Ayatollah Khomeini argued that the faqih (Islamic jurist) who assumed power under the wilayat al-fqih should have the final authority over public spheres. (Getty)

By Track Persia

March 27, 2021

The Shiite ideology of the supremacy of the clergy over the public has been adopted by the theocracy in Iran as the basis of the ruling system since the success of the Islamic Revolution led by the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the creation of the Islamic Republic with the toppling the Shah Pahlavi in 1979. This supremacy revolves around the ideology of wilayat al-faqih (velayat e-faqih in Persian), the absolute authority of a Shi’ite cleric over the economy, religion, military and security inside and outside Iran.

After assuming power in Iran, Khomeini claimed absolute authority and became Iran’s first supreme leader, relying on his interpretation of the wilayat al-faqih. This authoritarian ideology had been invented by several Shi’ite clerics in the ninth century to grant themselves guardianship and power over the public after the disappearance of the twelfth Imam (the Mahdi or the hidden Imam) in Shi’ite Islam. The Mahdi, according to the Shiite faith, disappeared when he was a child and he will reappear one day to rule the world with justice.

However, Khomeini’s version of wilayat al-faqih is not accepted by the majority of Shi’ite clerics who see Khomeini, and his successor Ali Khamenei, as usurpers of Imam Mahdi’s right to rule. They believe that at the present, the Shiite clergy could only be endowed with religious authority and should leave political power and the running of the state to politicians.

Ayatollah Khomeini argued that the faqih (Islamic jurist) who assumed power under the wilayat al-fqih should have the final authority over public spheres to ensure that he was in compliance with what he called the ‘divine law’. In his view, only a government under the guardianship of an eligible faqih is accepted by God on Resurrection Day.

With the revival of the wilayat al-faqih ideology, Khomeini succeeded in enshrining this concept to Iran’s post-Shah constitution to justify the authoritarian rule under Iran’s wali al-faqih or the supreme leader. The authority of the supreme leader had unprecedented power and whoever challenge this authority would face lengthy prison sentences.

After consolidating his power in Iran, Khomeini placed several high-ranking Shi’ite clerics under house arrest for publicly opposing him. Among them was Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, the prominent Iranian Shia Islamic theologian, Islamic democracy advocate, writer and human rights activist. The house arrest for Montazeri came despite the fact that he was a co-founder of the Islamic Republic and a close supporter of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution.

In 1979, Montazeri became a former designated successor to Iran’s  Khomeini. However, Montazeri had a falling-out with Khomeini in 1989 over government policies that Montazeri claimed infringed on people’s freedom and denied them their rights. Consequently, Montazeri spent his later years in Qom and remained politically influential in Iran, but he was placed under house arrest in 1997 for questioning “the unaccountable rule exercised by the supreme leader. He was known as the most knowledgeable senior Islamic scholar in Iran and a grand religious authority of Shi’ite Islam.

Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, continued the authoritarian and repressive regime under Khomeini. Under Khamenei, the so-called ‘clerical commissars’ was created to target anti-human rights activities. These commissars are simply agents loyal to Khamenei and are integrated into government, military and clerical hierarchy.

The regime which is based on the authoritarian wilayat al-faqih ideology has also exerted total control over Iran’s political scene including Iranian presidents. All reform attempts by former Iranian presidents between 1997 to 2005 were obstructed by Khamenei. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami who intended to ease the grip of Khamenei over the judiciary and other state institutions initiated one of these attempts. In 2000, during Khatami’s office, Khamenei ordered an end of a debate over easing scrutiny on Iranian media. This forced Khatami to leave office in 2005 after announcing he had failed to implement his reform agenda. During his election campaign, current President Hassan Rouhani promised to support the call for government reform and loosen restrictions on media and freedom of speech despite opposition from Khamenei but he has not kept his promise.

Another local impact of the authoritarian wilayat al-faqih doctrine is targeting those who oppose Khamenei using intimidation, imprisonment and even the death penalty. This penalty has also been enforced for those accused of insulting the memory of Iran’s late Supreme leader and founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Many Iranian academics, reformists and political activists have fled Iran to avoid physical harassment by government-sanctioned mobs. Iranian officials and prominent reformers and activists who could not leave Iran have been placed under house arrest.

In the backdrop of the nation-wide protests over the past few years, many peaceful protestors have been faced with violent crackdowns. The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) Mohammad Ali Jafari threatened anyone who criticised the government would be considered an enemy of the Iranian state. The regime has blocked or censored publications that are considered to be anti-regime or anti-Iranian officials. In 2017, a large number of journalists and social media activists were arrested for criminal activities such as insulting the regime, the state or the supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

Despite the Iranian regime claims that the Iranians enjoy free and fair elections, the supreme leader on May 19, 2017, warned that he would intervene if the Iranians did not accept the result of the elections. It is worth noting that electoral candidates are not allowed to participate in the elections if they do not gain approval from Khamenei. Before the elections, the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was disqualified along with more than 1600 candidates from participating in the elections by Iran’s Guardian Council upon direct orders from Khamenei.

The supreme leader uses Iran’s Guardian Council whose half of its members are appointed directly by the former to influence the judiciary and its chief who nominates the six candidates that represent the Council in the parliament.  Another intimidating tool is the Basij militia which IRGC has used to deal with local threats to the Islamic regime. The Basij militia has used clubs and chains to attack protesters and their sympathisers in the past years.

For outside Iran, the authoritarian wilayat al-faqih ideology is being used by the Iranian regime’ to retain the loyalty of its proxies Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and other Shiite militias from outside the region as Afghanistan. Militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen and Badr, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq have paid their allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader  (wali al-faqih) Ayatollah Khamenei regarding him as their political and spiritual leader abandoning their loyalty to the counties where they come from.

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.