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Outside View: Iran's unlikely champion

By M.D. NALAPAT, Outside View Commentator

MANIPAL, India, March 23 (UPI) -- Unlike its Sunni counterpart, the theology of which has often been used by autocrats to profess a divine sanction for their license, Shiite Islam had at its theological core the concept of the separation of mosque from state.

The philosophy was clear that until the 12th imam of legend returned from his occultation to take over governance, the clergy were to leave temporal matters alone. It took nearly a thousand years for this tradition to get diluted when, in 1501, the Safavids installed Shiite Islam as the religion of the state.

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Almost a half a century later, the Shiite tradition of separation of temporal from spiritual got wholly subverted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who implemented his innovation of a "Velayet-i-Faqih." He -- in the same way as Sunni rulers -- had "divine" sanction to run the administration the way he saw it. This perversion of genuine Shiite tradition has resulted in a crisis of identity in Iran, where those who can be accurately described as "Khomeinist" rather than Shiite or even Muslim rule in the name of the creed they have rendered unrecognizable from its roots.

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Given the tension that has existed between Shiite and Sunni Islam from the death of the Prophet Mohammad in AD 632, it is remarkable how closely "Khomeinism" follows in its chemistry and practices a like perversion of Sunni Islam that was invented by Abdul Wahhab, who died in the 18th century, and has now supplanted Islam as the state religion of Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabi followers were apologists for the absolutist prerogatives of the House of Saud, into which his progeny married. It eventually became the religious duty of every Wahhabi to obey the clan that been grafted onto the bulk of the Arabian peninsula with help given by the British.

The difference in Iran was that instead of installing another royal house to replace the Pahlavis, Khomeini installed the dictatorship of a supreme cleric, himself, with the right to choose his successor as the next "holy" despot.

There is the same intolerance of dissent and support to absolutism in Khomeinism as is found in Wahabbism. The ayatollah's teachings reflect the same blood lust and contempt for "unbelievers" as Abdul Wahhab's. Today, the effective control of all Iran's state instruments of coercion is in the hands of Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the same way as they are vested in the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia. Neither the armed forces, nor the police, nor religious paramilitaries such as the Basij, are answerable to President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected to office by 26 million votes.

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No, they report to Khamenei, who technically consults an 80-member Assembly of Experts, which is itself selected by a 12-member Council of Guardians, half of whom are directly appointed by Khamenei and the other half from a list put up by the head of Iran's judiciary -- who is also selected by Khamenei.

Only Saddam Hussein, King Fahd, 'Papa Doc' Duvalier and Kim Jong Il ever had regimes that could match his near-absolute power.

The supreme leader of Iran, in view of his Khomeini-gifted access to the Almighty, is also the appointing authority for the aptly named Expediency Council, which has the power to grant exceptions to the Sharia laws of Islam in case such deviations are expedient.

This body -- now headed by former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- arbitrates between the Council of Guardians and the elected parliament, the Majlis, which -- lacking divine approval -- has almost no authority. Most of its members were "elected" by the effective expedient of Khamenei's disqualifying all serious candidates from the contest.

The bodies ostensibly created to protect Islam in practice condone the flouting of Sharia law whenever the enforcement of this is judged to be incompatible with the interests of the Khomeinists clergy who now run Iran.

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Now that it has followed the Saudi example of converting religion itself into an ideology that protects the powers of the ruling clique, Khamenei and his men have transformed themselves from spiritual leaders into political bosses, responsible for reducing the elected government of Iran to impotence.

Iranians have internalized a cultural tradition that was advanced and sophisticated even 1,500 years before the Prophet Mohammed revealed the Koran in AD 610. More than 15 years after Khomeini ravaged and sought to uproot these ancient Persian traditions, they still exist, though sometimes in an attenuated way.

For example, some Jewish synagogues still function in the country in contrast to Saudi Arabia, where any public expression of a faith other than Wahabbism is treated as criminal.

Even those close to Khomenei, such as Abolhassan Bani Sadr, expected that he would revert to Shiite tradition and leave government to the laity once the Shah was removed from his throne. They were wrong. Khomenei -- unlike almost all his pre-1979 close associates -- took his concept of "Velayet-i-Faqih" seriously, and ensured that it supplanted more orthodox doctrine.

Within the Shiite clergy, powerful voices such as Ayatollah Montazeri were uneasy with this entry of the mullahs into the seats of government. These traditionalists saw how several of the Khomeinists had begun to enrich themselves, thanks to the fact that more than 80 percent of Iran's economy was state-controlled. They saw how the vigorous intellectual debates that have historically been a distinguishing characteristic of Shiite Islam was headed for extinction.

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It is small wonder that many of them later joined the overwhelming majority of Iranians in backing a reformist cleric, Mohammad Khatami, for president of Iran.

Five years later, though, it has become clear Khatami has no stomach to take on Khamenei over the issue of the rights of the elected government. He has conceded to the despots their power and, as a result, the reform movement has become discredited.

Ironically, opposition to Khamenei's absolutist rule is beginning to emerge from a group of Iranian conservatives who seek to put a president into office who -- unlike Khatami -- will have the dexterity and muscle to wield real rather than merely formal power.

Their candidate for the 2006 presidential elections is the current head of the Expediency Council, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who may be just be wily enough to ensure that the Council of Guardians returns to the boundaries set by Shiite tradition for the clergy.

Can a President Rafsanjani succeed where Khatami failed, that is, bring Iran closer to democracy by taking back the powers now exercised by the supreme leader? To do so, he will need to work out an alliance with liberal groups in Iran, and ensure that he delivers at least some part of the freedoms they expect.

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In Taiwan and South Korea, unlikely leaders have steered their systems to real democracy from authoritarianism, without any mass upsurge acting as a goad. Ironically for those who believe the Bush presidency to be an unmitigated disaster, it is fear of a U.S. or an Israeli strike against Iran that is holding back the Khomeinists from greater acts of repression against a population now openly contemptuous of the ayatollah's legacy.

The sight of Saddam Hussein emerging from his pit has been a lesson to many Khomeinists in Iran of the external checks to their authority.

Were a poll to be taken today measuring the Iranian people's attitude toward Khomenism, fewer than one in 10 would back the philosophy Shiite became under Khomeini. Women in particular chafe at the Saudi-style restrictions that have been placed on them since 1979, especially those related to dress, although in the job market, they have retained most of the rights that are till today denied their Saudi sisters.

Despite the years of repression in Khomeinist Iran, women there are slowly reclaiming the space that they lost in 1979. Even within the armed forces, many are dissatisfied with conditions in Iran and are eager to emigrate to Europe or to North America. It is only the privileged followers of the Khomeinist creed -- such as the Revolutionary Guard (which, ironically , has become the most formidable defender of the status quo) or the Basij militia -- who support Khamenei and his cohorts in today's Iran.

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Recently, the Shahid Behesti University in Teheran organized a conference on Religion and Human Rights in which speakers from the clergy -- such as Mohammed Shabestari, Mohsen Kadivar, Ali Mirmoussavi and Rahim Nobahar -- explicitly called for the separation of mosque from state and supported the rights of women and minorities to equal treatment.

Were such a meeting to have taken place in Saudi Arabia, the speakers and most of the participants would have been arrested.

Despite a written protest from the Basij against the conference, the fact that the university authorities have thus far remained unmolested indicates that opposition to the Khomeinists is becoming too widespread to suppress.

Indeed, these days, visitors to Iran are surprised by the vehemence with which those clustered around the supreme leader are being criticized. Should such a trend develop, Iran may yet experience a renaissance that would recapture both the glory of its heritage as well as the intellectual freedom that has separated Shiite Islam from its Sunni counterpart for much of Islamic history.

Those close to two prospective candidates for the 2005 presidential election -- Rafsanjani and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati -- say that neither individual favors the Khomeinist "subordination of Iranian interests to the struggle against the U.S. and Israel."

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Few in Iran have forgotten that during the brutal war initiated by Saddamite Iraq in 1980, the entire Palestinian leadership backed Saddam. Possibly because of the way these two conservatives have subtly distanced themselves from the hard-line positions held by Khamenei, the supreme leader is believed to be nurturing a group of political leaders who may be used to challenge Rafsanjani and Velayeti.

This emerging radical group is led by Teheran Mayor Ahmed Najed and Ali Larjani, an adviser to the supreme leader. They share several of the biases against modernity and tolerance of the Saudi Wahabbists, although the latter have these days chosen discretion to their customary volubility. Indeed, in its core philosophy, this Iranian neo-Khomeinism intends to drive an essentially moderate people into the hell of a Talibanized state. Were Khamenei to repeat in the presidential elections his success in stifling democracy in the parliamentary polls, Iran would revert to the chaos of 1979-1989.

While the backers of Osama Bin Laden have fallen largely silent in Saudi Arabia, in Iran they are open about their admiration for him, volubly backing his war against the modern world.

Had Iranian society been as unlettered as the desert communities of Saudi Arabia, Khamenei would have succeeded in creating another Afghanistan by now. However, his radicalism is coming under heavy fire from much of civil society in Iran, creating the prospect of a Second Revolution that does away with the Khomeinist despotism that replaced that of the Pahlavis.

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A vigorous opposition from the international community to the clerics in authority would speed up this necessary process.

With its influence in the Islamic world, its location and the versatility of its people, Iran is a putative great power. Any transformation from its present torpor can only come about from the forces within the country that favor a renaissance to overthrow the despotism of the Khomeinists.

While this is a battle that is largely being fought by the Iranians themselves, the rest of the world can help by avoiding any pandering to the fanatics, and by raising the cost to the Iranian ruling class of its Talibanite tendencies.

Were the international community to devote itself to the campaign for the victory of democracy in Iran to the degree of attention that it is focusing on Myanmar, for example, the people of Iran could speedily do the rest of the job, so brittle is the backing for the Khomeinists in present-day Iran.

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(M.D. Nalapat is a professor of geopolitics at India's Manipal Academy of Higher Education.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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