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Heated Controversy In Iran: Theocracy Versus People’s Vote

Ahmad Jannati (L), the head of Iran's Assembly of Experts, attends the Assembly meeting in Tehran, May 24, 2016

Once again, God has been brought back to center stage in the Iranian political arena.

Whenever Iranian conservatives find themselves facing the dilemma of people’s votes versus the “will of God,” they do not hesitate to evoke the “omnipresent almighty” in full force.

This is happening yet again after the May 19 presidential election, which saw Hassan Rouhani’s comfortable re-election win with 57 percent of the popular vote.

In a dramatic move, the Assembly of Experts issued an announcement on Tuesday, June 20, rebuking President Hassan Rouhani for saying that the Supreme Leader and the government draw their legitimacy from the will of the people.

The Assembly called this “divisive” and reiterated that the legitimacy of the head of the Moslem polity does not depend on the people’s choice or preference.

Conservative clerics had already launched an attack on Rouhani before the Assembly’s intervention.

“One should never say the ruler is elected through the people’s vote,” said Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a Shi’ite marja’, or highest authority, without mentioning Rouhani by name. “One of the statesmen has quoted the first Shi’ite imam (Ali ibn Abitalib, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin) as saying leadership is based on the people’s will and tendencies. [He has also said that] democracy is Imam Ali’s legacy. This is an odd comment.”

Rouhani had reiterated last week that “Imam Ali’s sovereignty was based on the people’s opinion and votes. Imam Ali told people that whoever you choose as your supreme leader and ruler, I would also obey him.”

Responding to Rouhani’s comments, the conservative ayatollah implicitly admonished the president.

“Theocratic rulers are appointed only by God,” he said.

The dispute between Shirazi and Rouhani is reminiscent of the war of words between the conservatives, led by Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, and allies of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). In a nutshell, it’s an ongoing war between theocracy and democracy in Iran.

Iran’s first president, Abolhassan Banisadr (February 1980-June 1981), encouraged by the huge majority of votes received, challenged the unelected supreme leader and founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He was easily outmaneuvered and forced to flee into exile.

This was the first clear victory of theocracy against the notion of people’s vote as the ultimate decider.

Later, when President Ali Khamenei (1981-1989), then a junior cleric, suggested that Khomeini’s death fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses would be revoked if the British author repented, Khomeini -- in his usual crude manner -- warned him to “shut up” and stay away from issues that were the supreme leader’s domain.

Khamenei immediately complied and publicly apologized for the suggestion. The fatwa against Rushdie is till standing today. This was theocracy's second victory.

As supreme leader himself, Khamenei now follows the footsteps of his mentor Khomeini.

Based on Khomeini’s interpretation, the supreme leader is the direct representative of God, and it is the duty of everyone to obey him unconditionally.

According to Khomeini, the supreme leader has the authority to even suspend the belief in God’s oneness should the regime’s existence come under existential threat. The supreme leader has the power and authority to suspend the principles of Islam for the sake of keeping the regime safe.

Iran -- Supporters of newly re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rohani dance during a gathering to celebrate his victory on Vanak square in downtown Tehran, May 20, 2017
Iran -- Supporters of newly re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rohani dance during a gathering to celebrate his victory on Vanak square in downtown Tehran, May 20, 2017

Therefore, after he became supreme leader and consolidated his power, Khamenei demanded the same degree of authority. He began to nurture the idea of presidents under his leadership being as obedient as he was to Khomeini.

That was a tall order, indeed, and not an easy goal to achieve. Khamenei simply did not have Khomeini’s stature as the leader of the revolution.

When Mohammad Khatami surprisingly won the presidential election against Khamenei’s favorite, Ali Akbar Natiq Nouri, the supreme leader’s expectations started to fade. The people’s votes were outshining the divine will, and there was a ray of hope for the supporters of democracy.

Nevertheless, as history proved, the supreme leader found ways to maintain his power by evoking his traditional religious authority and uniting the conservative clergy to neutralize Khatami’s claims to popular mandate.

Soon, a united front of the conservative clergy -- supported by an army of plain-clothed hard-liners -- pushed Khatami’s nascent reformist allies back into the corner.

Khatami’s camp, surprised, was not prepared for a counterattack.

At least four dissidents -- Daryoush Forouhar and his wife, as well as two intellectual authors, Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Ja’far Pouyandeh -- were brutally stabbed to death or strangled. That was a warning that the president and his allies could not afford to ignore.

Khatami bitterly grumbled that his government faced a crisis every nine days of his presidency.

Inevitably, though, he was forced to comply. He later retreated from the political arena, excommunicated by Khamenei and his allies. To this day, he is a political figure of whom interviews, comments, pictures, and videos are all censored.

Khatami, himself, in his last year of the presidency, humbly admitted that Iran’s “president is only an expeditor [for the supreme leader].”

Thus, theocracy won its third victory.

Ahmadinejad’s two-term presidency did not have a better finale. When his efforts to replace the supreme leader’s favorite as intelligence minister failed, he became the regime’s pariah, as well. Khamenei was so unhappy with his behavior that he did not allow him to run again for presidency in May’s election.

Now, once again, it appears we will witness the sequel to Khatami’s presidency. Khatami was a proponent of the Dialogue of Civilizations, whereas Khamenei promotes confrontation with both regional and Western powers.

Rouhani promotes interaction with the international community, whereas Khamenei insists on defiance.

Rouhani says keeping peace demands more courage than waging war. Khamenei advocates what he has dubbed as “resistance,” and asserts that “challenge is costly but compromise is costlier.”

Rouhani relies on his 57 percent presidential victory while the conservative allies of the supreme leader emphatically brand it as totally worthless.

“In this Islamic country, the people’s vote has no religious or legal credibility, neither in determining the country’s political structure or defining the constitution nor electing the president, Assembly of Experts [representatives], or the supreme leader,” said Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. “The only legal credibility criteria is the supreme leader’s consent. The state’s credibility does not rely on the people’s consent. In fact, the people’s votes have no impact or role in the state’s legitimacy.”

As far as the dynamics of political legitimacy are concerned, there are ample similarities between the Khatami and Rouhani administrations. Both enjoyed a clear public stamp of approval, yet both faced a perpetual tug of war with the supreme leader.