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Iranian Political Legitimacy Redux

October 5, 2010

OK folks, bear with me here. I’m trying something new. I’ve got a handful of short writing assignments for my grad program that I’ve been churning out, and a lot of them are relevant to international politics today. So with that said, I’m going to start posting them here. Oh, and here’s some info on my professors, Marc Lynch and Mohammad Tabaar.  (I promise I’ll talk about the NBA, too. Whether you want me to, or not.)

It seems as though crises of legitimacy in governance are a uniquely Iranian occurrence. Indeed, Iran’s Shi’a heritage (however manufactured by the Savavids) is based in the argument that Ali was the legitimate successor to Mohammad. In 19th century Iran, the Constitutional Revolution went to great lengths to take state control out of the hands of the inept Qajar ruler and into the “legitimate” hands of the Iranian people through a popularly elected Majles. We saw this same battle for legitimacy in the end of the Qajar dynasty and the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty under Rezashah, then again with the fall of Rezashah and the ascendance of Mossadeq. Mossadeq’s fall was orchestrated by attacking his legitimacy—by accusing him of being a puppet of foreign powers—because influential parties inside and outside Iran knew that his popular support would wane in such a crisis. Of course, the Islamic Revolution was perhaps the most salient example of this crisis in modern Iranian history.
The assessments of legitimacy in the clergy-state dichotomy within the Islamic Republic in the Roy and Vakil articles continue this tradition. In both of their discussions of Abdolkarim Soroush, the authors present a growing schism in the ruling elite of Iran. While the principles of the revolution stressed a pivotal role for the clergy in state affairs, the rise of Khamenei to the VF position—along with the 1997 election of Khatami, who was not favored by Khamenei—has proven that the only person who embodied a legitimate confluence of clergy and state was Khomeini. Without Khomeini, the state’s claim on religion and religion’s claim on the state cannot be reconciled.
Soroush’s argument, which certainly resonates today within the Green Movement and the Iranian Reformist community, is that legitimacy can only be restored to both government and Islam if the two are separated in a democratic system that stresses human rights and freedom of religion. Since the 1980s, many Ayatollahs—spanning the gamut from conservative to liberal—have been in accordance with Soroush’s idea of the separation of clergy and state for the preservation of the legitimacy of both. Certainly since the 1997 election of Khatami and especially the disputed 2009 reelection of Ahmadinejad have reemphasized that mentality this schismatic mentality in Shi’a clergy. And as Iranian and Shi’a history have proven time and again: when there exists a crisis of legitimacy in governance, a populist rectification of the ruling class is all but inevitable.

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