No Comment — June 18, 2009, 10:07 am

A Crisis in Theocracy

Several readers have asked what I meant in saying that “The myth of the Islamic Republic has been shaken by its roots.” Let me unpack this a bit. At the core of the state created following the 1979 revolution was an attempt to update the political theology of Shi’a Islam. A theocratic model in which a religious figure was to be installed as Supreme Leader with ultimate political authority was balanced in two ways. First, the Expediency CouncilCouncil of Experts was created as a body of religious experts to select the Supreme Leader and potentially also remove him or check his exercise of power. Second, an elected presidency and parliament were also created. The president exercises the executive powers not given to the Supreme Leader, and the parliament is the legislative body. The whole concept of the system involves a democratic model which is subject to theocratic limits, with the balance being struck consistently in favor of the theocracy. The myth of the Islamic Republic—and I am using the term myth in the sense of political philosophy, not necessarily as a disparaging term–is that this is an updating of the medieval models, serving to imbue the government with the legitimacy of popular consent. But current events point to the system’s inherent fault line: what happens when the democratic mandate cannot be reconciled with the theocratic leadership? Moreover, what happens when the theocratic leaders attempt a coup d’état to remove the democratic component of the government and install their own puppet? We’re witnessing a severe stressing of this system now, and it reveals a real allocation of power which is at odds with the theoretical one. The radical clerical party appears to hold all the cards, and the constitutional checks on their power so far appear ineffective.

Reza Aslan is reporting now that maneuvers are underway within the Expediency CouncilCouncil of Experts—that its chair, Rafsanjani, has convened a meeting in the city of Qom. This could be a momentous event, and in any event, it is threatening to Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader. But together with the strong and rather underappreciated statement against the elections issued by the most senior of the ayatollahs, Montazeri, it also shows that the fissure lines are not simply between the reformers and the clerical party, but even within the clerical party. Reza Aslan discusses these developments with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow here:

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Also note that the Ahmadinejad government has been caught photoshopping again. It took photographs of yesterday’s pro-Ahmadinejad rally and manipulated them to make the crowds look as big as those which swelled Tehran at the anti-government rally. It’s now clear that notwithstanding all the blandishments his government could offer, Ahmadinejad is not as strong a draw as his opponents. And this fact is extremely telling in terms of the legitimacy of the claimed voting results.

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