15 June 2021
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The Irreversible Decline of the Islamic Republic’s Guardianship of the Jurist Model of Shia Politics

Friday, 07 May 2021 09:41

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Iranian monarchy and installed a clerical regime that upended centuries of Shia clerical tradition concerning politics. Traditionally, the Shia clergy had abstained from exercising formal political or executive power in state institutions. The Guardianship of the Jurist, the foundational principle of clerical rule in Iran, rejected the prevailing apolitical inclinations of the Shia clerical establishment, instead arguing that only high-ranking clerics are qualified to exercise political authority as leaders of an Islamic state. The establishment of a Shia clerical theocracy has fundamentally shaped Iranian society, clerical-lay relations, and regional politics since 1979.

However, unfavorable domestic trends challenge the viability and longevity of the Guardianship of the Jurist as a political model, providing the United States and Iranian actors opportunities to hasten its decline and promote viable alternatives. The Islamic Republic’s repressive rule at home has engendered a decline in religiosity among Iranians, signifying the population’s disaffection with the marriage of religion and politics. Additionally, the rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military class and the diminishing social stature of the clergy raises questions about the future of the Guardianship of the Jurist model.

The regime’s clerical veneer belies the increasing militarization of Iranian politics and reliance of Iranian hard-liners on the IRGC for regime security. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s religious credentials have always been a source of insecurity for the Supreme Leader and the regime, galvanizing Khamenei to centralize control over clerical institutions and use the security establishment to buttress his position. As a mid-ranking cleric at the time of his selection as supreme leader in 1989, Khamenei did not possess the religious ranking of Ayatollah or command a large religious following, making his selection as Khomeini’s successor and subsequent bestowment of the title Ayatollah an overtly political move, not one rooted in religious considerations.  This dynamic informs Khamenei’s close relationship with the IRGC and has precipitated the organization’s increasing dominance in Iranian politics.

Complementing their preeminence in Iranian foreign policy and the security sphere, the IRGC is penetrating Iran’s political architecture, a dynamic most visible in the Iranian parliament. The speaker of parliament is IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, and two-thirds of the presidium positions under his leadership are occupied by former members of the IRGC. These leadership changes coincide with the trend of decreasing clerical members of parliament and the increasing presence of former IRGC and Basij officers and rank-and-file. Additionally, potential candidates and front-runners for the upcoming June 2021 Iranian presidential elections hail from Revolutionary Guards backgrounds, demonstrating how IRGC experience is slowly displacing clerical ties as a stepping stool for political advancement. Given the political clout and security functions of the IRGC, the institution is well-positioned to heavily influence the upcoming succession process, an important juncture in the future of the Guardianship of the Jurist model.

The 1989 leadership transition from Ayatollah Khomeini to Ali Khamenei demonstrated the negligible role of religious standing and jurisprudential knowledge in determining the head spiritual and political authority of the Islamic Republic. The second succession will solidify it, further diluting the theological argument for clerical rule. While the Supreme Leader’s successor will still be a cleric, key aspects of clerical legitimacy—large lay religious followings, quality of religious scholarship, and recognition by clerical peers—will likely be overlooked in favor of political expediency and factional bargaining as in 1989.

Prominent clerical figures poised to assume the supreme leadership include current Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi and current President Hassan Rouhani. Raisi and Rouhani are mid-ranking clerics who do not hold the title of Ayatollah, owing their high positions to government experience and not religious education. Mid-ranking clerics, like Raisi and Rouhani, are not qualified to practice Ijtihad (the application of independent reasoning to interpret Islamic law), the most fundamental duty of the political and spiritual authority of an Islamic polity as outlined in the Guardianship of the Jurist philosophy. The prioritization of managerial and political acumen over religious credentials highlights the Guardianship of the Jurist’s shaky intellectual foundation.

While the provenance of the Guardianship of the Jurist is Iranian, Shia clerical relations are inherently transnational as clerics command global followings from North America to Southeast Asia. However, the Guardianship of the Jurist injects a political dimension that has regional consequences for good governance, stability, and sectarian relations. In Iraq, many Shia militia groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq subscribe to the Guardianship of the Jurist and openly pledge religious and political allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei. Iranian-backed Shia militias and politicians dominate Iraqi political institutions and security organs, using their privileged positions to advance Iranian aims at the expense of the Iraqi national interest.  Iraqis identify Iranian influence as the primary driver of the dysfunction, corruption, and sectarian parochialism that define domestic politics. Because of this, Iraqis have expressed their aversion to clerical rule and Iranian meddling, preferring the traditional quietist and Iraq-centric proclivities of Najaf’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Thus, the future of the Guardianship of the Jurist in Iran will have significant regional implications, requiring a careful look at potential policies that can weaken its appeal and catalyze its decline.

While the United States can do little to directly influence the intellectual trajectory of the Guardianship of the Jurist principle, it should apply pressure to the clerical elite through targeted sanctions and information campaigns highlighting their avarice and moral hypocrisy. Information campaigns focusing on the acquired wealth of clerical regime figures—a product of decades-long patronage networks, mismanagement, and corruption—can further cement the notion that the Guardianship of the Jurist principle is no more than an abuse of religion and a vehicle for material gain and power.  In a socio-political landscape where anti-clerical resentment is rife and religiosity is waning, amplifying this dynamic can galvanize disaffected clerics, lay Shia activists, and the general Iranian population to organize, challenge, and eventually change the system that has abused religion for its own parochial benefit. 

Source: The International Affairs Review

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