No one knows how the current Iranian insurrection, triggered by last month’s disputed presidential election, will end. However, one thing is already clear: The doctrine of walayat faqih (“government of the theologian”), the cornerstone of the Khomeinist system, is dead.
The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini invented the doctrine to justify the claim that he drew his legitimacy from Allah and was accountable solely to Him. In practice, walayat faqih was supposed to work the same way that Lenin’s “democratic centralism” did in the early days of Bolshevism. Issues could be debated, even disputed, within the regime — but once the “Supreme Guide” pronounced the “final word,” everyone had to fall in line.
The “Supreme Guide” (also called rahbar, the Persian equivalent of “Führer”) would announce the ultimate decision in a special sermon. Such sermons were described as fasl el-khitab, an archaic term meaning “the end of discussion.” Anyone who opposed the end of discussion would be regarded as a “miscreant, waging war on Allah.” For almost 30 years, this system worked in Iran, at least as far as the Khomeinist elite was concerned. On most issues, there was enough debate to hoodwink the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Barack Obama into believing that Khomeinism contained “a measure of democracy” (as the New York Times put it).
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current “Supreme Leader” of Iran, attained that position in 1989, but until recently he had used the fasl el-khitab
card in public only once — in 1991, to crush a student revolt in Tehran. Over two decades, he presented himself as a pious recluse who cultivated taciturnity as an art. The idea was that, while others fought for personal or partisan motives, the Führer, living an ascetic life devoted to prayer and introspection, intervened only to close debate and unite the ummah
(the community of the faithful).
Nonetheless, the doctrine of walayat faqih has remained at the center of Iranian political debate (indeed, it has been debated ever since the mullahs seized power in 1979). The Khomeinist elite has defended it by claiming that the Führer’s function is to stand above factions, prevent extremism, and arbitrate divisive issues in the broader interest of the ummah. Supporters of pluralism and democracy, on the other hand, have seen the doctrine as a façade for religious despotism.
As often happens, events rather than rhetorical pirouettes appear to have ended the debate. In the past few weeks, it has become clear that walayat faqih no longer works. Since the presidential election, Khamenei has held more fasl el-khitab events than Frank Sinatra held farewell concerts. His message is always the same: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s landslide reelection should be hailed as an “Islamic miracle” rather than a crude fraud worthy of a banana republic.
In emerging from his reclusion and so pronouncing, Khamenei has demonstrated his own irrelevance. Rather than calming spirits and fostering consensus, his interventions have deepened divisions and fanned the fires of opposition to the regime. The “Supreme Guide” has become just another character in a political soap opera, and each appearance chips off more of his mystique. Simultaneously, the number of those who doubt the “Islamic miracle” seems to be growing by the day.
“The Leader may no longer be an asset to the regime,” says Yussefi Eshkaveri, a mullah who fought for Khomeinism before becoming a dissident and being defrocked on Khamenei’s orders. “He has jumped into the mud pit alongside many others and is unlikely to reemerge with much dignity.”
The question many ask in Tehran is: Why did Khamenei abandon his role as supreme arbiter to become a hatchet man for Ahmadinejad?
There is no satisfactory answer. One theory is that, when endorsing Ahmadinejad’s reelection, he had an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) gun pointed at his temple. Another is that the he was terrified by the prospect of a “velvet revolution” that could send him to the gallows or into exile.
In 2005, Khamenei tacitly supported Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a former police chief, as presidential candidate, rather than Ahmadinejad. When Ahmadinejad won, Khamenei congratulated him in brief, even cold, terms. At the time, many suspected that the IRGC had propelled Ahmadinejad into the presidency against the wishes of Khamenei’s entourage. (Khamenei’s ambitious son Mujtaba had been chief campaign manager for Qalibaf and an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad.)