Shia Islam and Great-Powerness
No. 3 2011 July/September
Alexander Lukoyanov

Senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Where the Key to Iran’s Future Lies

The developments in the Arab world in the winter and spring of 2011 caused analysts to take a new look at the situation in Iran. Western commentators do not conceal their hope that the changes in the Middle East will extend to Iran and that a change of the political regime there will finally allow the U.S. and its allies to settle the years-long crisis in their relations with one of the most influential and important countries in the region on terms acceptable to them. The unrest that took place in several Iranian cities on a wave of enthusiasm for the Arab Spring, and a series of scandals that stemmed from bitter struggle within the Iranian elite produce the impression that the country really is on the verge of unexpected changes. This is true and untrue at the same time.


The Iranian political elite has always adhered to principles of the organization of society and the state that allow it to express views differing from the position of the authorities, even those that are diametrically opposed to the official line. This tradition has never been broken: be it under a monarchy or after the establishment of an Islamic republic in the country. Factors that make this possible include the regional and national specifics of the country and the current religious and political structure of society, under which religious leaders have a right to independent opinion on absolutely any issue, while the people have a right to choose a spiritual leader on the basis of their own interests and moral values.

Today, conflicts in domestic and foreign policies of Iran stem from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an outstanding and highly controversial figure. Political struggle in Iran, which has never really stopped (the Islamic Republic of Iran is by no means a dictatorial regime; on the contrary, it has always differed from most Arab countries by a variety of political and economic interests and ways to express them), flared up with renewed vigor after the 2009 presidential election. Ahmadinejad’s victory, whose fairness many Iranians doubted, provoked mass protests. Even the Supreme Leader of Iran (“Rahbar”), Ali Khamenei, who had earlier strongly supported the president, pointedly distanced himself from Ahmadinejad at the presidential inauguration ceremony, allowing him only to kiss his shoulder instead of the traditional hand-kiss.

Back in 2005, when Ahmadinejad won his first presidential election (its results no one questioned then), many analysts began to speak of a growing role and influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the country. They viewed the IRGC as an independent force seeking power and thus threatening the authority and political power of the clergy close to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Six years later, the confrontation only worsened. In May 2011, Western media quoted intelligence sources as saying that IRGC officers had been contemplating a coup d’etat to overthrow Ayatollah Khamenei and restore a secular regime. Thirty-seven IRGC commanders were reported arrested. Other sources said the coup was ostensibly planned by officers outraged by the election “fraud” of 2009 and by the brutal suppression of protests held by the “green opposition.” The same sources said 70 percent of IRGC officers did not support the suppression of the opposition protests in the summer of 2009.

It was also reported that Ayatollah Khamenei had long been ready for a conflict with the president’s supporters in the IRGC and had taken countermeasures. In particular, he allegedly instructed the Supreme National Security Council to issue “Operational Plan 55” which placed the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia, under the Rahbar’s direct control. Formally, the Basij is subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards and is responsible for internal security. The Basij is usually ranked third in influence in the country after the Armed Forces and the IRGC.

Such rumors have been circulating for a long time. It is hard to say whether they are true or not: first, Iran is not a fully open country, and second, the Western media often publish biased or politically motivated reports. Nevertheless, even if these reports are not true in some details, it is obvious that tumultuous political processes are underway in the country.

The current round of conflict stems from an aggravation of confrontation between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. There is not so much their mutual personal dislike behind this confrontation as the fundamentally different views of the two leaders and the groups behind them on the future of Iranian statehood. In fact, it is a conflict between two powerful cultural traditions that have shaped the national consciousness of the Iranians: the pre-Islamic history of the Persian Empire, and Shia Islam. Depending on which tradition takes the upper hand, it is either the present religious form of government will be preserved, or Iran will transform into a secular nationalist state.



The internal political struggle in Islamic Iran has never ceased after the fall of the Shah’s regime. There is one fact in Iran’s recent past that is important for understanding the present situation in the country: the first president of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran (elected in 1980) was a secular man named Abulhassan Banisadr. Earlier he had participated in anti-Shah protests in Iran (in 1963). Later he emigrated to France, studied at the Sorbonne, where he received his degree in economics, and worked as a teacher. In France, he joined the Iranian resistance group led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On February 1, 1979, he returned to Iran together with Khomeini as his ally and adviser. In the new Islamic state, Banisadr held the posts of Deputy Minister of Finance, Foreign Minister and Finance Minister.

Banisadr enjoyed Khomeini’s support and was known in the country as a true supporter of the Islamic regime. He was elected president of Iran on January 25, 1980, to a four-year term. When a war with Iraq began, Banisadr was given the powers of Commander-in-Chief. However, as Imam Khomeini’s plans for turning Iran into an Islamic state ruled by clerics were implemented, Banisadr’s positions in the government began to change. Iran saw the increasing influence of a religious and political force led by influential Ayatollah Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti. His Islamic Republic Party (IRP) sought to put its own people in power. Banisadr began to lose support from the Supreme Leader, although he never ceased to demonstrate his loyalty to Khomeini.

Despite his meteoric rise, Banisadr’s fate had been sealed from the very beginning, because his career was only an element in the plans of Khomeini and his inner circle. They had planned to put secular people, especially those with a Western education, in power in order to “demonstrate” their inability for service for the benefit of Islam, the way Khomeini understood it. Indeed, despite his close relations with Khomeini (the president often called himself a “spiritual son of the Imam”), Banisadr favored liberalization and belonged to the camp of pro-Western intellectuals. When the president had played his role, he was to disappear from the political arena or even die (as it happened with other politicians). Judging by the further actions of his opponents, this option was not ruled out.

The Supreme Leader first accused the president of inability to lead the military and stripped him of the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief. On June 21, 1981, the Majlis (Iran’s parliament) impeached Banisadr for “moves against the Islamic clergy.” The next day the Imam fired his former ally. The first president of Iran went into hiding and fled the country in late July aboard an Iranian Air Force plane together with Massoud Rajavi, the leader of People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI, also known as the MEK). Banisadr returned to France where he had begun his short-lived career of an Islamic revolutionary and a politician of the new regime.

Political alliances in Iran had initially been pretty much mixed: for example, the tactical alliance between Banisadr, the clergy and the PMOI, which took an active part in the anti-Shah movement and which hoped for a place in the new political elite and the state structure. However, the PMOI fell into disgrace with the Khomeini regime and was persecuted and destroyed by the latter as an ideological and political rival, because the Mujahedin professed leftist views. In addition, they were opposed to the very idea of establishing rule by mullahs in the country, which they viewed as a dictatorship. Banisadr tried to rely on armed groups of the PMOI, being well aware that without their support he would be removed from the political scene by the clerics (which actually happened).

After Banisadr was removed from power, Iran was ruled by a religious-secular triumvirate, consisting of two mullahs – Beheshti and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – and a secular politician, Mohammad Ali Rajai. However, their triumvirate was short-lived.

June 28, 1981 was a turning point in the contemporary history of Iran. On that day, a powerful bomb exploded at the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party in Tehran during a party conference, killing 72 people. The victims included Beheshti, a son of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri Najafabadi, the designated successor to Khomeini then, four ministers, six deputy ministers, 20 Majlis deputies and other prominent figures of the party. The number of the victims symbolically coincided with the number of martyrs who were killed in 681 in the Battle of Karbala together with Imam Husayn and who are revered by Shia Muslims.

The perpetrators’ most likely target was Ayatollah Beheshti, a very strong personality, who could rival even Imam Khomeini. He was a well-educated and charismatic man, who was brilliant at using religion in politics. In the 1960s, he for seven years led the Islamic Center in Hamburg, Germany. The IRP conference was to nominate candidates for president and define its position towards the PMOI. Beheshti had a special attitude towards future participants in the presidential election, set for July 24, 1981, and towards this strongest opposition organization, which was believed to be efficient in conducting terrorist activities. Beheshti himself was ready to become president and said that, should he be nominated, he was ready to serve Iran. But he was not destined to make any more statements, and a few years later, in June 1987, his IRP was dissolved. Khomeini from the very beginning was against political parties, arguing that the Muslim community (Ummah) itself was a unified “party of Allah” that was acceptable before God.

The authorities placed the blame for the attack on the PMOI. Some analysts believe the explosion was a result of inner struggle within the new ruling elite. Some even pointed the finger at parliament chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an ally of Khomeini and the main rival of Beheshti. Soviet General Leonid Shebarshin, the top KGB man in Iran at the time, wrote: “Five minutes before the explosion, Majlis chairman Rafsanjani and his two closest allies, Rajai and Bahonar, left the premises. Talk of Divine Providence would not have raised much doubt (everything is in Allah’s will!), if Rafsanjani had not been Beheshti’s main rival.” People in Iran never had any illusions about moral principles of revolutionary mullahs, and the theory that mullahs were involved in the elimination of their rivals was widespread among critically-minded groups of the Iranian population.

The next man to take the presidency was another secular politician, Mohammad Ali Rajai. However, he was killed two weeks after the inauguration, on August 30, 1981, in an explosion at the prime minister’s office along with Prime Minister Mohammad Bahonar. Responsibility for the attack was again placed on the PMOI. The authorities stepped up attacks against the Mujahedin, forcing them to relocate to France in 1982. Between the summer of 1981 and the summer of 1984, the PMOI lost over 20,000 people in the reprisals.

An early presidential election, held in October 1981, was won by a Shia cleric, Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, who was of Iranian Azeri origin. The election largely completed the implementation of Khomeini’s plans to establish a theocratic regime in Iran, in which mullahs would play the leading political role. Khamenei was later succeeded as president by mullahs Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who ruled the country until 2005. After Khomeini’s death in 1989, Khamenei’s status was elevated from Hujjat al-Islam (an honorific title meaning “authority on Islam”) to Ayatollah. In addition, he was named successor to the Imam and elected the new Rahbar with virtually unlimited powers.

Thus, the model of a theocratic state which functions in Iran to this day took shape in 1981, following a tumultuous and sanguinary period of the struggle for power. Iranian politics may be amended, depending on developments in Iran and the outside world, but the frameworks remain inviolable. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first secular president elected in Iran for almost 25 years.



The goal of the Iranian political system remains unchanged – it is to ensure its own security by all means for the longest possible period of time. The system itself is not completely homogeneous, because it emerged on the wave of a revolutionary upsurge of the masses and activities by very different political forces. The basic documents of the Islamic Republic of Iran include provisions that reflect differing interests and slogans of the period of the anti-Shah struggle: one provision, for example, provides for the protection of the rights of the people and the destitute around the world, which creates legal grounds for an expansionist foreign policy.

The whole system rests on the fundamental principle of Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist, that is, the highest Islamic authority), which did not receive universal support at first. Secular intellectuals viewed it as an excuse for a new dictatorship. Many influential religious figures who criticize the practical implementation of this principle appeal to the Shia tradition which does not recognize the concentration of religious power in the hands of one person (by analogy with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which Khomeini sought to establish). Paradoxically, Velayat-e Faqih, the cornerstone of the Islamic regime, can be used as an instrument for its transformation. This will happen if the faqih (Islamic jurist) turns out to be a man with reformist ambitions.

The majority of Islamic politicians in Iran are not religious fanatics but people with a rational mind. This follows from the political practices of Khomeini supporters in the country’s leadership after the death of the founder of the Islamic state. They often took steps incompatible with the Imam’s policies, such as a rapprochement with Iran’s arch enemy – Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Khomeini himself had sometimes deviated from his hard-line course. Namely, he closed his eyes to cooperation with Israel during the war with Iraq and agreed, contrary to his own convictions, to cease the hostilities against Saddam Hussein.

Militant atheists and leftists (Communists) have always been the main enemies of mullahs, as their views subvert true Muslims and encroach on the right of ownership, which clerics regard as sacred. Islamic revolutionaries have successfully coped with the task of destroying their main opponents, which Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had failed to do. With the elimination of the left movement, task number one of the Islamic revolution was accomplished.

The anti-Shah revolution caused the new Iranian leadership to cease cooperation with the Shah’s closest allies. Hence the anti-Western rhetoric, targeted primarily at the United States, and permanent anti-Israeli declarations. The new regime could not have direct contacts with the U.S. and Israel as it could lose support of the religious masses at home, which brought the clerics to power and which helps them keep this power at present.

The post-revolutionary priorities included orientation towards countries and regions of the Muslim East, especially oil-producing countries, among which Iran planned to play the role of leader. Like Soviet Communists, Iranian clerics sought (and still do) to extend their influence in the world at the expense of their own people, spending huge amounts of money for the support of various kinds of Islamist movements, without any benefit for ordinary Iranians. This policy has caused natural resentment in the country. The majority of Iranians are focused on their own problems and do not display much interest in the fate of their Muslim brothers in neighboring and remote countries, especially the fate of Arabs, considering the traditional mutual antipathy between Arabs and Persians.

In a way, the Iranian regime is hostage to Khomeini’s ideology. There may be departures from it, but at any time they can be used to discredit political figures in the opposition. The Iranian leadership is well aware of the complexity of the situation and has long been trying to find a way out of this labyrinth. Iranian presidents, one after another, pursued liberalization policies to demonstrate their readiness to resume relations with the global superpower, but their actions did not meet with understanding from the U.S., which relies primarily on force in addressing global problems.

The emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the political arena was to show again to the world, above all the United States, the Iranian regime’s readiness to uphold its interests in a most resolute way. Of course, it is not to Tehran’s advantage to enter into military conflicts, let alone a full-scale war, with any country, especially with Israel and the U.S. This is why all talk about an inevitable war between Iran and these countries is either deliberate speculation or misunderstanding of the essence of the Iranian regime. The latter is dangerous because, under certain circumstances, it may provoke Israel or America into preventive military action, which would plunge the region and the world into a series of new cataclysms.

The Iranians have always adequately assessed the real balance of power in the world. Tehran views Russia as a country that has lost its former might and independence in addressing world problems, and believes that the U.S. and China will be the main players in the global arena. As soon as the Iranian leadership reaches agreement with the U.S. and Israel on mutually advantageous interaction and a division of the region and the world into spheres of influence (Tehran claims such a role as well), there will be no need for the ‘bad cop’ and the Rahbar will replace the president with the waive of his hand – showing outward respect for social and political formalities, of course.

Iran is seeking to continue the course set years ago by the Shah who wanted his country to become a great power. The two traditions that shaped the national consciousness of the Iranians – the pre-Islamic history of the great Persian Empire and Shia Islam – have always nurtured each other and, at the same time, have been mutually opposed. These traditions still exist, and all efforts by Khomeini and his radical supporters to destroy the first tradition have completely failed.

The Shah played an important role in the development of Iranian national consciousness. On the one hand, it worked against him, but on the other, the Iranian nationalism, combined with the Shia sense of exclusiveness, is a force that is driving Iran towards creating a powerful modern state. At the same time, the religious system in Iran, which is still in thrall to the dogmatic views of its founders, has long caused resentment among various groups of the population and their growing mistrust towards their Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.



The current political system in Iran has shown its ability to change in response to external challenges. At the same time, the dogmatism inherited from the early revolutionary period constrains the room for maneuver, stifles political initiative and slows down economic development. In the near future, the country’s future will be linked with Shia Islam, but the younger generation has begun to give critical thought to it. This new attitude is having an impact on the traditional religious consciousness of the Iranians and, under certain circumstances, may bring about a crisis of confidence in the institution of religion itself among the educated population.

However, under any scenario, the religious leaders of Iran will remain a special group united by clan interests and rules that make impossible open conflicts, let alone bloodshed, in it. Even if the opposition ever declares the Rahbar a dictator guilty of killing Iranian people, he will be exempted from harsh punishment, because otherwise the religious and political system would begin to collapse, with most negative consequences for the Iranian mullahs. Replacing the Supreme Leader and restricting his powers would be the best scenario, but the strategic line of Tehran would still remain unchanged.

As follows from this article, the developments in Iran are not directly linked with the “Arab Spring” and have logic of their own. Yet, the events in the Islamic Republic interestingly fit into the general trend in North Africa and the Middle East swept by political upheavals. At the initial stage of the revolutions, many people feared a rapid Islamization of the protests and that radical Islamic groups would use the popular discontent to try to introduce Khomeini-style regimes in Arab countries. It soon turned out, however, that the protests had a different goal: they had a largely nationalist agenda which included demands of renovating nation-states, overcoming the authoritarian stagnation and adding dynamics to their development. Although these developments may result in more confident and independent policies of the leading Arab states, they will not become aggressively anti-American or anti-Israeli. In other words, these countries will not renounce but reformat their partnerships with the U.S. Moreover, the new political spirit in some Arab countries may neutralize the appeal of the radical ideas of the Islamic revolution in Iran, which call for social justice and relations of equality among all countries.

All these factors may have an impact on Iran, too, triggering a rethinking the Islamic statehood and shifting the emphasis from religion to nationalism.