Iran’s Political Clerics

Iran’s theocratic regime appears more confident than ever. Its standoff with the West over its nuclear program, together with its ties to Syria and its growing influence in Lebanon and Iraq, suggest the emergence of a strong regional power. But, while Western analysts and Iran’s neighbors raise the alarm, the regime’s authority is in fact built on insecure foundations.

The 1979 revolution, which ended Iran’s monarchical tradition, created a new political order based on Shiite theological foundations and giving absolute ruling power to a Shiite jurist/cleric. Throughout Iran’s long history, Shiite seminaries exercised great influence on Iranian society and politics, but they had been considered civil institutions. It was not until the Iranian revolution that the seminary establishment came to be considered a source of political legitimacy.

The change followed Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of the “jurist-ruler.” In Khomeini’s view, the jurist-ruler could modify religious laws, depending on his interpretation of the needs of the regime. As a result, religious interpretation – previously, a highly decentralized function undertaken by various seminaries – was concentrated in the hands of a political leader. Accordingly, the seminary establishment was no longer a civil structure managing only religious affairs, but instead developed into a unified, ideological party serving the interests of the regime.

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