Politics and the Clergy
- For several decades, Iran’s Shiite clerical establishment has proven extremely effective at mobilizing the Iranian masses.
- The Shiite clergy were historically independent from government. But especially under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian government seized control of the “sacred” and co-opted the clerical establishment.
- Since 1979, Iran’s theocratic regime has deprived the entire clerical class of its autonomy—but also made it rich and powerful.
- Any serious crisis in Iran could jeopardize the clergy’s favored position in government. To retain its legitimacy and religious standing, the clergy may have to distance itself from politics.
- Supreme Council of Qom Seminary: A group of clerics who are in charge of policy planning in Iran’s seminaries. Members of the council are appointed by the supreme leader and can be dismissed by him. The executive director of the clerical establishment is appointed by this council.
- Center for Management of Seminaries: The executive management body of the clerical establishment which oversees all educational, administrative and economic activities of the clerics.
- Association of Teachers of Qom Seminary: A group of conservative clerics which oversees the Supreme Council of the Qom Seminary under supervision of the supreme leader. This group does not include all important teachers or scholars of the seminaries.
- Association of Teachers and Scholars of Qom Seminaries: A group consisting of former officials of the Islamic Republic, as well as a few middle-ranking reformist clerics. This reformist group is marginal and has little support from the grand ayatollahs.
- Association of Militant Clerics of Tehran: A group of clerics who participated in the revolution. It includes current and former members of the government. Along with the Bazaar – the traditional market – this group forms a pillar of old conservative establishment in Iran.
- Al-Mustafa International University: A university owned and run by Ayatollah Khamenei. It specializes in educating non-Iranian clerics and has branches in several other countries.
- Special Court of Clerics: A court which works outside the judiciary system and does not respect the country’s juridical codes. The court’s head is appointed and dismissed by the supreme leader. The court is one of the government’s main tools for controlling clerics.
- Imam Sadeq 83 Brigade: A military unit whose members are clerics. This unit was created during the Iran-Iraq War but now serves as the police force of the clerical establishment and works under supervision of Ayatollah Khamenei.
- Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani: A grand ayatollah in Najaf, Iraq. Sistani enjoys the most widespread following in the Shiite world. But his followers outside Iraq mostly look to him for answers on private religious matters rather than political issues.
- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: Current leader of Islamic Republic and the de facto head of the Shiite clerical establishment. Khamenei’s authority over the Shiite religious network extends beyond Iran, and is the richest and most effective Shiite religious network in the world.
- Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi: A pro-regime ayatollah who has thousands of followers inside Iran. He is best known for his extra–clerical economic activities and benefits from government which have made him one of Iran’s richest clerics in Iran.
- Mohammad Mojtahid Shabestari: A cleric who reads Islamic texts by modern hermeneutics and the methodology of historical criticism. He believes that Sharia or Islamic law is not valid in anything related to the public sphere. He unconditionally defends the universal declaration of human rights. Since the early 2000s, he chose to forsake his robe and turban in order to disassociate himself with the pro-regime establishment.
- Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi: Originally Iranian but born and trained in Iraq, he was the leader, then the spokesman of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, he approached the new supreme leader and refashioned his political identity and agenda. Shahroudi had a major role in helping Ayatollah Khamenei with issuing fatwas. He was appointed by Khamenei as a member of the Guardian Council and then the judiciary chief for 10 years. As of 2015, he portrayed himself as a marja’ (source of emulation) and ran a religious office in Najaf, Iraq as well as Iran. Shahroudi, who benefits from government advantages in his international business, is considered to be among the wealthiest clerics.
- Compared to the pre-revolutionary era, the quality of seminary education in Iran has declined significantly. Government intervention in all aspects of clerical life, including seminary curriculum, has changed the clergy’s traditional way of thinking and living.
- The clerical establishment is now producing mostly missionaries and preachers, rather than true scholars of Islamic law and theology. The symbiotic relationship between the clergy and the country’s judicial and political order will continue the qualitative decay of Islamic education. Ironically, as Islamic scholarship decays, so too will the clergy’s ability to provide convincing religious justification for the government’s actions.
- Since 1989, more non-clerical power centers have emerged or have gained power. Power centers, such as Revolutionary Guards, have different and sometimes incompatible political and economic interests, which make them the clergy’s rival rather than ally.
- Although the clerics in the Assembly of Experts will carry out the legal process of selecting the next supreme leader, they are unlikely to have much of a say in the decision. Due to the supreme leader’s role as commander and chief of the armed forces, the Revolutionary Guards have a vested interest in the appointment of Khamenei’s successor and may therefore play a bolder role in the process. Political shareholders in the intelligence, judicial and business communities may also try to ensure a result that benefits them.
- Iranian reformists such as the pro-democracy, student and women’s movements have secular demands: they call for elimination of various forms of discrimination embodied in the constitution. This vision for Iran leaves little room for clerics’ leadership. Even if a minority of clerics would like to join civil society movements, it would be as followers rather than leaders.
Photo credits: Khomeini via @IRKhomeini (Twitter account); Masoumeh Shrine (Haram 3) by Mohammad mahdi P9432 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/license/by-sa/4.0)], via WIkimedia Commons; Khamenei via Khamenei.ir and Facebook.
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