Islamic republic or Islamic state? At the moment Iran is hotly debating the question, which was posed at the very beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but was never really settled.
Political power in today's Iran is based on contradictory structures whose origins go back to this question, the paradox of a system of government that subjects elected representatives of the people to the absolute teachings of Islam, or, more precisely, to the doctrine of political Shiite Islam.
Islamic Republic versus Islamic State
The discussion about an Islamic Republic versus an Islamic State was revived by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. In a recent speech to his pupils and followers, Mesbah Yazdi, one of the right-wing conservatives' spiritual leaders, rejected elections as a way of legitimizing power.
Regarding presidential elections, he declared that "by voting, the people merely propose the president". According to Mesbah, "Khomeini regarded the republic as an interim form of government, he was never an advocate of the republic".
Mesbah Yazdi, who heads the "Imam Khomeini School" – as well as the "Research Center"– in Ghom, holds the position that the religious leader has the ultimate power of decision. Thus, no election is valid unless he confirms it.
In the spirit of Khomeini
Mehdi Karobi, the presidential candidate who came in third in the 2005 election and accused his opponents of serious electoral fraud and organized propaganda, explained why Mesbah Yazdi insists on presenting his views as being in the spirit of Khomeini:
"Pious young Muslims venerate Khomeini and cherish his memory… For them Khomeini is a holy man. If someone tells them that Khomeini didn't believe in elections, the voice of the people loses its value for them," says Karobi. "But if someone told them that Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi doesn't believe in elections, the young believers would say "Fine – that's an opinion, but we don't share it."
After this debate began, politicians and public figures in Iran strongly criticized Mesbah Yazdi's position and warned of an influx of Mesbah's supporters into the highest political committee, the Council of Experts, whose most important task is the election of the religious "leader".
A threat to the Islamic Republic
Ex-president Khatami recently spoke of a "third force" that has formed alongside the two main political tendencies, the reformers and the conservatives:
"I see the present balance of power as a clear threat to the future of the Islamic Republic and its leadership," said Khatami. "This means that the Council of Experts could take a disturbing course, and that forces that do not entirely support the declared goals of the Revolution (of 1979) could take on the leadership role."
The most recent presidential election made it abundantly clear that the political balance of power is much too complicated to be divided into two main camps. Ahmadinejad's surprising electoral victory seems to have been the result of long years of planning by people who have done an excellent job of organizing themselves outside the existing political conflict.
Some in Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi's circle have stated clearly that the march to power was well-prepared and methodically carried out. After the takeover of the Teheran city council and Ahmadinejad's election as Mayor of Teheran in 2003, they won a parliamentary majority and finally, in the summer of 2005, the presidential election.
Dominating the council of experts
Next, the so-called "secret party" of Mesbah's pupils and supporters plans to dominate the Council of Experts and use it as an instrument for taking over the country's highest leadership.
After his swearing-in, Ahmadinejad accused all preceding governments of serious errors. He kept on hardly a single one of the old functionaries, setting in motion an unusual large-scale purge. Leading representatives of all the ministries were released, and six top bank directors were forced to vacate their positions.
At one fell swoop he replaced the ambassadors in all the important embassies. When it comes to distributing jobs, loyalty and consensus with the new rulers counts more than qualifications.
Many of the conservatives, who supported Ahmadinejad – however halfheartedly – were passed over for government positions. Thus, the strongest criticism is now coming from members of parliament, most of whom are conservatives.
Taken as a whole, all this indicates that a new force has indeed taken shape, one that will be content with nothing less than total power. A force that already dominates more or less all the organs of state – all but the very final authority, the office of the religious head of state.
Provocation as political calculation?
With its goal of an Islamic state, the Islamic Republic of Iran is drifting further than ever before from the values of western democracies. This does not seem to disturb the new rulers. On the contrary, it is very much in the spirit of an Islamic state that rejects all western values – on the premise of returning to the "glorious founding era of Islam".
Is this one of the reasons why Ahmadinejad regularly issues statements provoking the west? Is it easier to establish an Islamic state when all relations with the rest of the world have been broken off?
This will be seen at the latest after the upcoming election of the Council of Experts. The reformers and even some of the conservatives, barely recovered from the shock of the last presidential election, are now speaking of the necessity of regrouping.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Isabel Cole