together figures in a fight of power within power.  In this game the strength of the main players is dictated by their rank in the Shia hierarchy, by influence peddling – which often means nepotism, by the connection with other powers within the country, like the one represented by the merchants of the bazar (economic backbone of the country), by the Pasdaran (paramilitary corp of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) and by the Basiji (another paramilitary corp of young volunteers).