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Reasons of State

November 21, 2010

A fascinating article about Iran in the Saudi-owned political monthly magazine Al-Majalla has opened my eyes to the philosophical basis of the Iranian regime. The author, Mehdi Khalaji, is a senior fellow at the Institute of Near East Studies in Washington. Here’s a key excerpt:

Iran’s attitude toward Muslims is rooted in its approach toward Islam itself. Before 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini had been working diligently to build an intellectual case in support of the rule of the jurist, arguing that the strict implementation of Shari’a was indispensible. Since a jurist is an expert on Islamic law, he is the most qualified to implement its tenets and should thus rule the country. When he came to power, however, he found that modernization had led Iranian culture and society to be intolerant of many Shari’a principles; it became nearly impossible to return to a lifestyle that fit the traditional understanding of Islamic jurisprudence. So, he borrowed the idea of maslaha, or expediency, from Sunni jurisprudence and raison d’état (a French concept that justifies the overriding power of the state) from Western political philosophy, and applied them according to his own rules.

Khomeini argued that in cases where Shari’a conflicts with the realities of modern life, the ruling jurist has the religious authority to overrule Shari’a.  In this way, what sets the ruling jurist apart is not found in his ability to implement Shari’a but rather in his unique religious authority to ignore Shari’a in favor of the regime’s own interests should Shari’a be at odds with what would otherwise sustain the government. Based on this novel method of thinking, Khomeini solved many problems his government faced, including women’s suffrage (which he forbade more than a decade before the revolution), women’s right to appear on TV, in films or as public musicians, as well as the forced sales of privately-owned property, the imposition of new tax systems and so on. So, even though there are many other jurists in the Shi’ite world who are more learned and knowledgeable than Iran’s ruling jurists, what makes this class of Shi’as suitable for this job is that they also understand the regime’s interests and can recognize the situations in which Shari’a law should be overridden in favor of national interests. 

Overruling Shari’a is not simply an inadvertent issue in the Islamic Republic. Rather, it has become institutionalized. When Khomeini realized that present conditions prevented Shari’a from being implemented fully, he introduced the notion of maslaha. He then established the Expediency Council of the regime to integrate his methodology into the political system. The Guardian Council, created in the original constitution, was tasked with examining parliament’s decisions to ensure that they adhered to both the constitution and Islamic law, while the Expediency Council was to resolve conflicts between parliament and the Guardian Council. For example, if the Guardian Council rejects what has been ratified by parliament, the bill can go to the Expediency Council for deliberation. If the Expediency Council (on behalf of the ruling jurist) believes that parliament’s decision better serves the interests of the regime, it can vote for in favor of the legislation, even if it is against the constitution or Islamic law. At the top of the pyramid is the ruling jurist, who is authorized to overrule the law himself or through the Expediency Council. This is the meaning implied in the “absolute authority of the ruling jurist,” mentioned in the revised version of the constitution.

Ayatollah Khomeini elaborated a theory for government, which is nothing but autocracy in the name of Islam. In this political order, everything depends not on the ruling jurist’s understanding of Islam but rather on his will.

As was tellingly demonstrated during last year’s elections, backed up by the enforcement muscle of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the current ruling jurist, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can do much as he wants. If President Ahmadinejad steps out of line, Khamenei can swiftly stuff him back into the bottle from which he emerged.

The Expediency Council seems an elegant device. If a policy is unconstitutional, or contradicts the Sharia, but is deemed to be in the national interest, no problem, refer it to the Expediency Council and the Ayatollah’s ruling. What would some of Iran’s neighbours give for their own Expediency Council? So much better than justifying your policies through the edicts of unpredictable clerics or obedient lawyers, or through the application of naked political power backed up by the gun. Such a device would have been very useful to Tony Blair as he struggled to find a legal basis for going to war in 2003. Today, it would be a useful addition to President Obama’s playbook as he attempts to expedite Congress’s consent to the latest arms limitation treaty with Russia.

In the end there are many routes to autocracy. Most of them in the past century have been cloaked in a democratic veneer, at least until the autocrats’ grip on power is strong enough to abandon pretence. And many, like General Than Shwe of Burma, take out the old cloak, give it a dusting, and return it to the wardrobe when it suits them.

Winston Churchill once described democracy as the “least worst” political order. If I was an ordinary citizen of Russia watching Vladimir Putin following his path to autocracy, and bringing much-craved “order” to his chaotic country, would I agree? Perhaps I would not. But it seems to me – ordinary citizen of the UK and definitely not a politician or a political philosopher – that democracy, underpinned by the rule of law, offers a reasonable chance for the underprivileged and marginalised to make their voices heard. The alternative can result in a lava dome of discontent that sooner or later erupts in revolution, civil war or external conflict.

I know what I prefer.

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