What You Need to Know about the Real Role of the Clergy in Iran’s Political System
The Iranian Regime is often referred to as the Mullah’s Regime. This name is quite understandable, because since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, many of the country’s highest-ranking officials, including the former and current leaders, have been clerics.
But is Iran being ruled by the Shia clergy as an advantageous social class?
How influential are the Grand Ayatollahs in Iran?
The Grand Ayatollahs (marjas) are the highest-ranking clerics in the Shia religious hierarchy. Over the last few decades, the number of Iran-based Grand Ayatollahs has often been less than two dozen.
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Iranian regime has boycotted, discredited and supressed many Grand Ayatollahs. Many of them, including Hossein-Ali Montazeri (once designated as the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini), Seyyed Kazem Shariatmadari, Seyed Hassan Tabatabaei Ghomi, Seyyed Mohammad Shirazi, Seyyed Mhhammad Rohani and Seyyed Sadegh Rohani, who even spent years under house arrest.
Among the other Grand Ayatollahs, many have never had good relations with the Iranian authorities due to their divergent political and ideological views. Even a number of those Grand Ayatollahs who have had rather friendly relations with the establishment have been unhappy with a some of the Iranian regime’s policies. For instance, most existing Grand Ayatollahs believe that Iran’s banking system is un-Islamic. They emphasize that in Islam, the fixed interest rate, known as riba — usury — is strictly forbidden. However, not only is it not banned in Iran, it is the basis of Iran’s banking system.
On the other hand, it is not realistic to suggest that the Grand Ayatollahs’ views are totally ignored in the Islamic Republic of Iran. As long as their concerns do not contradict or interfere with the regime’s top priorities, authorities try not to dissatisfy the ayatollahs, even at the expense of the interests and demands of large social groups.
For instance, a number of Grand Ayatollahs are absolutely against equal rights for women and Sunni Muslims. According to their conservative reading of religious texts, women cannot rule men and Sunnis cannot rule Shias, therefore, female and Sunni citizens must not have access to a number of powerful government positions. Not all high-ranking Iranian authorities agree with discrimination against women and Sunnis with regards to these government positions. Nevertheless, so far, the Leader has opted to satisfy anti-Sunni and anti-women ayatollahs, thereby maintaining the existing discriminative measures.
When it comes to issues such as fixed interest rates, Iran’s regime tends to neglect the conservative clergy’s opposition because the state’s financial system is a priority for the leaders of the Islamic Republic. By contrast, the rights of women and Sunnis is absolutely not a priority for Iran’s high-ranking leaders. Consequently, they prefer not to dissatisfy the conservative clergy over issues that are less important in the leaders’ views.
It should be pointed out that many influential clerics, including some Grand Ayatollahs, financially benefit from the Iranian regime, too. After the publication of the bill for Iran’s 2017-18 budget and its annexes, there was widespread public discussion over the massive amounts that had been dedicated to the religious institutions affiliated to influential clerics. The clerics who take advantage of such budgets do not necessarily agree with all of the Iranian regime’s policies, but they are happy to use public funds in order to propagate Shia ideology and to gain influence.
How has the Position of the Clerics Changed Among Voters?
In Iran, only pro-Islamic Republic candidates can run for elections. However, it appears that candidates from the clergy are becoming less popular, even in comparison to the other pro-regime candidates.
An important indication of this decline is the proportion of clerics in Iran’s parliament (majlis). In the 10th (current) majlis, there are only 16 cleric members of parliament, the lowest number since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. It is also worth noting that, prior to 1999, the total number of MPs was 270, and that this was then increased to 290, which is still the number of MPs currently serving in the parliament.
To better understand the extent of the change in the clerics’ presence in Iran’s legislative branch it is useful to compare the number of the cleric MPs in the 10th majlis with the numbers related to the previous parliaments.
The numbers of cleric MPs in the 9th, 8th, 7th and 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st majlis were respectively 27, 44, 43, 35, 52, 67, 85, 153 and 164. These figures demonstrate that, except for the 7th and 8th majlises, the number of the cleric MPs has continuously declined over the last four decades.
So are the Clerics Losing their Power in Iran?
It is not realistic to consider the clerics as being the ruling class of Iran. At the same time, one cannot ignore that the Supreme Leader, as the most powerful figure in Iran, must be a Shia jurist. According to the constitution, he directly appoints the heads of a number of the most important government institutions, ranging from the chief of the judiciary and the commander-in-chief of the military forces to the director of the state-run radio and television and the state-owned economic foundations (the bonyads).
Among the leader-affiliated government institutions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is viewed as being the most powerful institution. This institution is the biggest economic cartel in Iran and comprises powerful bodies such as the IRGC Intelligence Agency, the Quds Force (the IRGC’s extraterritorial branch) and the Basij (one of the biggest paramilitary forces in the world). With all of its military, security, propaganda and economic arms, the IRGC is more influential than the clergy.
Nonetheless, the determinant role of the clergy in the Iranian regime must not be ignored. According to the constitution, a number of the highest positions in Iran’s political system are reserved for the clerics. For instance, the head of the judiciary, the members of the Assembly of Experts (who are in charge of appointing the next leader) and at least six out of twelve members of the Guardian Council must be Shia jurists. This powerful council is in charge of approving all bills passed by the parliament, as well as approving the qualifications of all candidates for presidential, parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections. The Guardian Council has also the authority to approve the results of presidential, parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections.
But the role of the clerics in the above-mentioned government institutions cannot be viewed as being independent of the role of the Supreme Leader. For instance, the head of the judiciary and the six jurist members of the Guardian Council are directly appointed by the Leader (the six other members are lawyers and nominated by the head of the judiciary and then voted in by the parliament).
The Supreme Leader’s representatives in different Iranian provinces are other examples of the powerful clerics appointed by the leader. They are often more influential than the governor generals and serve as the Friday prayer leaders of the provincial capital as well. Nevertheless, their power is due to their connection to the leader, not their position as clerics.
The Rule of the Jurist or the Rule of the Jurists?
The Islamic Republic of Iran is an ideological regime in which the clerics have a privileged position. However, the main powers in Iran are controlled by a single jurist, and not the clergy as an influential social class.
In this unique political system, the Leader’s power is not rooted in a clerical hierarchy, but is dependent on a military-security-economic apparatus that is mainly fed by the country’s natural resourses – in particular, the oil revenue.
In fact, the most accurate description of the Iranian political system is the rule of the jurist, and not the rule of the jurists — or as it is often referred to, the Mullah’s regime.