Middle East

Iran observes 42nd anniversary of clerical guardianship system

Experts say clerical guardianship system with ultimate political authority vested in supreme leader has also fueled tensions with West

Syed Zafar Mehdi   | 03.12.2021
Iran observes 42nd anniversary of clerical guardianship system


Coinciding the 42nd anniversary of the establishment of the system of “clerical guardianship” in the Iranian governance structure, experts say it has continued to dominate the country’s foreign and domestic policy.

On Dec. 3, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran was the first cleric who took over as the supreme leader, holding the ultimate political authority. He remained in the post till June 3, 1989, when he died at the age of 89 years.

Since then, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei has been holding this post, overlooking the functioning of the elected government.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Salim Bahravand, a political scientist, said under the constitutional system in Iran, Islamic theocracy is deeply intertwined with democracy, with the supreme leader at the top of the political and religious pecking order.

He said hostile attitude towards the Islamic republic by the West and its belief that clerical guardianship is "incompatible" with ideas of liberal democracy has further fueled tensions.

At the heart of Iran's theocratic stricture is the supreme leader, whose sphere of influence goes beyond the three branches of government, and across the political factions, as he remains the last word on virtually all affairs of the state.

Both conservatives and reformists, who are usually seen at two opposite sides of the political spectrum, listen to him, even though conservatives are ideologically more aligned with the concept of clerical guardianship, says Mir Mahdi Rabbani, a senior seminary scholar, and writer.

"Supreme leader derives his authority from the concept of clerical guardianship enshrined in the constitution that gives political and religious power to the clergy and subjects all key decisions of the state to the top cleric, known as valih faqih (guardian jurist)," Mohsen Abdollahi, a research scholar, told Anadolu Agency.

Divide grown between Iran and West

Acknowledging that Ayatollah Khomeini was "overwhelmingly popular" as the "architect of the Islamic revolution" that ended the monarchial rule in Iran, Bahravand said his successor Khamenei is presently also "the most powerful individual" in Iran.

"Forty years on, not much has changed in terms of the dynamics of clerical guardianship and the power and influence of the supreme leader. But it is safe to suggest that the divide has grown between Iran and the West to the point of no return,” he said.

A nationwide referendum in April 1979 had shown overwhelming support for an Islamic republic, in place of monarchial rule.

"In his 1970 book Hukumat e Islami: Vilayat e Faqih, Khomeini had elucidated that shariah (Islamic law) should form the basis of future governments in Iran," said Abdollahi.

"The constitution adopted nine years later saw that concept coming to life,” he added.

The transformation of Iran from pro-West secular monarchy to an Islamic state hostile to the West was a "giant leap" the ripples of which are still being felt on the political landscape of the country, he told Anadolu Agency.

Defending oppressed integral to constitution

Experts believe the notion of anti-Americanism and labeling of the US as the “devil” is integral to the post-1979 ideology embraced by Iran and many of its allies.

"What drives this hostility is the belief that an Islamic nation must defend an oppressed from an oppressor, which resonated widely in the Muslim world during the time of Ayatollah Khomeini," says Abdollahi.

Iran has been reeling under US sanctions since the 1979 revolution, crippling its economy. At the same time, it has been involved in many regional conflicts, which has created security challenges for it, especially from Israel.

Experts see it directly linked to the ideology of resistance that forms the cornerstone of the December 1979 constitution.

"That's where the word of Iran's supreme leader is final," says Rabbani. "Taking tough calls, even unpopular calls."

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