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Peter Heine {*}

The Revolution does not Take Place

Iran after the Presidential Elections


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2009, P. 402-405
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Hardly any observer calls the fact into question that the election result of the presidential elections in June was falsified. As always, the Iranian regime sought abroad the reasons for the demonstrations and unrests. But the political and religious elite of the country faces indeed a few problems, the conflicts e.g. between the different groups of the Shiite scholars are obvious.

On 12 June the Iranians cast their votes for one of the candidates for the Office of the President. The election took place in one of the heaviest economic crises in the country. The inflation rates are high, the unemployment figures, too. The election disputes between the candidates were unusually violent and often very personal. Real chances were only seen for the incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinedschat and the former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Musawi. Both are, like the other candidates, representatives of the regime of the Islamic Republic. Candidates who reject the "rule of jurists" were not admitted to candidacy.

The election result was announced surprisingly soon. The incumbent President was pronounced to be the electoral winner. This result was surprising, because many foreign observers had expected a clear victory of Musawi. The reasons for this assessment are understandable. Iran is a country with a very young population. More than 60 per cent of Iranians are younger than 30 years. In recent years, the number of Iranians who moved in the big cities greatly increased. The number of students and young university graduates is steadily increasing. About 1.4 million young people took part in the last university entrance exams at the end of June 2009. One expected many supporters of Musawi especially among the students, young academics and the urban population. This is, by the way, also the population group that is able most easily to express itself to an international public.

But the augurs were mistaken already with the last election. Ahmadinedschat, the winner of the election had surprisingly got the majority of the votes. His followers are found in the large army of ordinary Iranians who barely manage to survive in the cities and in the large, devout rural population. For this group the term "South-Tehran" is used. This is the part of the Iranian capital that lies in the dusty and hot plain, whereas North Tehran is the green and cooler, higher situated district of the political, economic, intellectual, but also religious elites.

Ahmadinedschat had won his first election by an election campaign that was deliberately suited to this population group.



In this election, too, he used an election campaign rhetoric aiming at the poorer population, and with the help of pre-election bonuses he succeeded in winning back at least a part of his former supporters who he had lost because of the mismanagement in the first term of office. He got gifts of money and vegetables distributed to the poorer population, which caused mocking slogans of his political opponents. The shouts "Death to America" belong to the political rituals in Iran. The variation of "Death to the Potatoes" made everybody laugh in the election campaign.

Hardly any Iranian interlocutor denies that the election result of the presidential election was falsified. Some reports indicate that Musawi actually got about 60 per cent and Ahmadinedschat about 40 per cent of the votes. In the following days there were in the streets of many Iranian cities public expressions of displeasure because of the obvious manipulation of the electoral outcome. The regime was at first surprised by the fierceness of those reactions. One had probably expected that the majority of voters would accept the result. The most powerful political institution in the country, the supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei had very soon committed himself to the result and thus also blocked the way to initiate a compromise as regards the election result. Although the so-called Guardian Council, which has the responsibility to review the correspondence of laws passed by the Parliament to the Islamic law, wanted to carry out at least spot checks of the election result, the highest religious leader in a Friday sermon declared the election to be valid, and with clear threats he warned the demonstrators against continuing their protests.

By means of the massive presence of revolutionary guards, the Basidsch militias and the police on the streets, numerous arrests and other pressure the public order was largely restored. Appeals of particularly ruthless representatives of the regime to nip every opposition in the bud were taken quite seriously. The general strike called by Musawi was not successful.

As always, the regime sought abroad the reasons for the demonstrations and unrest. The U.S. and above all Britain were accused to be behind the riots. Iranian employees of the British Embassy were arrested. But already one day later they were released, because the more circumspect representatives of the regime realized that a breaking-off of the diplomatic relations with the countries of the EU would also have serious economic consequences for the country.

Approximately one third of Iran's exports go to the EU. The oil production has already been reduced due to the international economic crisis. Other oil producers would certainly like to fill the gap caused by the cancellation of the Iranian oil. The Iranian leadership could furthermore observe in the closest neighbourhood, Iraq, the long-term effects of a strict embargo. The embargo on Iraq lasting for more than a decade had destroyed the Iraqi middle class and brought down the country to the level of states of the Fourth World. In order to avoid such reactions of the EU and the UN Security Council the Iranian government will therefore not go too far against the own population.


A growing antagonism between the two theological-political schools

What are the reasons for the regime's risking the unrest in the population, although all presidential candidates are to be described as close to the system [systemnah]? Mir Hussein Musawi was not only Prime Minister but also one of the closest confidants of the still highly respected revolution leader Ayatollah Khomeini. All Iran experts are of the opinion that his presidency would perhaps be less aggressive in the rhetoric against the West and especially against Israel, but concerning the nuclear issue he would pursue an equally consistent policy as Ahmadinedschat. There must therefore be other reasons for the conflict within the Iranian political system, which go beyond personal competition and individual rivalries.

In fact, the politico-religious elite of the country faces a few problems. The biggest is the growing antagonism between the theological and political schools of Shiite Islam. All Shiite religious scholars agree that it is their task to show their faithful the right way also in details of daily life. For the supporters the individual scholar whom a believer recognizes as religious and ethical authority is the leader on the path to God. His legal opinions, circular letters and admonitions are to be followed whatever happens.

This relationship based on authority is also materially acknowledged by the believers through the payment of a sum of money called Khums (fifth). The in this way incoming funds give economic independence to the religious scholars. They use the money for the upkeep of schools and universities, award scholarships to their students, fund research projects also in the Western world, and not least spend the money for charitable institutions. The scholars have for a long time been aware that they are to practise quite carefully the political power connected with their religious authority in order not to endanger their religious influence. That's why they usually struck a quietist attitude in political matters; they only expressed their opinion if fundamental problems arose for the Shiite Islam and the believers.

In the mid-sixties of the last century the scholar Ayatollah Khomeini had written against this position his book "Velayat-e Faqih (The Rule of Law Scholars), in which he called upon his colleagues directly to interfere in all areas of politics.



After the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran he translated his political theory into practice. His followers and disciples from the ranks of the religious scholars now made politics in concrete terms in a political and administrative system in which the most important positions were filled by religious scholars.

In the Shiite world as a whole, on the other hand, Khomeini's theories found no majority among the religious scholars. Even in Iran the number of quietist scholars who are sceptically disposed towards the "Velayat-e Faqih" has significantly increased, especially in the higher levels of religious scholarship. These senior scholars see a fundamental threat to the authority of their status in the jurists' system of rule. They argue that errors are inevitable in every political action. They may be the result of lack in experience, personal weaknesses or unforeseen circumstances.

The citizens of Iran hold quite rightly the acting politicians responsible for their mistakes. The cause of those mistakes is often sought in the ideological and political convictions of the politicians. The quietist scholars now fear that above all religion is held responsible for erroneous decisions of religious scholars active in politics. They see the danger that above all young people connect politics with religion, where the rejection of politics, which is understandable in many cases, is connected with the rejection of religion.


Is Ali al-Sistani who is living in Iraq to become the highest Ayatollah?

The Shiite scholars are characterized by a clear hierarchical structure. The top rank is that of the Ayatollah (Sign of God). The scholar can rise in this hierarchy primarily by erudition. The training of Shiite scholars has study and examination regulations which are comparable to those of secular universities. In order to reach the various ranks the young scholars have to take examinations, including extensive written compositions. One could speak of postdoctoral theses. The scholar incidentally wins supporters not only by his scientific competence but also by his blameless life and his talent for organization.

At the head of the Shiite scholarly hierarchy is the Ayatollah uzma (highest Ayatollah), or Marja-e taqlid (source of imitation). However, there is no committee comparable to the conclave for the papal election or an election procedure for this highest position. This position is rather occupied by the scholar to whom it is generally conferred in the end in an amorphous, long process.

The last highest Ayatollah Abu l-Qasim al-Khoi died in 1992. Only now the process of determining the successor comes to an end. The majority of Shiite religious scholars take the view that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is living in Iraq, was the new Marja-e taqlid. Al-Sistani has always been the representative of a quietist position, hence an opponent of the "rule of jurists." Also in view of the difficult conditions in matters of domestic policy in Iraq after 2003, he was always very cautious in his comments.

Among the politicizing Shiite scholars in Iran there is nobody who is even approximately comparable with Ali al-Sistani with regard to erudition. It is unlikely that he will give his view on the conditions of domestic policy in Iran. Nonetheless, he is a constant concern for the regime. His existence alone means a threat to the ideology of "Velayat-e faqih", and thus for the present political system. In July 2009 one of the most conservative Iranian scholars, Ayatollah Misbah-i Yazdi, visited Ali al-Sistani. This visit indicates serious conflicts among the Shiite scholars.

The position of the Ayatollah uzma should not be confused with that of the supreme spiritual leader of Iran, whose authority is only related to the Shiite faithful of this country. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei got this position in a way the details of which are unknown until today. But it seems that the selection process was not without intrigue. At any rate, in the opinion of many high jurists Khamenei is scientifically not equal. After his appointment as supreme spiritual leader the honorary title Ayatollah was conferred on him. An academic performance corresponding to this title is not available. Khamenei therefore lacks the spiritual authority over the leading scholars in Iran and of course outside the country.

In the current situation there is still a second problem. On various occasions Ah Khamenei's state of health seemed to be not particularly good. In this respect, the question of succession arises here, too. The results of the presidential elections are also connected with those problems.

The spiritual leader of Ahmadinedschat is Ayatollah Misbah-i Yazdi. The currently most powerful Ayatollah in Iran was born in 1934. According to his own biographical information he grew up in poor circumstances and had at first to study under poor conditions. He became a close confidant of various Shiite scholars, as e.g. of the temporary imam of the Shiite mosque in Hamburg, Ayatollah Mohammed Beheschti. Misbah-i Yazdi joined a Shiite theological school that is to be described as extremely conservative.

This school is called Haqqaniyya (from the Arabic word Haqq = truth). Especially since the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini Misbah-i Yazdi succeeded in getting some of his disciples and followers in key positions in Iran, who are responsible for the internal and external security.



The theological and ideological ideas of Ayatollah Misbah-i Yazid are to be described as ultra-conservative. He is an unambiguous representative of the ideological positions of the Islamic revolution of 1979. The following statement on the reform movement in Iran is quoted as typical of his attitude, "An Islamic government must fight against this movement, because the introduction of misdirecting ideas must be compared with the injection of the AIDS virus."

Above all, his positions on national policy are to be assessed as undemocratic. He thinks nothing of democratic elections. An Islamic government has in his opinion to be accepted. He is quoted by the saying, "It does not matter what people think. People are ignorant sheep." Since Iran now has an Islamic government, there is, in his opinion, no longer any need to hold elections.

Some of his disciples are supposed to have said that it was not a crime to falsify elections, if in this way the Shiite character of the regime could be secured. Ayatollah Misbah-i Yazdi is known as promoter of various militias and armed popular forces in Iran. He thus follows a long tradition of Shiite scholars, many of whom had since the early 19th century body guards from which various militia groups have emerged. The militia of the Shiite politician Muqtada as-Sadr, too, can be attributed to such military structures.

Fears that Misbah-i Yazdi's influence will increase in the second presidency of Ahmadinedschat and that he could become the successor to the current supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei cannot simply be dismissed. Numerous representatives of the quietist party of the Shiite legal scholars in Iran have internally and publicly expressed this concern. Pieces of news of 14 June 2009 seem strange, that Misbah-i Yazdi had called on Ali al-Sistani in his Iraq residence. Here, one can only suspect that he has tried to make sure of his support in the struggle for the position of religious leader in Iran.

Whatever will be the result of the current arguments between different parties of the Shiite scholars, one thing remains certain: With the next elections in Iran the percentage of young people who are called to the polls will be much higher than this time. The representatives of a tough course in Iran are well aware that their options will steadily deteriorate in view the demographic development. For some time they will still try to resist their being voted out by using violence. It is known from many discussions that they always see the collapse of the Ceaucescu regime in their mind. They probably do not yet realize how they in the next decade will deal with this warning sign on the wall.


    {*} Peter Heine (born in 1944), Dr. phil., in 1978 habilitation for the subject Islam science; since 1994 professor for Islam science of the non-Arab area at the Berlin Humboldt University.


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