Track Persia – Mar 25, 2017

Iran’s late Supreme Leader and founder of Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini succeeded in establishing a theocracy headed by a faqih (who learned in jurisprudence) based on the Shi’i doctrine of wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of jurisprudent). The concept has ever since become the fundamental foundation for those in power and  the vehicle of legitimation for the ruling clergy elite to endorse their political hegemony.

Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqfh contended that as deputies of the Hidden Imam (the Shia’s twelfth Imam who went into occultation in A.D. 873), the boundaries of authority of the fuqaha (plural of faqih) during the Imam’s gheibat (absence) included absolute rule over the believers.

Khomeini argued that various hadfths (Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and instructions) had established the jurists as the waly al-amr (guardian of affairs) who possessed the qualifications necessary to serve as deputies during the absence of the Hidden Imam.  Khomeini defined the responsibilities of the fuqaha  not merely as encompassing judicial and spiritual authority, but also embracing ‘absolute authority’ over political, economic and social matters.

Today Iranians must attest their allegiance to Khomeini’s concept of wilayat al-faqih  before they assume any government position as the rejection of this concept has come to symbolize the renunciation of everything the Islamic government of Iran epitomizes.

Among major factors that enabled Khomeini to establish the doctrine of rule by the clergy was his usage of devoted followers who increasingly managed the daily business of the country to institutionalize his doctrine by enshrining it in the new constitution. The Islamic Republic Party (IRP) was major vehicle Khomeini used to obtain power and implement his ideology.

During the first months of the establishment of the Islamic republic in February, a number of Khomeini’s loyalists in influential political parties especially IRP succeeded in dominating the debates in the Majles-ekhebregdn (Assembly of Experts) which institutionalized the faqih’s rule, weakening opposition factions and manipulating the elections whereas  opposition groups failed to organize and present a united front.

The IRP began to wield considerable influence over the affairs of the country. The party influential members mainly comprised Khomeini’s faithful pupils and ideological committed followers who became later prominent figures and leaders in the Iranian regime such as Mohammad Hosein Beheshti, Abdol Karim Musavi Ardebili, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamene’i (Khomeini’s successor and current Supreme Leader).

The IRP gained support of many smaller parties, as well as those radical clerics who Khomeini placed in important government positions. Top leaders of the IRP dominated the Assembly of Experts, while the clerical elite, mostly young militants and middle class-ranking mullahs,  controlled influential institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards, Revolutionary Courts, mosques and the judiciary. They were successful in establishing an autonomous apparatus outside the control of the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. The party  was able to enter its own candidates for the elections to the Assembly of Experts and more than fifty of them eventually won seats.

The first draft constitution presented to Khomeini and other senior clerics in June 1979, was surprisingly approved by Khomeini despite limiting the involvement of clerics in state affairs and paid little attention to his political theories. Khomeini even suggested placing the draft constitution before the people for vote. Many observers find Khomeinis’s positive stand on the draft constitution baffling. Some think he probably believed that his legitimacy as the supreme leader and senior cleric was already accepted by the people with or without a constitution.

The radical elements dominated the scene before the election process for the Constituent Assembly managed to reduce  the planned membership of Constituent Assembly from 350 to 73. The reason they supported smaller assembly could be attributed to their well-organized network of supporters they could dominate the elections and thwart the smaller, less established parties. They were keen on entrusting authority to clerics in the draft  constitution because they might have anticipated that without constitutional assurances, the political authority of the clerics would be in jeopardy after Khomeini’s death.

At the urging of Ayatollah Khomeini, many of the parties involved in the elections united into larger coalitions. The IRP managed to incorporate nine other smaller Islamic parties under its umbrella, creating the largest slate of candidates.

During the elections, IRP candidates prudently utilized the mosques and skilfully publicized their claim to represent Islam, citing endorsements from the clerics including Ayatollah Khomeini. Meanwhile, the opposition factions remained fragmented and failed to confront the IRP confederation with a coherent agenda. The final results bore out the general disaffection concerning the election process. Even with the lowering of the minimum age from sixteen to fifteen the turnout was exceptionally low, especially in the provinces. The IRP was clearly victorious. More than two-thirds of the seventy-three member elected Assembly were candidates of the IRP and its coalition, of which fifty-five were clerics.

In the upheavals of post-revolutionary chaos, the Prime Minister’s authority was challenged

by the IRP and its newly formed branches by forming a peripheral government and constantly challenged the official policies.  IRP supporters succeeded in leading the purges in the bureaucracy and the military who were replaced with clergy sympathizers.

The ideological conflicts between the often inexperienced, zealot IRP appointees and career civil servants eventually led to the resignation of many of Bazaragan’s moderate ministers.

The Assembly elections, the ensuing debates and the unbalanced voting pattern for the wilayat al-faqih articles clearly illustrated a crucial fact: the Islamic Republic’s Constitution of 1979 was a direct reflection of the aspirations of those who dominated post-revolutionary Iran.

Khomeini’s undisputed leadership and his endorsement of the IRP candidates in the elections for the Assembly of Experts initiated the process of establishing the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih.

The clergy-dominated Assembly moved swiftly to institutionalize the doctrine whose many its opponents either failed to seize the few opportunities offered and decided to back Khomeini, or simply remained silent out of fear of counter-reprisals.


Based on ‘The Legitimation of the Clergy’s Right to Rule in the Iranian Constitution of 1979’ by Said Saffari, 1993.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.