Velayate Faghih - a system on its deathbed

A third way between the “Republic” and the “Caliphate” is a utopia

In May over 20 million Iranians voted Mohammad Khatami to the presidency against the wishes and intrigues of the political faction in power. By forcing this choice on the regime the political order in Iran entered a new phase of its ingrained crisis.

For the first time voters not only had a choice between representatives of the two main factions of this regime, represented by Khatami and Nategh Nouri, but could chose between two of the main pillars of power in the governing order. One pillar is the “Caliphate” which gets its authority from the sovereignty of divine law. The other, the “Republic” derived its legitimacy from the sovereignty of the ballot. In the Islamic Republic of Iran these two have been co-existing in and uneasy and ultimately unworkable relationship.

The people rejected Nategh Nouri, who openly upheld the concept of the “absolute velayat-e faghih1, and who opposed the political involvement of the people in their own fate. Moreover, he had openly received the complete backing of the spiritual leader and faghih Ayatollah Seid Ali Khamenei’. 

The overwheming electoral rejection of Nategh Nouri 2  was undoubtedly a referendum against the “spiritual leader”, a vote of no confidence in the current encumbent, Khamenei’, and a rejection of the “Caliphate”. 

In short, the people delivered a resounding NO to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic regime, whose foundation rests on combining religion and state - and on using mass legitimacy and the popular vote as a mandate to justify the rule of the clergy.

No longer unrivaled

In other words the May presidencial elections was the source of two important developments. The first was to upset the balance of political power within the ruling bloc such that for the first time since Khomein’s death, the ruling faction has been denied complete control over the apparatus of power, and has been forced to concede some portion of power to the rival faction.

The second development was a disruption in the balance of political power between the government taken as a whole on the one hand and the people below on the other. Thiswas seen when people entered the political arena, largly through their own volition, and openly expressed their disapproval of the relations and structure of  government.

In their turn the above developments sharpened the internal conflicts within the regime. Furthermore they increasingly directed these conflicts towards the most basic contradictions in the ruling order, and to that point where they converge, namely the leadership apparatus.

Today it is difficult to find a person or group among the rulers who claims that the existing political order of the country can survive in the same vein as before. It is possible to identfy two groups more easily among the various tendencies and views that are forming around this issue.

One group sees the solution of the current crisis in an absolute and blatant authoritarianism and wants to concentrate power ever more in the system of clerical leadership. Their spokesman is head of judiciary Ayatollah Yazdi.

The others insist on a restructuring of power through a cutting back on the authority of the spiritual leadership and in strengthening institutions that rely on the popular vote. The Mujahedin Enghelabe Eslami 3 represent this tendency at its most explicit.

Both the malady and its medicine

Since the 1979 revolution the issue of the nature of the governing political order has been one of the main areas of contention, conflict and splits among the different idelogical-political currents and tendencies within, around and outside the ruling power in Iran.

Such issues as the source of power and what constitutes the basis for its legitimacy, its internal structure and institutions, and even the inner composition and workings of each and every organ were subjects of endless ideological discord and political strife.

These conflicts, more than anything, were rooted in inevitable contradictions presented by a popular-Islamic revolution.

Among the most important were contradictions between the class interests of the social base of an Islamic  movement, contradictions between sharia’ (religius law) and secular imperatives, imbalance between a political movement relying on direct political involvement from below and an ultra-centralised and paternalistic leadership. Indeed, the political order in the Islamic Republic not only defined itself through the expression of these contadictions, but defined its own legitimacy through controlling, harnessing and reproducing them.

The fact that the conflict over the political order always, and rapidily, evolved into  a re-examination and conflict over the leadership apparatus is an indication of the dilemma that the ruling system cannot survive without relying on a centre of power capable of surmounting the internal splits and contradictions. In other words, the leadership apparatus must, at one and the same time, act as the organ for reproducing the fundamental contradictions of this regime, and also control and harness these contraditions.

Whenever this ability came into question, i.e the leadership apparatus failed  to discharge its role, this apparatus was transformed from a force for harnessing the crisis to a source of crisis. In such moments the general restructuring of the system of power become inevitable.

In this processs the arrival and development of a government order sustained by the organ of the spiritual leadership (velayate faghih), should be seen as having less to do with religious principles and sharia’ laws, than on a particular historic development. Among the key historic factors which allowed the emergence of the political order in the Islamic Republic, with the apparatus of the spiritual leadership above it, one would pick out the particularities of the February 1979 revolution and of its leader, Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini.

Mantle cut for Khomeini

Khomeini’s unique influence among the social base of the Islamic movement, his strong position among the clerical apparatus in Iran, and his skill in using Bonapartist methods of rule made him into a charismatic leader whose only legal expression could be the valye faghih - a spiritual leader with total control over both civil and political society.

If the 1979 revolution gave birth to an exceptional state, and an administation in permanent crisis, the command and control of this government was only possible at the hands of one particular leadership apparatus and one unique leader: the leadership apparatus of the velayate faghih and Khomeini’s personal leadership.

Moreover, when under pressure of crushing contradictions, the Islamic Republic was forced to redefine the power of the leadership apparatus and saw the increasing concentration of power at the hands of the leader as its way out of the crisis, it was always Khomeini, until his death deprived the regime of this strategy, who made this development possible.

It needed a leader with the specific qualities of Khomeini to safeguard the unity of the deep-rooted contradictions in the ruling order. He did so by restructuring political authority and concentrating the levers of power more and more in his own hands. And he was uniquely able to do this without seriously damaging the political and religious legitimacy of the regime. In this process Khomeini transformed the original (already considerable) powers of the velayate faghih into the absolute spiritual leader [see footnote 1] where even sharia’ considerations took second place to the needs of the state.

Khomeini transformed the political order into one where the spiritual leader was not only the main pillar of power, the unmistakable source of all political decisions, and the final arbitrator of all factional squables, but when it came to a confrontation between the system of government and the clerical apparatus, or between the sharia’ laws and the needs of a modern capitalist state, he could suspend the laws of sharia’. He could, and did, raise the commandments of the spiritual leader and the leadership apparatus above all other commandments. There can be little doubt that without such steps the reproduction of Islamic government would not have been made possible; just as without a person of Khomeini’s stature such developments would have been difficult to realise.

From leader to dictator

Khomeini, however, was irreplaceable. With him gone, the political order that was shaped in his image and on the basis of his particularities was forced to change. When the ruling order is deprived of its most cardinal means for self-reproduction, its only chance for survival is to transform itself to another order.

Supported by influential cliques in the ruling clergy, Seid Ali Khamenei’ replaced Khomeini. He took on the mantle of spiritual leadership, and  was even confirmed by others in the role of abslolute spiritual leader. What he could not do was to fill the shoes of Khomeini, a faghih who was capable of replenishing the religious and popular roots of the Islamic government, nor could he unite its uneven and exceedingly contradictory elements.

He had little choice but to re-interpret the “absolute spiritual leadership” as his personal absolute dictatorship. He used this authoritarian rule to suppress the internal and external contradictions of the Islamic government. He used it to further factionalize politcal power and to ensure the interests and supremacy of ruling cliques. He had no choice but to replace “spiritual leadership” by an “absolutist monarchy” and rather than appear as a heir to the Imam3 he appeared in guise of another shah.

Crisis after crisis, repression after repression, greater and greater monopoly of power in the leadership apparatus, increasing recourse to the security-police apparatus: this was the viscious cycle that the Islamic Republic experienced in the period afre the death of Khomeini.

The fruit of this viscious cycle has been the collapse of the regime’s support base, in particular among the destitute masses, a widening gulf among the ruling bloc, increasing isolation of the dominant faction, and the evolution of Khamenei’ into the exclusive actual repository of power, the epitome of despotism, corruption, injustice and deception.

A restructuring of power?

In the end Khamenei’ has come to represent the focus of all dissatisfactions, protests and widespread hatred for the Islamic Republic. The May elections was the first opportunity where people were given the chance to express their real feeling for the “spirtitual leadership”. Their resounding rejection of the spiritual leader upset the balance of  political power both in the country at large and among the ruling bloc.

The casting of a  general vote of no confidence in the velayate faghih and the unmistakable evaporation of the myth of his popular mandate, which in a democratic system would have resulted in his resignation, in Iran pushed the factional scuffles into a new phase.

In this phase the restructuing of the whole system of power and the leadership apparatus has become the subject of a major debate and a battleground.

The choices being debated are the “absolute leadership”  or the “conditional leadership” 4 , or a choice between “leader” or “representative” 5 (making the religious leadership electable and limited to a fixed term ..). Or between a “leadership” 6 or “civil” society, increasing concentration of power in non-elected institutions or their transfer to elected organs, open personal autocracy or reforms aimed at opening the political atmosphere, the extet religion and state should amalgamate, how much the sharia’ and the secular should mix. Around these questions the various tendencies within the regime are lining up agaisnt one another.

Faghih, people or a third way?

In the past such questions were posed in abstract and in academic circles. Today they have become practical questions and dragged into the world of politics. For this reason the ideological tools previosuly used to repress the opponents of the spiritual leadership (acusations such as apostacy, deviation, dualism 7 ... ) had today been replaced by the naked force of the police-security apparatus which operate directly under the command of the spiritual leader. Plots, false accusations, rumors, arrests, intimidation by semi-official gangs of armed thugs are among the methods favoured by the dominat faction to keep its hold on power and mainatain the status quo.

The president and his supporters, were elected on the promis of reforms, and spoke of the expansion of civil society. It is increasingly clear that they rely on a knife that has no blade.

They promise to uphold the “law” in a society where the “spiritual leader” is above the law and the Constitution. Moreover, a rent-a-mob Ansare Hezbollah totally ignores that very “law” which defines the authority of the presidency.

In Iran today the “law” is the expression of power and not a means for controling the powerful. In a country with such political order one cannot speak of political reforms, without first and formost thinking of changeing the political balance. Indeed, in today’s Iran one cannot talk of changing the political balance without leaning on the people. Yet leaning on people is no less than the dissolution the system of velayate faghih.

The impasse of the limited reforms proposed by Khatami an his allies has its roots in this unpleasant reality. They want rain, but no floods. Their choice is stark: ultimately succumb to repression, and be discharged in disgrace, or surender to popular will. We will have to wait and see which they chose.

1 Article 5 of the Basic Laws gived the just and knowledgeable religious jurisprudence (faghih) control (velayat) over all aspects of civil and political society. In the last years of Khomeini’s life the ammendment to the Basic Laws gave the faghih the power to over-rule religious dictum and practivc if the interest if the Islamic state demanded. This was known as the absolute rule of the jurisprudence - velayate motlagheh faghih. For simplicity velayate faghih will be hereafter translated loosley as “spiritual leadership” and Khamenei’ will be referd to as the “spiritual leader”.

2 An unprecedented turnout of 29 million (88% turnout) Khatami had nearly 70% o the votes to Nategh Nouri’s 25% for in a four-way fight.

3 see footnote 9 previous article

3 The title carried by Khomeini, linking him in popular imagery to the 12 Imams which are heirs to Mohammad and form the basis of Shi’ite religious belief.

4 Respectively: velayate motlagheh and velayate mashruteh.

5 Velayat or vekalat

6 jame’e velayati

7 ertedad, enheraf, tashkik

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