How the Iranian Revolution Changed the Role of the Shia Clergy

How the Iranian Revolution Changed the Role of the Shia Clergy
(Mehdi Khalaji, May 31, 2017)

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About the event

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has modernized and bureaucratized the clerical establishment, redefined religion and created institutions to enforce this new definition. The effect has been a transformation of religion into a symbolic form of capital. By monopolizing religious affairs, the political system has become a regime of religion in which the state plays the role of central banker for symbolic religious capital. Consequently, the expansion and monopolization of the religious market have helped the Islamic Republic increase the ranks of its supporters and beneficiaries significantly, even among critics of the government. This presentation demonstrated how the accumulation of religious capital in the hands of the government mutually influences the nature of the state and the clerical establishment and will continue to do so in Iran’s uncertain future.

About the speaker

Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East. A Shiite theologian by training, Mr. Khalaji has also served on the editorial boards of two prominent Iranian periodicals and produced for the BBC as well as the U.S. government’s Persian news service.

From 1986 to 2000, Mr. Khalaji trained in the seminaries of Qom, the traditional center of Iran’s clerical establishment. There he studied theology and jurisprudence, earning a doctorate and researching widely on modern intellectual and philosophical-political developments in Iran and the wider Islamic and Western worlds. In Qom, and later in Tehran, Mr. Khalaji launched a career in journalism, first serving on the editorial board of a theological journal, Naqd va Nazar, and then the daily Entekhab. In addition to his own writing, he has translated the works of the humanist Islamic scholar Muhammad Arkoun.

In 2000, Mr. Khalaji moved Paris where he studied Shiite theology and exegesis in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He also worked for BBC Persian as a political analyst on Iranian affairs, eventually becoming a broadcaster for the Prague-based Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. At Radio Farda, he produced news, features, and analysis on a range of Middle Eastern, Iranian, and Islamic issues.

Mr. Khalaji writes a bilingual English and Persian blog, He also addressed Westminster on the subject of: “Inside Iran: What Forces Will Decide its Future, and How?


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, tonight as you know our speaker is Mehdi Khalaji, who is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Sh’iite groups in the Middle East. Mehdi is a Shia theologian by training, and appropriately enough, with that occupation he studied in Qom for quite some time I think, and there gained your doctorate in theology. He went on later to study in Paris at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, where again he focused on Shi’ite theology.

He has worked in the world of broadcasting and the U.S. government’s Persian news service. He was a broadcaster for the Prague-based Radio Farda, which is the Persian language service of the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and there he produced news features and analyses on a range of Middle Eastern, Iranian, and Islamic features.

Today, he is going to talk about the very important transformation of the Iranian clergy as a result of the Revolution in 1979. Please join me in welcoming Mehdi Khalaji.

Mehdi Khalaji:

Good evening everyone. Thank you so much for having me here. Thank you Westminster Institute for inviting me. This is a great honor for me to be here, speaking to you about one of the most enigmatic issues in the history of Islam and the history of Iran, which I have struggled a lot to understand since a long time ago.

As Bob told you, I was born in Qom. Qom is the Vatican of Shia Islam, and I was born to a very traditional family. My father is an Ayatollah, so he sent me to the seminary when I was 11 years old. His dream was to see me as an Ayatollah, but I studied for fourteen years and I described myself as a recovering Ayatollah now. And then I studied Western philosophy, and I did journalism and so on, but clerical establishment was for me not some personal pre-occupation but also an enduring, intellectual pre-occupation on which I have written a lot in Persian and in English, and I think the clerical establishment in Islam in general is still one of the darkest corners of Islamic history. It is very hard to find good works, academic works, on this issue, whether Sunni Islam or Shia Islam. Obviously, there are far fewer books and researchers on Shia Islam for different reasons.

Roots of the Shia clergy

Let us start with a few basic facts. I like the term basic. I was not born an English-speaking person, so English is my fourth language, but I like some words in English like ‘basic’. ‘Basic’ means for me simple but essential, and sometimes, many people who talk about the subject miss the basic facts or the basic principles. When we talk about Shia clergy, we are talking, actually, about a modern phenomenon because when you hear clergy, you think about the Christian clergy. That is very obvious, you know, clergy in the Latin languages refers mostly to Christianity and the Christian clerical establishment, but whether in Catholicism or in Protestantism, clerical establishment or clergy have a very special and important theological place, theological definition, theological function, but in Islam we do not have that kind of function for clerics.

Actually, if, in Christianity, clergy was born out of a theological need, in Islam, it was born out of a totally historical need. In other words, in Islam in order to be a Muslim, in order to understand Islam, in order to understand Muhammad’s message or Qur’an, in order to practice religion, you do not need to go to any cleric. You do not need any cleric’s advice. You can understand and practice Islam based on your own intellectual capabilities. In other words, Islam was born as a Protestant religion but historically, it became Catholic, especially in Shi’ism.

Sunni-Shia division

One of the expressions I do not like in English is ‘political Islam’. You know that this does not exist in any Muslim languages? If you translate this ‘political Islam’ to Persian or Arabic or any other language, it is not a familiar expression to Muslim ears. The main division in Islam, which is the division between Sunnis and Shia, happened out of a political dispute. When Muhammad died, even before his funeral ceremonies, Muslims started to fight over his successor. Some people said that Ali, his son-in-law, was his successor. The majority of people said that we have to follow the pre-Islamic model, which is the tribal model, for appointing a successor. The majority of Muslims appointed Abu Bakr and then Omar, and then Uthman as the first and second and third caliph, the successor of the Prophet, but Shia were the minority. Over a thousand years Shia remained an angry opposition, protestant minority everywhere in Islamic territories.

One of the biggest gifts that God or nature or whatever, history, has given to Shia was the Mongol invasion. The Mongol invasion has destroyed the central government and Islamic Empire in Baghdad, and somehow freed this minority here and there. And it took Shia two centuries to recover and reconstruct itself, and actually assert itself as a serious religious, political power by creating the Safavid Empire four centuries ago. So four centuries ago in Iran we had a dynasty that was trying to claim legitimacy, religious or Islamic legitimacy, by making Shi’ism as its official religion, and on the other hand, by differentiating itself from the rest of the Muslim world, not only by the religious element but also by Persian language element, by a lingual element.

Iranian Islam

So it started to create a notion of Iranian nationalism based on pre-Islamic religion, mythologies, Persian language, and somehow Persianizing Islam and offering this kind of version as Iranian Islam. Iranian Islam is the Persianized Islam. Iranian Shi’ism is the Persian Shi’ism, which is different from Lebanese Shi’ism, different from Arab Shi’ism, different from Turkish Shi’ism because in Iranian Shi’ism you see all this the trace of the pre-Islamic Persian mythologies, Zoroastrian elements, Mithraism, and all this religions, and myth, and history.

Interestingly, since four centuries ago, Iranians in Iran in order to maintain the power equation, they needed to make an alliance with the powers outside the region because Iranian Islam has defined itself in spite of the majority of Muslims. The main rivalry was between Safavid Iran and the Ottoman Empire, so in order to maintain the power equation, they needed to make an alliance with Europeans, with Portugal, with Dutch, with French.

The Telegraph

Inside the country they needed to create a very powerful clerical establishment, so they started to gather Shia jurists from different parts of the Muslim world, including from Lebanon or Iraq or India. So they started to create this establishment. They allocated lots of money to make religious endowments for them, built madrassahs, and so on, but the very important turning point was the advent of the telegraph in Iran roughly two hundred years ago.

Two hundred years ago when the telegraph was introduced to Iranians, clerics became able to connect with their followers who were not in their city, who were not in their region. So, for example, we had a cleric sitting in Najaf in Iraq, issuing a fatwa and sending this fatwa by telegraph to his followers in Tehran. One of the most famous events is the fatwa by Ayatollah Shirazi, who issued a fatwa against the government’s decision to sign a contract with a British company on tobacco. It was under Qajar and this fatwa was not more than I think fifteen words, very short, very brief, but it just destroyed the government’s effort to cut this deal and mobilize the whole people against the government, and some people, some historians, described this as a ‘tobacco revolution’.


We entered into the modern era by telegraph and actually, modernism was a double-edged sword. On one hand, modernism introduced to Iranians modern ideas like a constitution. They had a constitution movement over 100 years ago in Iran, the first constitution movement ever in the Muslim world; freedom, individuality, privacy, equality, all these kind of modern ideas and values. But at the same time, modern technology helped the traditional forces, especially the clerics, to reconstruct themselves in a more effective and assertive way, so – as I told you, by telegraph – and then by telephone, and then by cassette tape, and then even today by Internet. These people can connect to their followers no matter where and when. It is interesting, if you go to the website of some of the clerics in Qom, you find their website in about sixteen languages, and they say that we receive the religious donations or religious taxes by credit card. So somebody is here in New York, following a non-important Ayatollah in a non-important place, but he can first get advice from him on the Internet and pay him his religious taxes and actually empower him financially, religiously, socially.

Ayatollahs and Popes

Let me explain the nature of the clerical establishment by comparison to the Catholic clerical system. In Catholicism, you have a very well-defined hierarchy. On the top you have the Pope. When the Pope dies, Cardinals in a very well-defined procedure get together and appoint the successor. The successor would have the same authority as his predecessor and all the assets, all the networks, all of the money. Everything will be transferred to him, so he as an individual sits in a in a religious seat. No matter who was the predecessor, everything the predecessor had, including authority, money, everything would be for him.

In Shi’ism – I am not talking about Sunni Islam, which is totally different – in Shi’ism there is no hierarchy in this way, which means that Shi’ism recognizes the pluralism of the Ayatollahs. There might be 10, 100, 500 Ayatollahs. Ayatollah means the highest clerical level, Pope, and every individual, every Shia, is free to choose his own Ayatollah, to follow him on religious issues and pay him his religious taxes and financial duties. So, for example, I have written on clerics a lot. If you go to the Washington Institute website, one of the papers I wrote was about the recent developments in the Iranian Shia political establishment. You would find there that I gave some numbers, I do not remember all these numbers, but we have something like 500 Ayatollahs in the Shia world, and some of them have a thousand followers, some of them have hundreds of millions of followers. For example, Ayatollah Sistani.

Audience member:

How do you get to be an Ayatollah?

Mehdi Khalaji:

That is a very interesting question. Ayatollah has two aspects. One is educational. You have to start to go to the seminary, study certain textbooks, pass some exams, go to some courses. Usually, it takes at least ten years, so ten years of serious study may make you an Ayatollah, but there are two kinds of Ayatollah. One is certain people who are Ayatollah, which means that they are like a doctor in theology. They have studied and they got a degree in theology, so they are able to teach, they are able to write, they are able to offer original studies. They are offered to produce new, critical opinions, but we [also] have Grand Ayatollahs.

Grand Ayatollahs

Grand Ayatollahs are those people who are Ayatollahs, but they were able to create a social and financial network and build a business. It is not just an Ayatollah, he has a business, he has an institution, he has an office, so he is able to attract people to follow him and to pay him the religious taxes. They are called Grand Ayatollahs, so, for example, my father is an Ayatollah, but he does not have any followers on earth. He is teachings, he is writing, and that is it. It is just an academic prestige, that is it, but there are people who are Grand Ayatollahs, which means that they have institutions, they have organization, they have many people working for them, many clerics working for them. They are going to different cities, different villages to promote their religious leadership and so on, and gather, collect the religious taxes.

So if we are talking about Ayatollahs, it means those people who are theologically eligible to be followed. You have about five hundred Ayatollahs in Iran, in Iraq, in Kuwait, in Lebanon, and elsewhere, but among these people we have less than 50 people who have been able to claim themselves as a Grand Ayatollah under different levels. For example, we have Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, who has a very large portion of Shia community as his followers, millions of peoples. He has an office in New York, in Chicago, in London, in Paris, in different places in the world, so people go there to perform the religious ceremonies, to pay their taxes, to get introduced to religious people, to mingle with the religious community. You have Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, who has millions of followers inside Iran and outside Iran. We have some Grand Ayatollah who have one million, two million, three million [followers].

If you go to the Washington Institute website, I explain how you can because there is no transparent system that you can go there and say, okay, what is the data? Who are the Ayatollahs and how many followers each one has and how much money do they collect? No, there is no such system, but there are some ways that help you to have a rough estimate about the number of people who follow them, about the very income sources, about the way they spend it and so on. So one of the main differences between Shia Islam and the Catholic Christianity is that in Shia Islam, there is no such hierarchy in the clerical establishment, so you have many people and you are religiously free to follow any of them. There are some criteria, but all of them are subjective. For example, you have to follow the most pious Ayatollah. You have to follow the most knowledgeable Ayatollah. It is very subjective. People have different opinions.

Audience member:

Does everyone have to choose an Ayatollah to follow?

Mehdi Khalaji:

That is a very good question. In Shia Islam, you have to either be an Ayatollah, which means you have studied enough to be able to understand the religious and sacred texts for yourself. It is like you are a doctor, so you do not need to go to a doctor, so you diagnose your problem yourself and you prescribe for yourself, but if you are not an Ayatollah, you have to follow an Ayatollah, and among those Ayatollahs you have to choose the most pious, the most knowledgeable Ayatollah, who is well aware of the contemporary problems of the Muslim community. So actually, he is able to apply the legal system to the current cases. This is one difference.

The second difference is that when the Pope dies, ‘Pope’ is a title, it is not an individual, but in Shia Islam, when an Ayatollah dies, it is an individual, it is not a title, which means that if Ayatollah Sistani, for example, dies, now, he is one of the richest Ayatollahs on the planet. When he dies, technically, we cannot speak of any successor because there are already many Ayatollahs out there. The followers have two choices: one, to continue to follow him as they did before, but if there was a new case, they can go to another Ayatollah, and the other choice is to choose another Ayatollah, but there is no successor of this specific Ayatollah. One of the consequences is that everything he had, the financial network, the money, the assets, the organization, the madrassah, the institutions, the libraries [are not transferred]. For example, Ayatollah Sistani has an observatory in Qom because they need to know the real time for fasting, praying, and so on, so he has a huge observatory facility in Qom.

So they have millions of dollars as assets, savings, and so on, but if he dies, this money, these assets, [and] this network will not transfer automatically to anyone else. It remains in the family, which is very strange because neither the Ayatollah nor the family are accountable before any authority. They are not accountable before any government, they are not accountable for any social or political authority, so nobody knows how much money they have and how they would spend it, so the children of the Ayatollah, the sons-in-law, or the relatives continue to run those organization for an unlimited time. Before the revolution, they had such a system until 1979, the Iranian revolution.

What happened in the Iranian revolution? What was the Iranian revolution? This is one of the ways to describe the Iranian Revolution.

Four centuries ago, the Safavid dynasty started to design a very specific, essential relation between Shia authority and political authority. We said I am the king, I run the country, but you as an Ayatollah provide me the legitimacy. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, thought that, actually, we do not need a king, we can be the king ourselves. If we are the ones who are supposed to provide the legitimacy to the political system, to the political authority, why would we need a king? So, I can become an Ayatollah who rules the country and replaces the King. And we see this confluence of political and religious authorities in 1979.

Okay, before 1979, the financial resources of the clerics were limited to religious resources like Zakat [and] khums. Those of you who are familiar with these terms know [about] different kinds of religious endowments. [This] was huge, actually. Can you believe that one-third of [land is owned by religious endowments]? Iran is the largest country in the Middle East, but one-third of Iran’s land is religious endowment. One-third, so it is huge money, huge money, and when we talk about one-third, we are not talking about desert, we are talking about those kinds of land [that are used] for agriculture that make money.

But after the revolution, the Ayatollah became the ruler of the country. That changed everything. Why? [This is] because he had access to the government resources, so that changed [the] clerics’ relation with [the] people because before the revolution, yes, people followed clerics, but people had to care about people because people were providing them money, so you all have to care about peoples’ concerns and problems in order to attract their attention and motivate them to pay you the religious taxes.

After the revolution, the religious resources became a very tiny, small portion of their resources, so they were able to have access to the oil money, oil revenue, export, import, and all kinds of monopolies [that are] based on the discriminatory system of the Islamic Republic of Iran, so if you are an Ayatollah, you have the monopoly of importing sugar to the country. That is enough. That is enough for you, so your relationship with the people changes. You do not care about people because you became a businessman, so you make money without any need to convince people about your legitimacy or your superiority over other Ayatollahs or over other religious, social, cultural authorities.

If you read the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran, it is based on the very clear, heavy discrimination in favor of clerics. How? In many ways. First, the ruler of the country should be an Ayatollah, so lay people, a lay individual cannot be velāyat-e faqīh or the jurist ruler of the country. On the other hand, it is not about the ruler but also the many key positions in the political and legal system of the country are exclusively given to clerics. For example, the Chief of the Judiciary should be an Ayatollah. The General Prosecutor should be an Ayatollah. The Minister of Intelligence should be an Ayatollah.

We have a political body called the Guardian Council. It consists of 12 people. Six [of those] people are lawyers. They are not important at all. Six people are Ayatollahs. This [group of] six people should [all] be Ayatollahs, each of them, and should be appointed by the ruling Ayatollah. The Guardian Council controls all elections in the country from step one to the last step, and it is in charge of verifying all bills adopted by the Parliament, whether [they are] compatible with Islam or Islamic law or not, so they are the final arbiter in approving or adopting any law in Iran.

And you have another body, which is important, called the Assembly of Experts. Now, it consists of 86 Ayatollahs. All of them should be Ayatollahs. The Assembly of Experts is in charge of supervising the ruling Ayatollahs’ records, seeing whether [they are] doing right, whether [they are] respecting the country’s national security interests or not, and in case of his disability or dysfunction or his death, they can appoint another Supreme Leader, replacing Khomeini. In practice, all of these people are elected through an ‘election,’ [which] means through the Guardian Council, [which] means through the ruling jurist himself, which means that all these people are indirectly elected by the Supreme Leader to supervise him.

You know that it is not possible, and they have nothing to do except to provide legitimacy to the Supreme Leader. This is very important. So, the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader, in other words, the whole system, comes from this body, which is created and maintained by the Supreme Leader. You have many other key positions in different bodies of the government, which are allocated exclusively to clerics.

And the rule jurist, who is the ruling jurist? Okay, I am an Ayatollah, but (this but is very important) because the political philosophy of the Islamic Republic is called velāyat-e faqīh, the guardianship of the jurist, which means that, as I said, you have many Ayatollahs, but one of them (through a very sophisticated procedure) becomes the ruling jurist. Okay, he becomes the ruling jurist, why? [This is] because Ayatollah Khomeini said, we are Muslims. Everyone on the planet needs law. Every society needs law, but because we are Muslims, we have the best law, which is Islamic law, which is Sharia law, and as Muslims we have to implement Islamic law, not [just] in our private lives but also in the public sphere, but who is able to implement Islamic law in the private sphere better than experts in Islamic law, which means an Ayatollah.

Okay, we have many Ayatollahs. How can we choose? As I said, they have a very sophisticated, crazy system. Believe me, no one, even Iranians after 40 years are able to understand how this system can be reasonable. This body elects one Ayatollah, okay, and not all citizens, lay individuals. But also, other Ayatollahs should follow him on every matter related to the public sphere.

I will give you an example. In Islamic law, paying and receiving interest for your savings is illegal, okay? That was the custom, that was the practice for many centuries, but in the Islamic Republic, they created some justification for it, and it was approved by this Supreme Leader, so other Ayatollahs cannot say [and] cannot ask their followers not to put their money in the bank. Their followers, despite the fact that their Ayatollah is not happy with this, do not [in their minds] legitimize religiously this banking system, [but they are] not allowed to say anything. That is natural. Otherwise, it would be chaos, so everyone as a citizen would follow the government’s guidance on anything related to the public sphere from economy [to] culture. There are many examples.

[This] means that being and becoming an Ayatollah becomes meaningless, so I as an Ayatollah should follow the ruling Ayatollah exactly the same way as a lay individual should follow him. The Islamic Republic has destroyed the institution of Sharia in this way, so that is why it is very difficult technically to talk about the theocracy in describing the Islamic Republic’s political system. I think it is better to describe it as a religious autocracy, an autocracy which is justified by religion, but it is not theocracy because the institution of clergy is totally irrelevant, has no say in the legal system, [in the] judiciary, in the propaganda, in running the country’s economy, in defining the government’s policies, whether domestic or foreign policies.

The clergy, interestingly, became richer economically but weaker politically and socially, so that is the paradox of the clergy. The clergy has traded with the government, got lots of money, lots of economic privileges from the government, but in return it has lost its independence, so it is unable to challenge the government on any issues, whether cultural, economic, political. And that is why, for example, today, you see, [but[ you do not hear from Shia clergy any word on the nuclear program, on Iran’s policy in Syria, on Iran’s policy in Iraq, on Iran’s policy in Lebanon, on Iran’s attitude toward Israel, on Iran’s attitude toward the West, nothing, total silence because they know that if they speak out their opinions, they will be easily cracked down or deprived from the privileges they have. This is the result of 40 years of religious government in Iran.

And at the end, the Islamic Republic had related the destiny of the cleric of establishment to its own destiny. This is something that many clerics in Qom, in Najaf are aware of, and are extremely unhappy about it, but cannot do much about this. The government has transformed the clerical establishment from a religious body to a government body, which is in charge of training cattle for the government, so it does not matter [if you] study or not or what is your opinion on religion. It is really irrelevant, but at the end, you are not able to apply it. You know, you are not able to attract people to a different opinion.

What matters is that [you] go there, study for two years (instead of 10, 15 years), two years, three years, four years, every, you know, superficial study, and then wear the uniform and go work in one of the government bureaus, whether in the army, IRGC, in the state TV and radio, in the educational system, in the juridical system. It does not matter. Go and work. This is totally different from peoples’ motivations to come to study in the seminary before the revolution. So, I stop here. Thank you for tolerating my horrible English.


Robert R. Reilly:

May I take the privilege, Mehdi, of asking the first question? From where did the religious authority of the velāyat-e faqīh doctrine arrive? As I understand, it is a heterodox teaching in Shia Islam, so how did that teaching gain legitimacy, and how broadly within the Iranian people is its legitimacy recognized?

Mehdi Khalaji:

Yes, actually, this is one of the main issues for anyone who studies contemporary Shi’ism because many people think that the notion of the guardianship of jurists came from Islamic jurisprudence or Shi’ite jurisprudence. Why? [This is because] you can find its origin, mostly not in Islamic jurisprudence, but in Islamic mysticism. If you look at Ayatollah Khomeini’s writings, he refers to very famous mystic figures, like Ibn Arabi, like Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi, more than jurists. In other words, Ayatollah Khomeini did not believe in Sharia only.

He did not believe in the religious and legal system, and that is very ironic. Let me explain it to you because after many years of study I just found this out, and it is really interesting. Before the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini was advocating for implementation of the Sharia, okay? Sharia, it is very simple. We are Muslims, we have Sharia, I am an Ayatollah, an expert on Sharia, so I have the religious legitimacy to rule the community in order to implement the law. Okay?

He came to power. He came to power, [and] for the first time in the history of Shi’ism, a Shi’ite Ayatollah took [control of] the government, but Iranian society and Iranian government were so modernized. We had modern universities, modern economy, modern judiciary, everything was modern, modern TV and radio. He found out – he was not smart enough to realize that you cannot apply Sharia and run the country at the same time. These are not going to work out. Why? For example, Sharia says you cannot take interest of your savings in the banking system. What does that mean? It means you have to shut down the whole banking system. The modern banking system is not justified in the Sharia. Okay?

And you as the ruler of the government want to have a TV and radio while Sharia says that women are not allowed to go [on] radio and TV. Nobody is allowed to hear the voice of women who are not his close relatives, so what does it mean? It means that you have no cinema, you have no entertainment, nothing. Sharia says that music is illegal, absolutely illegal. How can you do radio and TV without [music? Imagine doing this] in a country that is not Afghanistan, it is not Saudi Arabia, it is not Yemen, it is Iran. I am not chauvinist, but still, there is a big difference between Iran and [its neighbors].

Ayatollah Khomeini found out that everything Sharia says is alien to the society. Look at women, for example, [and the] hijab. I have traveled to many cities in the world, many capitals, especially in the Muslim world. If you go to Tehran today, you will find Tehran [to be], and I bet on this, the most erotic city in the Muslim world. It does not look like a Muslim city. I was in Dubai, I was in Ankara, I was in Istanbul, I was in Beirut, I was in different places. In the morning, you hear the voice of adhan, the calling for prayer. You would hear this calling for prayer wherever you are in the capital, [but] not in Tehran, not in Tehran.

Those of you who are following new movies, especially independent movies, know that this year Asghar Farhadi, [the] Iranian director, won the Oscar Prize for the second time. And if you go and watch his first movie, which won the Oscar a few years ago, it is called Separation. Go and see this movie in order to see the middle-class, ordinary life in Tehran. Forget about the story. The story does not matter. Iranians are the most similar people to Americans. If you go to Tehran, the architecture, the life, the music [will feel familiar].

Iranians do not know what is going on in Istanbul. They hardly know any Afghan, Pakistani, Arab writers or artists, but every movie you watch in the cinema they receive the CD or the DVD in the underground network just two weeks up after you watch it here. The underground culture in Iran is not that underground. It is over ground, you know, so everything is available, everything, and they know what exactly happened today in Fifth Avenue in New York. They are, you know, just crazy about the United States, and they think that they do not belong to this region. They do not define themselves as Middle Eastern. They think that it was just an historical bad luck that they were misplaced. They [would have been] next to Switzerland, you know, something like that. Now they are next to Afghanistan or Iraq.

This is the society Ayatollah Khomeini faced. A few years after the revolution, he introduced a new theory, which is the expediency of the government. What is this notion? What is this theory? He said that based on the expediency of the government, in case of any conflict between Sharia and the interests of the country, interest of the nation, the interest of the country trumps Sharia. So, he gave priority to the interest of the regime or what political scientists call raison d’être. Expediency of the regime is more important, that the Constitution is more important than the Sharia law. In other words, Sharia law is valid until further notice. And it reminds me [of] this amazing phrase of the Groucho Marx who said once that, “These are my principles. If you do not like them, I have others.”

This has become the official philosophy of the Islamic Republic. Okay, Sharia is there, but if I think that that the interest of the regime entails me to do something else, I have to go for that. In other words, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power by this claim, that I want to implement the Sharia, and you have to follow me because I am an expert in law, but after he came to power, he changed his mind. He neutralized the legitimacy of the Sharia, and he said that I rule over this country, not only because I am an Ayatollah, not only because I am an expert in religion, but because I know the expediency of this country better than all of you.

And this is why I say this notion did not exist in the jurisprudence. Now this absolutism, this autocracy was something that was created by Khomeini based on his background in mysticism. I know the truth, I know the absolute truth, and you have to follow me, and you have no right to ask me, you have no right to challenge me, you just have to follow me blindly. So, now you are facing a government whose political philosophy does not have any kind of legitimacy even religiously.

Audience member:

You give a fascinating description from within of the transformation. It is very educational. You treat it as basically sui generis, of its own nature. I would compare it, if I would compare it to other theocracies, to a totalitarian system. And to me, I do not see anything sui generis. I see everything here can be compared to other theocracies. Yes, the clergy lose their autonomy and independence. It is not the same thing as losing power. They have tremendous power within the system, but they must be a part of the dialogue within the system. They do not have independence of it. And in the case of Soviet communism, the internal dialogue of the Communist Party ultimately talked itself out of communism under [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Alexander] Yakovlev. That shows the significance of the clergy, in this case, communist clergy. It was tremendously important, and yet they lost their independence. They were terribly subordinate. I wonder if this kind of comparison is valid. Again, you presented as sui generis and very informative, but I wonder if it can be fit into a comparative framework such as this.

Mehdi Khalaji:

I think you are right. There are lots of similarities between the Islamic Republic and the historical types of totalitarianism (communism, fascism, or medieval theocracies), but there are lots of differences too, and that is what makes it difficult to describe these new political creatures [that] you are talking about. There are new regimes in the world, which are described by political scientists as semi totalitarianism or electoral authoritarian regimes, which means that you see these competitive elections.

We just had a presidential election in Iran, which was, as my friend describes elections in Iran, maximum drama, minimum change, so this is exactly what is going on in these kinds of regimes. You have a competition between different factions, and they are really fighting against each other. It is not a theater, no, they are really fighting, but at the end, there is a framework that does not let these people to go out of this framework, which makes it different from traditional dictatorship, traditional, classic, conventional theocracies.

In the case of Iran, yes, you see the President of Iran is a cleric, but he had no power base in the clerical community. Where [does] his power base come from? The military. It is very interesting. You can go and Google it. Sometimes in my speeches I show these pictures which are very telling. look at some pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini. When you look at Ayatollah Khomeini, the people around him are lay people, engineers, doctors, clerics, the people around him. But Google Ayatollah Khamenei’s pictures, [and you will see that] all of those people are coming from the military and intelligence, whether with uniform or without uniform, even those people who are presumably clerics, but they are not clerics. They just have the turban and robe, but they come from intelligence and the military.

The real power in Iran now is not in the hands of clerics, it is in the hands of the military and especially IRGC, and these are people who are determining Iran’s key policies, whether in the economy, in politics, in domestic politics, in the foreign policy, in the cultural arena, and so on. And if Ayatollah Khamenei dies, these are not clerics who get together and think about who is the best person to succeed, who is the best Ayatollah to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei? No, these are IRGC, these are military, these are intelligence people who are going to decide who is the next Ayatollah who can obey them and protect their interests, so the Iranian regime is a military regime with a religious facade.

Audience member:

Is the United States administration, the current one or the previous one or the one before that, realize the sophistication of the arguments you are making or the description you are making of the structure of the Iranian government?

Mehdi Khalaji:

That is a very tough question. Look, you know, some people, for example, the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has said several times that, “The Iranian regime is not theocracy, it is thugocracy.” It means the rule of thugs, which is true in a way, so we had some people in each administration who were well informed about all these complexities and so on.

I joined the institute in 2005. I came to the Washington on February 17, 5:20 pm in the afternoon in Dulles Airport, that is when I landed in the United States. And three months later, I joined the [Washington] Institute. Since then, I have been in the think tank community. I do believe that we have great people who understand Iran, who understand the Middle East. The issue is the policies that each government decided to follow. It is not understanding, so, for example, under Obama we had a totally different policy. They intentionally decided to ignore some issues like human rights, like democracy, like the civil society. They decided to negotiate with those people who have power on a very specific issue, which was the nuclear issue. Now we have a different president with different priorities. I do not think that the problem is the difference of perception as much as it is the difference in policy planning.

Audience member:

I have heard from people that if there is a rapprochement with the United States, that this would mean the end of the revolution, or people say that. Could you help us understand what they mean when they say, “the revolution?” What is embedded in that concept of the survival of the revolution because I now the IRGC is devoted to the survival of the revolution? What is that?

Mehdi Khalaji:

I think Mr. Kissinger has responded to this question by saying that as long as Iran has not decided whether it is a country or a cause, it is a revolutionary government. Okay? When Iran decides to protect the national interest, to not destabilize the government in the region, to not make a threat to Israel, because I do believe that Iran and Israel are similar in many ways and they can be, you know, they are natural allies, and this situation is unnatural. This situation is not normal.

We have to go back to the Shah’s policy. Why is that? [That is] because both Iran and Israel are surrounded by enemies, Arabs, [who] hate Israel as much as they hate Iran. Historically, as I told you, [for] four centuries, Iran tried to maintain the power equation by making alliances with the foreigners, with the outsiders, with Europeans. This is what the Shah did. The Shah was a U.S.-ally, and by this alliance was able to maintain its power in the region. We and Israel have lots of things in common, and this is not natural. As long as Iran is practically and actively pursuing anti-Israel policies by providing different kinds of [assistance] to help to Hezbollah, Hamas, and all these groups, we can describe it as a revolutionary government, which means that there is no reasonable justification for Iran to be Israel’s enemy.

But it is an ideology, so as long as this ideology shapes the decision-making in Tehran, it is a revolutionary government. Yes, if Iran decided to normalize its relationship with the United States, I do believe that that would be the end of the Islamic Republic, but I think exactly for the same reason it would not happen under Ayatollah Khamenei at least. If he dies, okay, let us see what happens, but under Ayatollah Khamenei because Ayatollah Khamenei is aware of this, any serious rapprochement with the United States would be not only the death of the Islamic Republic but the political death for himself. And that would be an act of suicide, so it would not happen under him. But let us see what happens after he dies.

By the way, because I am writing his biography, political biography, I think I am one of the few people in Washington who wakes up every morning and prays to God to keep him alive because I am a slow writer, and my concern is that he dies before I finish my biography, and that would be an economic disaster for me.

Audience member:

Well, actually, whatever you said about Iran, if I replace the word with China, it sounds very similar. If you think of the current Communist Chinese government, it has nothing, no relation to communism except power. If you talk about who rules China, you think of two sectors, the military and the secret police. And it is the same thing any communist, serious intellectuals, if they go along, they have no power but an enormous amount of money and business. This gentleman talked about the CCP. When you compare them, the way they hold power, the way they treat the theories, whatever, the theology, it is exactly the same.

Mehdi Khalaji:

Look, I have no doubt that you know China better than me. I have [only] read a few books on the Chinese political system, and I am sure that there are lots of similarities, but by training I am a theologian and a philosopher, and you know, Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the German philosophers says that not seeing the differences is a sign of weak eyes. I try to see the differences because there are lots of similarities, no doubt, not only with the contemporary political systems, but also like Russia, like China, like North Korea, [and] many, many other places.

But I am looking for specifics about the Iranian regime because we are dealing with a clerical establishment, which is extremely unorganized. In communism, everything was organized at least. Not anymore, yeah, it was organized. In Iran, it was never organized, so out of this kind of organizationally weak system you have a very complicated interaction between old and new actors and factors. Let me give you an example.

Before the nuclear negotiation we could speak of Iranian opposition both inside Iran and outside it, at least inside Iran after the 2000 election, which was rigged, and there was a crisis after that. You could talk about a serious opposition group inside Iran and outside Iran we had different kinds of groups, which fled Iran after the revolution or after war and so on, but when Rouhani, the president, started the nuclear negotiations, the way the government portrayed this negotiation is that this nuclear program is our right, and the United States and the West are trying to deprive us from this right, so now we are fighting over a right, so this is us versus the West.

And all of a sudden, these lines, these borders between government people and opposition was blurred, so you saw all these people who were criticizing the government’s foreign policy, domestic policy, economics. They kept silent and they started to support the government. Why? [This was] because ‘we are fighting over a right with the United States.’ And this has increased anti-American sentiment in Iran.

And let me tell you something else. Before this nuclear negotiation, people were thinking of democracy and human rights as the ultimate priority for failing Iran. After this negotiation, people say who cares about human rights? The same people [said], who cares about human rights and democracy? Why? For two reasons. First, unprecedented sanctions caused by Iran’s nuclear program made life very difficult for people. These people say that okay, our priority should be lifting these sanctions, so [let us support the Iranian government in] negotiating with the West, supporting the regime to negotiate lifted sanctions because you cannot motivate people to pursue democracy and human rights if they are hungry. First, you have to give them bread, and then ask them to fight for human rights, so [first, deal with the] economy.

And second, the experience of the so-called Arab Spring was so disappointing for Iranians. And the government’s narrative, which is according to me it is totally untrue, but the government told people that you see what is happening in Syria, you see what is happening in Bahrain, in Yemen, this was Israel and the United States’ plot in 2009 to make Iran as chaotic as Syria, and we fought for it, so we cracked down [on] all this political activists, all these journalists, all these human rights activists for a good reason.

And unfortunately, all those people who have been cracked down, many of them, are happy. They bought this argument, so before 2009, you had human rights and democracy. Now, nobody talks about that. Everyone talks about the economy and security, so the security of the country and economy became the most urgent needs. The Islamic Republic is very good at protecting the country’s integrity, security, and fighting for lifting sanctions, so there is no opposition anymore. One of the things about Iran is this gap between government and people. I am not talking about ordinary people, I am talking about elites, I am talking about intellectuals. They are not complaining about the violation of human rights anymore the way they did before 2009, and this is a real tragedy. Thank you so much for your attendance.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you very much for coming, ladies and gentlemen. Please join us for Bill Gertz on July 14th.