The Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Iranian monarchy and installed a clerical regime that upset centuries of Shia clerical tradition regarding politics. Traditionally, the Shiite clergy had refrained from exercising formal political or executive power in state institutions. the Supervision of the lawyer, the core tenet of clerical rule in Iran, rejected the dominant apolitical inclinations of the Shia clerical establishment, arguing instead that only high-ranking clerics are qualified to exercise political authority as leaders of an Islamic state. The establishment of a Shia clerical theocracy has fundamentally shaped Iranian society, clerical-secular relations, and regional politics since 1979.
However, unfavorable domestic trends call into question the viability and longevity of legal guardianship as a political model, offering US and Iranian actors an opportunity to accelerate its decline and promote viable alternatives. The repressive regime of the Islamic Republic in the country has generates a decline in religiosity among Iranians, signifying the disaffection of the population for the marriage of religion and politics. In addition, the rise of the military class of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the diminishing the social stature of the clergy raises questions about the future of the legal guardianship model.
The regime’s clerical veneer belies the growing militarization of Iranian politics and the dependence of Iranian extremists on the IRGC for the security of the regime. The religious references of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have always been a source of insecurity for the Supreme Leader and the regime, galvanizing Khamenei to centralize control over clerical institutions and use the security establishment to underpin his position. As a middle-ranking cleric at the time of his selection as Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei did not hold the religious rank of Ayatollah or command a large religious audience, making his selection as Khomeini’s successor and granting subsequent to the title of Ayatollah an overtly political character. move, not one rooted in religious considerations. This dynamic informs Khamenei’s close relationship with the IRGC and has precipitate the organization’s growing dominance in Iranian politics.
Complementing their preeminence in Iranian foreign policy and the security sphere, the IRGC penetrates the Iranian political architecture, a dynamic very visible in the Iranian parliament. The speaker of parliament is IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, and two-thirds of the presidium positions under his leadership are busy by former members of the IRGC. These leadership changes coincide with the downward trend in parliamentary officers and the growing presence of former IRGC and Basij and grassroots members. In addition, potential candidates and pioneers for the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in June 2021 greet a history of the Revolutionary Guards, demonstrating how the IRGC experience is slowly shifting office ties as a stepping stone for political advancement. Given the IRGC’s political influence and security functions, the institution is well positioned to strongly influence the upcoming succession process, an important step in the future of the legal guardianship model.
The 1989 transition of leadership from Ayatollah Khomeini to Ali Khamenei demonstrated the negligible role of religious position and jurisprudential knowledge in determining the spiritual and political authority of the Islamic Republic. The second succession will solidify it, further diluting the theological argument in favor of clerical rule. Although the successor to the Supreme Leader is still a cleric, the key aspects of clerical legitimacy – large lay religious supporters, quality of religious scholarship, and recognition by clerical peers – will likely be neglected in favor of political expediency and inter-faction negotiation as in 1989.
Prominent office figures on the verge of assuming supreme leadership include current Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi and current President Hassan Rouhani. Raisi and Rohani are middle-ranking clerics who do not hold the title of Ayatollah, due to their high positions in government experience and not in religious education. Middle-ranking clerics, like Raisi and Rohani, are not qualified practicing Ijtihad (the application of independent reasoning to interpret Islamic law), the most basic duty of political and spiritual authority of an Islamic regime as described in the philosophy of legal guardianship. The priority given to managerial and political acumen over religious references highlights the fragile intellectual foundation of the jurist.
While the provenance of the jurist’s tutelage is Iranian, Shia clerical relations are inherently transnational as clerics command global follow-ups from North America to Southeast Asia. However, the legal guardianship injects a political dimension that has regional consequences for good governance, stability and sectarian relations. In Iraq, many Shiite militia groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq subscribe under the supervision of the jurist and openly pledge religious and political allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei. Iranian-backed Shiite militias and politicians dominate Iraqi political institutions and security organs, using their privileged positions to advance Iranian objectives at the expense of the Iraqi national interest. Iraqis identify Iranian influence as the main driver of the dysfunction, corruption and sectarianism that defines domestic politics. For this reason, the Iraqis have Express their aversion to the clerical regime and Iranian interference, preferring the traditional, Iraq-centered quietist tendencies of the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf Ali Sistani. Thus, the future of legal guardianship in Iran will have important regional implications, requiring careful consideration of potential policies that may weaken its appeal and catalyze its decline.
While there is little the United States can do to directly influence the intellectual trajectory of the legal guardianship principle, it should pressure the clerical elite through targeted sanctions and publicity campaigns highlighting their greed and moral hypocrisy. Information campaigns focused on the wealth acquired by figures in the clerical regime – a product of networks of patronage, mismanagement and corruption for decades – may further reinforce the idea that the principle of legal guardianship is not nothing more than an abuse of religion and a vehicle for material gain and power. In a socio-political landscape where anti-clerical resentment is rife and religiosity is waning, amplifying this dynamic can galvanize disgruntled clergymen, secular Shia activists, and the Iranian population in general to organize, challenge, and ultimately change the system that has abused religion for the sake of it. its own parochial advantage.