The Complexity of Leadership of Islamic Republic of Iran



Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the head of the ISIS, announced himself as a Caliph and a Commander of Believers at a mosque in Iraq in July of 2014. The office of Khameini, the leader of Iran, refers to him as the Guardian of Muslims and as the Supreme Leader. His followers think of him as the real and the only imam of the Muslims and the Commander of Believers. Although there are a lot of ambiguities in regards to these different titles— the Caliph, the Imam, the Guardian of Muslims, or the Commander of Believers—at least one point is clear: all of these terms are religious titles that declare one as the head of the ummah, i.e., the Muslim community. They were used for the primary authorities in the theocracies or Islamic states of the past. Sunnis say caliph and Shi’ites might say imam or guardian, but in fact there is no difference. These are only different titles for the spiritual leader and the political ruler of an Islamic theocracy.

Both Sunnis and Shi’ites seek to locate an archetype for their theocracy within the early ages of Islam, Sunnis in the first three righteous caliphs, and Shi’ites in the first three imams (as well as the Prophet for both). The original duties of these leaders were, first, to protect Islam and the Muslim community by the means of power, second, to implement the Shari’a, and finally, to spread Islam across the world. All of the administrative duties of the president or the prime minister in modern states for the leaders of the Islamic theocracy are secondary. The president is only an executive deputy to these leaders and nothing else.

There are a lot of complexities involved in the leadership of the IRI. I will briefly mention a few points.


First point

In regards to the domain of his leadership, is he solely the leader of Iran? Is he the leader of all Shi’ite Muslims? Alternatively, is he the leader of the entire ummah and all Muslims? His advocates’ claims, expectations and desires for him gesture toward the final description, or at least the second. However, all of the members of the Assembly of Experts of the Leadership responsible for selecting and appointing this leader are Iranians; there are no representatives from non-Iranian Shi’ites or non-Iranian Sunnis. Although the Iranian Constitution does not use the term Supreme Leader and confines the position to only the leadership of the IRI, it does not require the nationality of the leader to be Iranian. The president, however, should be Iranian and should have Iranian origins as well. There are no legal obstacles for a non-Iranian Shi’ite to be selected as the leader of the IRI.


Second Point

The second point also pertains to the domain of his leadership, but from a different angle. Should the leader be the temporal ruler, the spiritual leader, or both? The Iranian Constitution implicitly defines him as the temporal ruler, but the claims and expectations of the founder of the IRI and his successors entail that he is both the temporal ruler and the spiritual leader. It is notable that the Guardian Council (which functions as the Iranian Supreme Court and is responsible for ensuring that the bills of the parliament are consistent with the Constitution) has openly expressed that the Constitution only specifies the bare minimum or the base level of the duties of the Supreme Leader. It does not limit his duties, and in actuality, his authority is absolute according to the Sharia. The head of the judiciary expressed the same opinion. According to this approach, which is prevalent amongst the court clerics in Iran, the Constitution is not the ultimate judge in domestic conflicts. Therefore, the Sharia becomes the ultimate judge. Those who follow this line of argument use article four of the Constitution to justify this interpretation.

Yet, the Sharia encompasses a realm of diversity. Jurists have diverging and at times opposing opinions and fatwas. Which of these opinions and fatwas should form the infrastructures of the IRI? The official response says that the opinions and the fatwas of the leader should be the IRI’s foundation. This means that the leader should explicitly be a religious authority and should have written and published his opinions in demonstrative books of jurisprudence and booklets of fatwas. Khomeini had this background.

Is there any room for other religious authorities in an Islamic theocracy? Theoretically, religious authorities are free in their private affairs. However, in public affairs, the officials must refer only to the opinions and fatwas of the leader. Practically speaking, competition with the leader is not easy. The opinion of the leader holds a monopoly in Islamic theocracy, and other religious authorities are subject to political pressure and restrictions. It has been rare for jurists with diverging opinions —especially those with a larger support amongst the people—to be tolerated. The case of Shari’atmadari at the time of Khomeini, and the case of Montazeri at the time of Khamenei are clear examples of Islamic theocracy’s intolerance of clerics with different opinions.


Classification of the Shi’ite Clerics  

Before bringing up the third challenging point, it is necessary to clarify the rankings of clerics within the Shi’ite tradition. This hierarchy is practical, but in terms of theory it is not very clear. The Shi’ite clerics who hold the first ranking are called Ayatollah Uzma, or “Grand Ayatollah.” They are the ultimate Shi’ite authorities. The following are the conditions of these first ranking clerics:

1) They are qualified by their masters with a certification of ijtihad.

2) They have more than two decades of experience teaching advanced levels of jurisprudence and its methods at seminary. Therefore, they would be well known jurists in seminaries.

3) They have published the products of their teachings and research in several volumes of demonstrative books of jurisprudence, its methods, and related sciences.

4) They have published a booklet of their fatwas as an independent Persian book or as Arabic commentary on the famous booklet of al-‘Urwatul-Wuthqa.

5) A large number of Muslims have trust in them, follow them in their religious affairs (as marja’ or “Source of Emulation”), and pay them religious taxes (charities like Khums).

Now there are less than twenty Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf and Qom in total. Most of them are over 75 years old. They are called Shi’ite authorities. While there is no single, central authority in Shi’ism as there is in Catholicism, the position of these major Shi’ite authorities is roughly equivalent to the Pope in Vatican.

The second rankings of Shi’ite clerics are those who are mujtahid and called “Ayatollah.” They are comparable to the Cardinals in the Catholic Church. These are their qualifications: 1) they have the certificate of ijtihad; 2) they have experience teaching in advanced levels at seminary; 3) they may have written some books on demonstrative jurisprudence and its method, 4) but they may not have published a booklet of fatwas; 5) they are not paid the religious charities or taxes; and 6) they have the potential and the ability to become top religious authorities, but they are not yet. These second-ranking clerics are about 300 in number in the Shi’ite community.

The third ranking of Shi’ite clerics is partial mujtahid, not absolute mujtahid. They are called Hujjatul-Islam wal-Muslemin. They are comparable to Bishops in the Catholic Church. Their status stems from the following: 1) although they may have graduated, their research has not been completed in all aspects of jurisprudence; and 2) they do not have the certificate of ijtihad and do not have permission to issue fatwas either. A couple thousand of these third ranking clerics can be found in the Shi’ite community.

The fourth ranking of Shi’ite clerics is called Hujjatul-Islam. They are not mujtahid. They are advanced-level students at the seminary, or they are researchers. They are not qualified for any advanced religious position. They are allowed to be preachers or imams at smaller mosques. They are almost 30,000 in number.


The Third Point  

Now it is time to explain the third challenging point of theocratic leadership and the minimum religious requirements. Which of these four rankings is necessary for the leader of the theocracy? The experience of Iran in this case is noteworthy. The leader was supposed to not only be a grand ayatollah, but to also be the most learned Shi’ite authority. This view was justified by the fact that the leader is firstly the leader of religious affairs and secondly the leader of temporal affairs. He thus needs to hold the highest qualification in the knowledge of the Sharia. According to his followers, Khomeini, the founder of the IRI, was the most learned of Shi’ite authorities.

Khomeini was more than 80 years old and became ill in the early 1980s. His competitor, Shari’atmadari, was placed under house arrest because of suspicion of a coup d’état. Montazeri, the most distinguished student of Khomeini, was introduced as a first-ranking Shi’ite authority with the support of the state in 1984. The majority of the members of the Assembly of Experts elected Montazeri as the successor of Khomeini in 1986. After a deep conflict between Khomeini and Montazeri on some vital issues, such as human rights and tolerance, Khomeini dismissed his successor just two months before his death.

Contrary to state reports, Khomeini did not appoint anyone as his successor. Shi’ite fiqh would not allow him to do so. A couple of months before his death, Khomeini appointed a committee to prepare an amendment to the Iranian constitution. In his official letter to Meshkini, the head of this committee, he wrote: “It is not required for the leader to be a Shi’ite authority (first ranking); rather, it is accepted if he has the potential to be a religious authority.” This meant that the leader of the theocracy need not be either the most learned or in the first ranking of Shi’ite clerics. He declared that the second ranking clerics (mujtahid but not marja’) were qualified to be the leader as well. Indeed, he confessed that the role of jurisprudence in the Guardianship of the Jurist was not so high. He highlighted the role of administration and political experience and knowledge instead.

In the first meeting of the Assembly of Experts immediately after the death of Khomeini, Khamenei was elected as the leader of the IRI. He was a third ranking cleric at that time. He was neither first ranking (Shi’ite authority) nor second ranking (absolute mujtahid). He did not have the certificate of ijtihad from any of his masters. He had not written or published any demonstrative books on jurisprudence and its methods. He had not taught any courses in advanced levels at the seminary. According to the Iranian constitution of 1979, the legal scale required the necessary condition of being a first-ranking Shi’ite authority for the leadership position. The Assembly of Experts did not vote on any of the Shi’ite authorities. They did not find any cleric among the second ranking (mujtahid) qualified in administration with enough political experience. This shows that Khomeini’s declaration on the reduction of the required condition for leadership—from the first ranking to the second ranking—did not work.

The assembly reduced the required condition of the leader one step further. If the leader has general knowledge in jurisprudence (partial mujtahid, not absolute mujtahid), it would be acceptable. Rather, the necessary condition for leadership became good administrative skills and rich political experience (such as the presidency). The Assembly of Experts prioritized politics over religion or political experience over clerical ranking. It was a very pragmatic and consequential decision. They guaranteed the continuity of the IRI as a political regime. On the other hand, they abandoned Khomeini’s theory of the Guardianship of the Jurist. This now yielded a large amount of power, which previously pertained to a first ranking cleric, to a third ranking cleric. This shows the crumbling of the theory of Guardianship of the Jurist. More than that, it shows the evolution of autocracy through theocracy.


Fourth Point

This was not the last step in the evolution of leadership. The Assembly of Experts promoted Khamenei to a second ranking cleric. His religious title was suddenly changed overnight from Hujjatulislam wal-Muslemin to Ayatollah. Yet, he understood that without carrying the title of a first ranking cleric and becoming a Shi’ite authority (marja’-e taqlid, or Grand Ayatollah), he would not be able to continue his leadership. He started to collect the religious tax in late 1989 and began teaching in advanced levels of jurisprudence in 1990 — though he had not taught the advanced levels of the method of jurisprudence previously. His students were court clerics, those who hold governmental jobs. Although the instructors of Qom Seminary publish the recordings of their classes on their websites, none of the audio recordings of his classes have been published yet.

The only products of his research in demonstrative jurisprudence are two articles. He has not published any book on this issue yet. In 1992, his first short booklet of fatwas was published in Beirut. The fatwas were responses to the questions of his followers. Most of the responses were references to the fatwas of Khomeini. A few of them were wrong according to Shi’ite criteria. His qualifications for leadership, that is, being placed between the second ranking clerics by seven members of assembly of experts, were translated into Arabic, but the booklet described him as having the qualifications of a first ranking cleric in the introduction! This was misrepresentation and deceit.

The association of the instructors of Qom seminary in 1995 announced Khamenei as a qualified first ranking cleric amongst the seven grand ayatollahs. The names of Montazeri, Sistani, and Muhammad Rawhani were not on that list. This decision was an innovation in Shi’ite history and was illegal according to the regulations of the association itself. This association declared the disqualification of Shari’atmadari in 1983 due to political conflicts between the leader and his competitor. In 2009, this association did the same thing in regards to Sane’i following his criticism during the Green Movement.

In any case, although Khomeini clearly declared that the condition of Shi’ite authority is not required for the leader, Khameini took his back to that decree in practice. He called himself a Shi’ite authority according to his political qualification by the Assembly of Experts. This is a trivialization of Shi’ite authority: to attain a religious position by means of a political coupon.



This abuse of religious positions through political influence was rejected by a few clerics. Montazeri advised Khamenei in his private letter in 1995 to confine himself to leadership and not to be involved in issuing fatwas and claiming Shi’ite authority that was forbidden to him. In 1998, Montazeri publicly criticized Khamenei because of his claim as first ranking cleric and issuer of fatwa. He publicly expressed that Khamenei is not qualified to be a grand ayatollah and issuer of fatwa and that Khamenei should stop this trivialization of Shi’ite authority. He added that independence from the state was one of the advantages and honors of Shi’ite clerics and seminaries. Making the seminary a contingent to the state is harmful for the seminary and Shi’ite Islam. According to Montazeri, the required condition of leadership is being the most learned Shi’ite authority.

Ahmad Azari Qomi, a conservative second ranking cleric whose booklet of fatwas was banned by the government, shifted to the opposition camp in 1997. He was the founding member of the association of Qom seminary instructors and its first president. Azari Qomi criticized Khamenei and explicitly denounced his qualifications for both leadership and Shi’ite authority in his open letter to President Khatami in 1998.

These two dissident clerics were placed under house arrest without trial. Both of them staunchly continued their critiques. Azari passed away after 15 months, and Montazeri was released after 5 years when the physicians warned that he would die if he was not released immediately. Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah in Beirut also did not accept Khamenei as Grand Ayatollah. He was then subjected to political pressures and restrictions by the pro-Iranian Shi’ites after his criticism. Abdulkarim Mousawai Ardebily was dismissed from leading Tehran Friday Prayers when he mildly criticized the involvement of Khamenei in Shi’ite authority without even mentioning any names.

Although almost all of the Shi’ite authorities disagree with Khamenei acting as a Shi’ite authority, they follow the traditional method of quietism and do not express publicly their criticism. The theocratic state can control the clerical disagreement through three methods: 1) threats, 2) bribes, or 3) persuading the clerics that the authority of the only Shi’ite ruler in the world is in the interest of Islam anyway.


Toward Future

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was the kingmaker in the meeting of June 4,1989, of the Assembly of Experts by reporting a fake narration from Khomeini about Khamenei. He thought that Khamenei would be the figurehead of the IRI and that he would administer the country as president. However, Khamenei was a very good political player, and after strengthening his position, he deposed Rafsenjani from the head of the Assembly of Experts and did not accept any partnership in his absolute authority.

Hashemi Rafsanjani made a huge mistake by helping Khamenei to power, but he did initiate an important innovation in the IRI in regards to the succession of leadership. The leader should have administrative experience in a larger arena than religious knowledge: minimum religious knowledge with maximum administrative experience. The best candidates for leadership are the clerics that have the experience of presidency or of being the head of the judiciary on their résumé. This means that the new leader of Iran after the death of Khamenei will be among these four: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (who has been second from the top during the IRI’s history) as the first choice, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (the former head of Judiciary power) as the second choice, Sadiq Larijani (the current head of Judiciary power) as the third choice, and Hasan Rawhani (the current president of the IRI) as the fourth choice. It is obvious that the powerful revolutionary guard commanders as well as the leader himself do not like the two presidents. The future of the leadership will remain a complex case.

 October 30, 2014



Iranian Studies at Stanford University


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