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.

That transformation was far-reaching. Traditionally, Shiite seminaries were rather unorganized, unstructured places, based on pre-modern styles of management. The concept of a decentralized religious establishment is difficult for Westerners to understand, given the highly structured administrative framework of Christian churches and ecclesiastical orders. But this fluid hierarchy, an absence of written rules and organizational order, allowed the various seminaries – and their different interpretive traditions – to survive despotic political regimes and resist intervention by different dynasties and monarchies.