Isn't it time to recognize Iran's Khomeinist regime for what it really is: a banal despotism disguised as a clerical regime to confuse both Iranians and foreign Iranologists while trying to destroy not only Iran's monarchic heritage but also its religious tradition? Pictured: Iran's Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Image source: khameni.ir/Wikimedia Commons)
The past four decades in which the Khomeinist ideology has dominated Iranian state structures, a new breed of "Iranologists" has emerged in Western academic and media circles. Most old Iranologists saw Iran as a glorious but long dead civilization distinguished by religious tolerance, ethnic diversity and an abiding love of artistic creativity. Those who focused on Iran's story after the advent of Islam recognized monarchy and the Shi'ite clerical institution that, while at times in conflict, played complementary roles in Iranian society.
With the seizure of power in 1979 by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a new breed of Iranologists emerged to declare the definite end of monarchy in Iran and the advent of a theocratic regime backed by re-energized clergy.
Today, however, it is possible to detect some cracks in that analysis. In the past two or three years, monarchy, at least as an idea, not to say an ideal, had re-emerged as a magnet for many opponents of the Khomeinist regime.
Nostalgia for the monarchic past has inspired a new interest in ancient mythology, traditional art, old monuments and buildings and classical styles in literature and art. Annual pilgrimages to the tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Persian Empire, have attracted thousands of people, mostly youth, from all over the country and beyond, while volunteers have come together to repair and refresh hundreds of historic ruins, including remains of Zoroastrian fire temples.
All this is no surprise to those who know Iran from the inside rather than academies in Paris or Chicago. For the past five centuries, at least whenever religious discourse has been in decline, the nationalist option, inevitably linked to 25 centuries of monarchic memory, has experienced a new upsurge. The opposite is also true; religious discourse gaining ascendancy at a time of decline in nationalist sentiments.
In popular uprisings in the past three years, the slogan: "Reza Shah! Blessed be Thy Soul" has been heard across the country.
As the great Iranian theologian Kazem Assar put it: "Monarchy and Shi'ism are the two wings with which the Iranian eagle can soar to unimaginable heights."
This time, however, things may turn out to be different as the Khomeinist regime has tried to clip off both wings of which Assar spoke.
For 43 years, vilifying the institution of monarchy, falsifying Iran's history and depicting Iranian kings, including even Shah Ismail who imposed Shi'ism on Iran, as villains has been a top priority of Khomeinist propaganda -- a stratagem often designed and executed by repentant Marxist-Leninist-Maoists that converts the Maoist-Leninists to Khomeinism. In that context, Khomeinism and the idea of "walayat al-faqih" ("rule by a cleric") is presented as a third option for Iran, transcending both monarchy and Shi'ism.
For a long while, the traditional Shi'ite clergy had the illusion that the Khomeinist system meant a theocracy. That illusion was reinforced by neo-Iranologists who also saw the new regime as a theocratic contraption. In recent years, however, many in the traditional clergy in Najaf, Qom and Mash'had have "begun to wonder whether Khomeini had deceived them."
To start with, none of the 50 or so top clerics at the time of the revolution was allowed, let alone invited, to assume a key position within the new regime.
In fact, dozens of clerics, including some senior ones, were defrocked by the new regime and many more were driven into exile. Others were assassinated by shadowy groups linked to the regime and at least six were executed on spurious charges.
The new regime also started to bribe and buy a number of clerics who became known as "hired turbans". Next, the Khomeinist regime launched a cynical campaign to belittle and banalize Shi'ite clerical titles. In 1979, Shi'ism had 10 or 12 ayatollahs. Today, the latest estimate by researcher Mahnaz Shafii offers a figure of 150. A further 2,000 mullahs on government payroll go around with the title of hojat al-Islam (Proof of Islam), among them the outgoing President Hassan Fereidun alias Rouhani. The "Supreme Leader" Ali Khamenei is referred to as Grand Ayatollah (ayatollah al-ozma) although he does not meet any of the three traditional criteria for assuming the title: Completion of a 40-year course of study, publication of a thesis and at least tacit approval by other grand ayatollahs.
Playing fast and loose with clerical titles that once enjoyed immense prestige has produced some odd situations. Three years ago, Ebrahim Raisi, the new President of the Islamic Republic, was officially referred to as hojat al-Islam. Last year, however, the state media started designating him as ayatollah. Last week, however, as he was being sworn in, he was demoted back to hojat al-Islam.
Traditional Shi'ite clerics always tried, or at least pretended to be trying to project an image of modesty if not humility. The genuine grand ayatollahs never used the title in any of their communications, preferring such signatures as "the least one" (al-ahqar in Arabic) or even "the poor one" (faqir in Arabic). In 1971 when, as a reporter, I went to interview the top 10 ayatollahs then in Iran, I found them all living in modest houses, sitting on a carpet on the floor and projecting an image of austere piety, a far cry from the condition of current state-made ayatollahs and hojat al-Islams.
Over the years, rather than the clergy taking over the state, it is the state that has tried to take over the clergy. It has set up its own fatwa machine, runs its own 9-man clerical council all government payroll, directly controls quotas for pilgrimages, especially for Hajj, and insists that religious taxes (khoms and zakat) be paid to state-controlled institutions. Under the Shah, the state had a supervisory role on endowments (awqaf in Arabic) but allowed the clergy to manage much of the endowed estates and distribute the profits. Under Khomeinism, state-appointed mullahs control vast enterprises that pay no taxes and are answerable to no one.
Khamenei's decision to back the Taliban in the fight over the future of Afghanistan has added one new and potentially more explosive dimension to the undeclared war between the Khomeinist regime and the traditional Shi'ite clergy. Several Qom clerics have publicly denounced Tehran's endorsement of the Taliban, describing the Afghan group as "deadly enemies of Shi'ism".
Isn't it time to recognize the Khomeinist regime for what it really is: a banal despotism disguised as a clerical regime to confuse both Iranians and foreign Iranologists while trying to destroy not only Iran's monarchic heritage but also its religious tradition?
More importantly, isn't it time for the traditional clergy to end its often complicit silence about the damage that Khomeinism has done to Iran's identity, culture, social cohesion, economy and even religion?
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.