Leadership: crisis yesterday, deadlock tomorrow


We reprint the article: Khomeini’s replacement: crisis yesterday, deadlock tomorrow which first appeared almost nine years ago. Despite the passage of time it sheds light on the current debates inside and outside Iran as to where the Islamic Republic regime is heading. The similarities between both crises go beyond the positions taken, or even the choices, facing Montazeri then, and Khatami now. Then, as now, the epicentre of the crisis is the chronic deadlock in the leadership apparatus of the Islamic Republic, and the impotence of the system in recreating that apparatus to meet its urgent needs. Moreover, Montazeri’s bitter, and personal, criticism of the present leadership makes him, once again a front-line player in the Iranian political scene and a “potential claimant” to the leadership.


Finally after 10 years 1 the “hope of the Imam” (Montazeri’s title) turned to despair. Khomeini’s patience gave way and he sacrificed the only chance for an effective secession on the altar of expediency. Ayatollah Montazeri received his marching orders accused of “ineptitude”, “nagging” and “naiveté”. He was stripped of all his posts and positions and was ordered to confine himself to his seminary teachings. 2

After the acceptance of the cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war, Montazeri’s sacking from the post of deputy leader was undoubtedly the most important event of the Islamic Republic, and Khomeini’s the most perilous decision since he came to power. We assess the various facets of this momentous event and the numerous questions raised by it.

The crisis in the leadership apparatus of the velayate faghih 3 which took the shape of a split between Khomeini and his successor, has apparently surfaced and revealed its obstinacy in the months since the cease-fire in the war. In fact it has been brewing over a much period. The birth pangs of the divisions in the leadership apparatus occurred essentially simultaneously with the regime’s first deadlock and general crisis. Since then the two have fed on each other through the many turbulent junctures which the Islamic Republic has had to face.

First dispute

The first quarrel dates back to 1982-3. At the time the important question was with what means and to what extent should the opposition be suppressed. Montazeri, then only a potential successor, believed that a blind and uncontrolled repression was short sighted. He opposed the savage repressive acts of the police-judicial apparatus.

The dispute had barely subsided with the removal of the bloodthirsty prosecutor of Teheran’s Evin Prison, Lajavardi, when on the eve of the elections to the second Majles (parliament), Montazeri declared war on the “big coalition between the Islamic  Republic Party and the Militant Clergy”. Here he stood opposite Khomeini (who was the main supporter of this coalition) and what Montazeri called “the monopoly of power”. Montazeri lost this battle, and a crisis was averted when he bowed to Khomeini’s will and accepted the election results.

The conflict flared up once again over the arrest of Mehdi Hashemi, the brother of Montazeri’s son-in-law in 1986, accused of terrorism. Here the crisis took on a more acute turn and Montazeri’s office and circle faced the bayonets of the Pasdaran (revolution guards). He was accused of protecting dens of “corruption” and centres of “intrigue” and places where “dangerous” political conspiracies were being hatched. These could endanger the ruling clergy and had to be smashed.

The arrests, meanwhile deprived the future faghih of important actual and potential agents for intervening in current politics. This was a coup d’etat in the time honoured fashion of the velayate faghih which widened the split in the leadership apparatus in an exceptional way.

It was in response to this that Montazeri’s son and son-in-law made the revelations regarding MacFarlane’s visit to Iran which triggered the Iran-Contra scandal in the USA. These revelations were also a decisive blow to the legitimacy of the leadership and many of its functionaries.

Montazeri, however, pulled back. If he had not the crisis would have become truly explosive with a resulting schism in the leadership apparatus. Nevertheless the retreat could neither heal the deep-seated wounds, nor dry up the roots of the crisis.

Majles elections

On the eve of the elections to the to 3rd Majles Montazeri once again took up the fight: everyone, meaning all those prepared to work under the system of velayate faghih, must be allowed to participate in the elections 4 [Ettela’t January 5 1988].

This time interior minister Mohtashemi, a member of Khomeini’s entourage, 5 was given the task of ridiculing Montazeri’s views. He announced that first, participation should be limited precisely to safeguard the freedom of the elections. Second, liberals have betrayed the people and cannot be allowed to participate. Third, a law that has gathered dust for six years cannot be resurrected at such short notice [Keyhan Jan 2, Ettela’t January 5 1988].

The shooting down of the Iran Air flight over the Persian Gulf gave Montazeri the chance to hit back at the “MacFarlane line” (with parliamentary Speaker Rafsanjani in its sights). He wrote to Khomeini asking him to declare “an all out war” against America and its interest throughout the world [Keyhan, July 3 1988]. Khomeini’s reply was mocking indeed: “you, who are one of the reserves of the revolution, while supporting Mr Hashemi [Rafsanjani], should spend your time in creating a world of kindness and generosity”. [Keyhan July 4]

The logic of the dispute was clear. Montazeri’s views would carry little weight while the present leadership was there. This marked a new phase in Montazeri’s struggle. The makeup of the apparatus for political and executive decisions had to be changed.

New opportunities

Defeat and the cease-fire agreement in the war gave Montazeri another chance. Under cover of defending the legitimacy of the faghih, and inviting the people to renew their allegiance to the Imam, he blamed the defeats and frustrations on elements high up in the government, within which Rafsanjani, in that period was a key figure. Rafsanjani had been the main protagonist of the slogan: from Shalamcheh to Karbela! A slogan which after the recapture of Khoramshahr represented the call for an expansionist war and for the export of the revolution. Montazeri demanded that these people should be held to account [Keyhan July 23 1988]. Once again the retort came back in the negative: this was no time to be asking questions [Keyhan International, August 3, 1988].

Montazeri replied by increasing the pressure: first by writing letters and making his opposition known within the regime, and a little later by lifting the veil and openly organising pressure form below.

Montazeri castigated the leadership apparatus for “substituting slogans for action” to the extent of “forgetting all values” [Keyhan February 8 1989]. And further: “the content of some of the slogans which isolated us was wrong... actions which we were unable to push through made the world fear us” and “did those enemies who imposed the war on us win? If there was a mistake we must repent”. And finally: “before any reconstruction of the country, all the layers and people of the country expect from the  exalted leader the political and ideological reconstruction of the management of the revolution”. [Resalat, February 1, 1989].


Montazeri warns against increasing discontent. His solution is for the Bonapartist regime to broaden its support base. The united front Montazeri has in mind ranges from the liberal Freedom Movement at one end, to the Mujahedin and Ommat on the other. The political space must be opened up for all those who accept the velayate faghih, even if they might gain a few seats in the Majles.

His political platform can be summarised thus: an open democratic space must combine with “order and tranquillity”. A link must be found between democratic rights and the ultra-bureaucratic structure of the political system. Absolute despotism must be democratised by creating new advisory-specialist organs. Would it not be nice to have both protest and obedience!

What is almost comical is that his advise was to turn the clock back to the era of the Liberal-Islamic political bloc. Montazeri could not realise that the velayate faghih would not have secured itself without breaking up that initial alliance with Bazargan’s 6 Freedom Movement. Only through a monopoly of political power, excluding all opponents of the absolute velayate faghih, 1 narrowing the political space, and through repression was religious Bonapartism able to stabilise its rule.

Even supposing the fate of the Islamic regime had not been a foregone conclusion, and Montazeri’s proposed alliance was indeed possible then, would the same apply today? When after 10 years the political-class divisions in society have blocked all avenues to the united front of yesterday, when popular discontent and hatred has passed explosive boundaries, when the regime is racked by countless deadlocks, are such suggestions any thing other than the rantings of a Don Quixote?


In reality, Montazeri’s views meander between the “glorious aims” of the early days of the revolution and the “dreadful consequences” these days. If he cannot resolve his confusion, his wanderings will surely drive him to madness.

His choice is either to step outside the confines of the velayate faghih and sit next to the likes of Bazargan, Bani Sadr etc... or accept the “dreadful” consequences and become a true believer in Khomeini. When he rejects “expediency”, he must be prepared to face “martyrdom”. Any other option is to accept a state of paralysis.

The sterility of Montazeri’s “thoughts” are shown at their most glaring when put to practice. At their best his views are a bridge for the transition of the velayate faghih to a more “rational political order”. All Montazeri’s practical and political counsels carry at their core the seeds of such a transition.

We must add that the removal of Montazeri is proof of the failure of all such attempts to open a way for the velayate faghih to survive through a series of retreats and adjustments. 7

The weak underbelly

The short and long-term consequences of Montazeri’s removal from the post of successor to Khomeini are of great importance. The leadership apparatus of the regime of ayatollahs is its most vulnerable organ. After the recent events, the chronic crisis of the Islamic  regime will evolve into an all-out crisis of succession.

For a regime in which succession is an old problem, to escape which it had to walk a tightrope called Montazeri for all these years, a retreat to the past if not impossible, is extremely risky.

n The Islamic Republic is one of those regimes which are doomed to sterility when it comes to restructuring their leadership apparatus. The rise of Khomeini to the leadership of a pan-Islamist movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, and his succession to power at the head of a mass revolution was essentially a historic exception and certainly incapable of repetition. Here lies the secret of the sterility of the velayate faghih.

n The second historic truth is that in a leader-centred regime, one where the source of its authority lies in the attraction of its leader, when this source dries up, it is impossible to recreate the leadership with a similar role or weight. When the masses in their millions turn their back on the regime, “Khomeini” is irreplaceable - not even with Khomeini.


But bitter as the reality of the succession question is, it is at the same time an inescapable necessity. The irony is that regime of the velayate faghih cannot bypass the faghih. Its survival, therefore, depends on abandoning the search for an ideal leader. It has to chose the bad among the worse. This is exactly what it did four years ago when it chose Montazeri.

Why was Montazeri chosen

Since the clergy are the only source for the “leadership”, a look at what was available will make clear why Montazeri was chosen as the “bad” among the “worse”.

q To opt for a leadership “council” or “consensus” meant accepting discord, while the structure and composition of governing order required a united and centralised leadership. Leadership had to be concentrated in a single “Imam”.

q Moreover, the senior religious “authorities” - the Grand Ayatollahs, in the theological colleges were virtually unanimous in questioning the whole concept of velayate faghih. These are people Khomeini had called “stupid and ossified with a pretence to piety”, persons who never believed in the “Islamic government” and “Islamic revolution”. These “gentlemen” had no kinship with the ideological foundations of the ruling system. The mantel of leader could not possibly be passed on to them.

q However, someone who is not at, or near, the apex of the pyramid of the clerical apparatus could not occupy the leadership of a regime based on the faghih. Except Only Montazeri among the clergy who believed in the “Islamic revolution” had the prospect of attracting the allegiance of the clerical apparatus.

q Khomeini’s successor also had to have legitimacy with the social base of the regime. Montazeri’s political past and his part in formulating the concept of the velayate faghih was not shared by anyone else.


The sum of these points placed a veil over Montazeri’s weaknesses and incapacitates.

The field today

The same conditions operate today. The “religious authorities” remain adamant in their opposition to many of the political-religious edicts of Khomeini and more than ever are sunk in “pretence to piety” and “stupidity”!

Moreover, among the “revolutionary clergy” few have come away unscathed in one or other of the sharp turns of the past decade: from MacFarlane, to UN resolution 598 8, to various knuckle rappings they had received from Khomeini. Certainly none can claim greater respect among the hezbollah than Montazeri.

Finally there is even less chance of joint leadership - a leadership council - succeeding any better than before. If yesterday such forms of leadership faced a likelihood of schism and disintegration, today such a fate is a foregone conclusion.

The regime’s experience of councils in the last few years has been abysmal. Every single council, whatever the mix, has merely institutionalised total paralysis in decision making. As fast as the regime built councils to meet the needs of its diversity, it had to pull  them down because of contradictions and conflict. As these contradictions grew, so did the need to concentrate and centralise power.

This was most eloquently illustrated by the very event under discussion. The regime had to bypass its own Constitution, remove the decision of removing Montazeri form the Assembly of Experts who had chosen Montazeri in the first place, and replace it with the will of a sole leader.

Thus a leadership crisis, in a more acute form than ever before, confronts the regime head on. Indeed, the main conflicts within the regime will be diverted to, and focus on, efforts to solve the succession. The prospects facing the regime en route to finding a successor or successors to Khomeini is an intensification of its politico-structural crisis.


First: in conditions where the ruling body has been divided into numerous gangs, cliques, and factions under pressure of a chain of crises, and its ruling apparatus has been split into dozens of independent centres of power, the finding of a person or group which is a true expression of all the various ruling tendencies, and able to gather all these conflicting and contradictory tendencies under one roof would be an impossibility.

This “expression” therefore, will twist and turn to one direction or another. To set which direction it takes will be the focus of the most concentrated and ruthless internal struggles. The possibility exists that during these struggles the factions and line-ups will undergo newer splits and purges and transform the ruling bloc further.

Secondly: whoever or whatever the “expression”, it must represent the most fundamental contradiction and the most outstanding conflict of the ruling bloc. Therefore, even while it is unwinding one contradiction, it will give birth to another. The choice will inevitably express the weakness, politically and morally, of the future leadership. This will face the regime instantly with a need to compensate for this weakness through legal and structural changes.

It must be remembered that the legal and structural system of the velayate faghih, and in particular the institution of the leadership (even in its embryonic form) was made to measure for Khomeini. The Constitution created a dual pyramid the centre of gravity of which was a leader of a mass movement. Thus, after Khomeini, the office of the leader and velayat can be replaced only after changes are made in the constitution and structure of the Islamic Republic. This demand will feed two parallel tendencies:

n One a strengthening of the organ for overseeing the leadership: i.e. the Assembly of Experts 9 (AE). The AE, marginalised when the leadership was strong, must in the future take up the actual role allotted to it by the Constitution.

The AE is an organ entrusted with making certain power remains the monopoly of the clergy who subscribe to the concept of velayate faghih. Placed there to ensure unity, and safeguard the legitimacy, of the leader, such an organ cannot remain indifferent to elements which violate these boundaries. 10

At a minimum, the consequence of this meddling by the AE will be the appearance of yet anther centre of power intensifying the existing structural anarchism and chaos.

n The other will be efforts to separate the political from the religious leadership - a revision of the law in order to recut the mantel of the faghih to fit his successor. If it is feared that the future faghih or faghihs will overturn the boat once they have left their clerical role and taken the helm of politics, the obvious solution is to cut their hands off from politics in some way.

Bazargan once asked Khomeini to stay in Ghom and confine himself to ideological leadership, an advice which went unheeded. Today this same advise (this time by the very opponents of Bazargan) is inevitable, whether it is listened to or not.

Such has been the message president Khamenei' 11 and Speaker of Majles Rafsanjani have been hammering for the last year. Rumours are rife that Rafsanjani will stand for the president, which will go hand in hand with a revision of the Constitution to give greater power to the presidency; and some are muttering that it is beyond the dignity of the velayate faghih  to involve himself with petty day to day affairs [see interview with Khamenei' and Rafsanjani, February 7 and 5 respectively].

Before Montazeri was removed this same line was taken to weaken him. Today it pursues a similar aim with regards to the future ideological leadership. The importance of these moves lie in their crisis-provoking potential in the short-term. Already open opposition to such an idea has appeared and is daily becoming more shrill. 12


Montazeri’s sacking will also cause two further development in the political arena of the country which can have decisive effects on the general situation.

The first is the blow delivered to the legitimacy of the regime, to the trust among its support base and to the pan-Islamist movement. These blows can be such as to enlarge the split to the lowest level of influence of the Islamic revolution and result in a new overall political balance in the country.

The second is the embryonic formation of a new coalition bloc outside the ruling apparatus. Those structures which took shape under the protection of Montazeri’s “entourage” (beit), in spite of the warnings of recent years, and in spite of the blows they have received, and will receive in the future, are the embryos of this potential front. Such developments will undoubtedly gain added importance in the light of  frictions building up, events taking an accelerated pace, and prospects full of tight turns and plenty of ups and downs.


When after 10 years of ceaseless effort and investment the Islamic regime is forced to abandon its own chosen “deputy leader”, it not only exposes the crisis and sterility of the velayate faghih as a military-political system, but also the infertility of an ideological-belief system.

If we can accept that the only route through which the regime can escape the current deadlock is disbanding the political order of the velayate faghih in its totality, then the heart of the system, its leadership apparatus, has shown the greatest disposition to disbanding it. Now, if the velayate faghih, in spite of all the political and ideological contortions, revisions and reforms, cannot find the united will, or insight, to take this road, the task will be taken up by a divided will.

Khomeini himself, when drinking the “poisoned chalice” in the bitter aftermath of the defeat in the war, delivered his most historic message: he admitted that with each day that passes the conflicts and contradictions pile up and the road to salvation gets increasingly blocked. Now that the situation is once more turning against the Bonapartism in power, and the speed of events is overtaking the efforts of the faghih to correct it, revolution will get another historic chance to be the midwife of this sterile regime.

Ardeshir Mehrdad


1 The article first appeared in International Rahe Kargar, March-April 1989. Khomeini died soon afterwards. The article had been abridged and edited for language.


2 Khomeini’s reply to Montazeri’s resignation letter - March 29, 1989


3 See Leading article: Velayate Faghih - a system on its deathbed, footnote 1.


4 Freedom Movement, Dr Peiman’s Ommat etc. - a belief echoed today by Khatami.


5 Beit Imam = here loosely translated as entourage


6 First post revolutionary prime minister


7 Today Khatami is following a similar platform. He is another internal figure of the system whose chance of success, or even survival, will be tested in not too distant a future. He himself will show what role suits him: reformer or transformer. Or neither.


8 Calling for a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. Khomeini likened his acceptance to “drinking a poisoned chalice”.


9 An elected assembly made up purely of the clergy who drew up the Constitution and chose the velayate faghih  or the council of velayate faghih .


10 see recent statements made by Ayatollah Meshgini, the head of the AE.


11 Khamenei' was president before he was chosen to the leadership.


12 E.g. by prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi or interior minister Mohtashemi

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