The Cognitive Dissonance of the Islamic Republic

How the Iranian regime deviates from millennia-old traditions of Persian culture, self-image and civilization

The Cognitive Dissonance of the Islamic Republic
An Iranian woman walks past Achaemenid figures at the ruins of Persepolis near Shiraz in southern Iran on Sept. 26, 2014. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

Talk of revolution, collapse and renewal in Iran should remind us of Iran’s enormous contribution to human civilization and the many calamities it has overcome in its history. Over the past 2,500 years, successive Iranian states have risen and fallen, absorbing and preserving even more-ancient cultural models, despite devastating conquests and humiliations. Yet, as I argue in my book “In Defense of Civilization,” there has never been a more radical break with Iranian tradition and culture than the Islamic Republic established in 1979. Now seems an opportune moment to revisit these facts, as we contemplate what may come next.

The origins of the Islamic Republic lie in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s treatise “Hokumat-e Eslami,” or “Islamic Government” in English. For Khomeini, legitimate government meant the rule of God, as embodied in divine law. The Prophet Muhammad had governed with supreme authority during his lifetime. After him came the 12 imams, whose legitimacy derived from their presumed perfect knowledge of law and justice. In the absence of the imams, this knowledge prevailed within the class of legal scholars and jurists known as “fuqaha” (or “faqih” in the singular). Thus, Khomeini reasoned that the only legitimate government was one led by a jurist. This concept Khomeini called “the guardianship of the jurist,” or “velayat-e faqih” in Persian. It is the legal foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The velayat-e faqih is perhaps the slimmest theory of political order that has ever formed the basis of a constitution. It is also utopian, even naïve, in that Khomeini assumed religion would suffice to keep people virtuous and there would be no need for a judiciary, ministry of finance or even a civil service. In this regard, I agree with the historian Ervand Abrahamian that Khomeini is perhaps best seen as a populist radical, not a conservative ideologue.

Khomeini, moreover, made no provision for popular sovereignty. This was rightly seen as a serious deficiency for an Islamic Republic. The late Iranian jurist Mohammad Beheshti and other framers of the constitution drew on the work of the Iraqi Shiite scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and applied a theory of popular sovereignty that they considered acceptable from an Islamic perspective. But this produced an irreconcilable tension. Though Iran ended up with a tripartite constitution with executive, legislative and judicial branches, supreme sovereignty was given both to God, ruling through the supreme jurist, and to the people, who elect the parliament and the president.

From the beginning, in 1979, the new constitution had many critics. The first president of the Islamic Republic, Abolhassan Banisadr, objected on the grounds that the constitution effectively made the supreme jurist an absolute ruler. Others denounced the contradiction between democratic sovereignty and the apparently unlimited power of the supreme jurist. The late Ayatollah Shariatmadari, who favored a quietist approach to politics and was a critic of Khomeini, criticized the clergy’s involvement in politics altogether and argued velayat-e faqih would undermine popular sovereignty. Liberal parliamentarians, such as Ezzatollah Sahabi, argued that it would subject the clergy to the sort of criticism normally reserved for politicians, to the ultimate discredit of Islam itself. This argument was prescient, and the tension between popular sovereignty and the supremacy of Islam has not yet been resolved.

At the root of these critiques was the fact that velayat-e faqih is a religious and political aberration, not only in Iran, but in the entire Shiite Islamic tradition. Indeed, the Shiite clergy had never been political in the past. They had always accommodated the civil authority of the day, sometimes despite brutal persecution.

The Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law to the Prophet Muhammad, was a model of political quietism, emulated by Khomeini’s own 20th-century teachers and mentors, Sheikh Abdul-Karim Haeri and Mohammad Hossein Borujerdi. Haeri and Borujerdi had opposed the secularism of the monarch Reza Shah (who reigned from 1925 to 1941) but were otherwise aloof from politics. Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri had wholly rejected all modern things and advocated for an accommodation between constitutionalism and Shiite orthodoxy, but his views never really caught on, and he was executed in 1909 at the prompting of his constitutionalist rivals. In the late 1920s, the former cleric Ahmad Kasravi denounced all European influences, especially technology, but also became a vehement critic of Shiism itself and was eventually murdered by followers of the extremist Shiite cleric Navvab Safavi in 1946. In contrast, the late novelist and philosopher Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who had been part of Kasravi’s circle, also inveighed against the negative influence of Western culture, which he portrayed as a disease for which the only cure was Islam. For him, however, the clergy were guarantors of justice and equality.

The Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati, who championed radical ideals but died before the 1979 revolution, agreed in theory but argued the clergy had failed to perform their duties, and so he favored an anticlerical Islam and a personal relationship between God and humans. Ayatollah Naini, considered by many as the most prominent theoretician of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the last century, had argued for a republic founded on Islamic principles in the revolution of 1906. Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari favored those same principles but preferred a constitutional monarchy along with a politically quiescent clergy.

Khomeini’s ideas drew on these currents of thought, especially apprehension about European influence and religious renewal. Yet no one before him had ever suggested the government should be made up of clerics; in fact, Naini and Shariatmadari notably opposed the idea, on the grounds that all human beings, however pious and learned, were fallible.

Unsurprisingly, the velayat-e faqih doctrine was rejected by nearly all of Khomeini’s fellow scholars. Only Ayatollah Montazeri, Khomeini’s own student, endorsed the concept before the revolution. The senior ayatollah at Najaf, Iraq, in the late 1970s, Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, rejected it outright, as did Shariatmadari. Strong criticism came from the clergy at Iran’s Mashhad for years after the revolution. The four grand ayatollahs who are now at Najaf remain vocal opponents of it. Yet the Khomeinist faction prevailed in the end, through a combination of luck and a divided opposition — not through popular endorsement — and the Khomeinist constitution with all its internal contradictions remains in force to this day.

We should contrast this recent aberration with the larger scene of Iranian history.

The Iranian sense of identity and purpose in the world developed quite suddenly with the establishment of the first Persian Empire, under Cyrus I in 550 BCE. It was the world’s first attempt to unite all civilized peoples within a single polity. The Persian conception of civilized order is visible in the ruins of the ceremonial capital of Persepolis, which was originally built by Darius I. In place of images of a tyrant destroying his enemies or hunting wild beasts, as was common in older Near Eastern royal imagery, the relief of the Persian king and his court, though obviously idealized, is a vision of hierarchy, stability, order, dignity and peace. The king sits calmly on his throne as advisers approach confidently and respectfully. They are not groveling or abasing themselves. Likewise, reliefs within the staircases leading to the audience hall show courtiers and officials moving in relaxed attitudes. Their faces are calm and cheerful. They are shown conversing with one another, they shake hands, and they touch shoulders as they wait to meet the king. Reliefs of the various subject peoples bringing tribute to the king reflect a heterogeneous, tolerant state.

From the very beginning of its history, then, Iran has seen itself as more than just one society among many. This vision held right up to the modern era, through a succession of world empires from the Mediterranean world in the west to China in the east, including the huge expanse of the steppe between them. Throughout its history, Iran has been confronted by similar geopolitical problems arising from similar, mostly hostile powers. In the remote past, these powers included Rome, the world of the steppe nomads and the Bedouin of the Arabian Desert. Now, they include Iraq and Saudi Arabia, who have been enemies in recent history, as well as Russia and Turkey, who will brook no rival in their own spheres of influence. This state of affairs creates enormous instability and will always force Iran to look well beyond its borders to assure its own security. Due to its many frontiers, Iran will always be obliged to take an interest in the Middle East, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus and Central Asia, not least because the Persian language and Shiite Islam are found in large minority groups in all these places.

Yet, despite vulnerability to invasion and conquest, Persian self-image, culture and language have remained stable across millennia. The conquests of Alexander the Great, the Arab conquests and those of the Mongols wiped out the indigenous political and cultural order nearly everywhere — except Iran. It is true that Iran succumbed to the conquerors, but the conquerors adopted indigenous Iranian culture.

There is no better example of this than the long shadow cast by the Sassanian Empire after the invading Arabs overthrew it in 651 CE. The Sassanian heritage was to the Islamic Golden Age as Greco-Roman culture was to the European Renaissance. Much of what we think of as Islamic architecture and visual art have no Arabian precedents. They are, like the huge vaulted porticoes and pointed arches of Bukhara, of Sassanian inspiration. The mosaics inside the Dome of the Rock notably borrow Sassanian images and even depict the same “wings of victory” found on the coins of the Sassanian king Khusro II (r. 590–628), which also appear on the modern logo of the University of Tehran. So-called Islamic carpets, glassware, metalworking, music and astrology were all inspired by Sassanian models as well. Accordingly, both Dinawari (d. ca. 896), the first Persian Muslim historian of Iran, and Masudi (d. ca. 956), one of his later successors, wrote long histories of their country partly to show that “international empire” was originally an Iranian idea and partly to advertise the unusual antiquity and uniqueness of Iranian culture.

Despite the calm assurance and supreme confidence of the Iranian self-image, successive Iranian states were able both to fit into the international order of the day and to help shape it. Sassanian kings, for instance, sometimes claimed to rule with supernatural authority and to be superior to all other earthly powers. Yet we have ample evidence of diplomatic correspondence with Rome in which the Sassanian state recognized the legitimacy of Rome and its equality with Iran. These exchanges show a genuine effort to submit both powers to something resembling international law. The peace treaty between Rome and Persia of 562 CE, for instance, covered everything from mutual defense against threats from the nomadic world to immigration, trade and the conduct of allies. This was also the first treaty on record to guarantee the rights of religious minorities in either empire.

Similarly, the treaty between the Safavid and Ottoman states, known as the Peace of Amasya, signed in 1555, aimed to regularize relations between two hostile powers by establishing buffer zones between them and enforcing mutual respect between rival Sunni and Shiite doctrines. In practice, this meant guaranteeing Persian pilgrims safe passage to the shrines at Mecca and Medina and putting an end to the ritual cursing of the first three caliphs — a practice then widespread in Iran. Finally, one could cite the more recent Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Iran and the United States of America, signed in 1856, which emphasized the ancient dignity of the Iranian state without diminishing that of America.

The Islamic Republic represents a radical break with this trend of bending and flourishing within the international order. The assumption behind the velayat-e faqih was that all other forms of political order were illegitimate and, paradoxically, the new Iran was determined to take what it saw as its rightful place in the order of nations and to demand and receive respect from its peers. Yet the Islamic Republic introduced itself to the world with the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis. Later, in 1989, Khomeini issued his fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie, as though the ayatollah had global legal authority to issue a sentence of death on a foreigner who published a book in Britain and America. To this day, while conducting apparently normal diplomatic affairs, Iran works to export its revolution abroad through such groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Mahdi army in Iraq. Nor is the Shiite leadership of Iran above arming foreign Sunni jihadist groups, such as Hamas in Gaza and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nor have they any compunction about harboring al Qaeda operatives inside Iran.

Such examples could be multiplied. The point is the contemporary Islamic Republic represents a radical break with Iran’s past. It is not a conservative throwback, but rather a peculiar reaction to the conditions of the late 20th century; one that was not especially well thought-out. We may yet have to wait longer for its collapse, but so aberrant and cruel a system cannot survive its own contradictions indefinitely.

When Cyrus the Great captured Babylon in 539 BCE, he saw himself as the restorer of an ancient civilized order that had fallen into ruin. As the famous Cyrus Cylinder advertises, the Persian king renewed the traditions of the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian monarchies, drawing on religious and political ideas that were already thousands of years old. The past was not buried but reinvigorated and fulfilled. May this same spirit once again prevail in Iran.

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