The legitimacy of the bedrock principle underlying the Islamic Republic of Iran—the so-called velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih, or absolute political authority of an expert in Islamic jurisprudence—has been the subject of serious debate for many years in Iran. Recently it has come to the forefront of political discussion again.
The idea does not exist among the Sunnis, who constitute some 90 percent of the world’s Muslims. It is equally unknown among Shiites in places other than Iran, for the simple reason that the notion is an entirely Iranian fabrication. It did not even appear in the early draft of the Iranian constitution, and was imposed in its most extreme form only after the constitutional patch-up job of 1989. Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq does not believe in it, any more than do the leaders of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Prominent Iranian religious leaders that have passed from the scene—the likes of Kazem Shariatmadari, Abolqasem Kho’i (Sistani’s mentor and teacher), and Mohammad Reza Golpayegani—never subscribed to the principle.
The existing political system in Iran was, in fact, founded on a series of questionable narrations from Islamic sources, which seem almost entirely manufactured. It has no basis in the early government of the Islamic prophet or his successors, and was little more than an ad hoc design built around the founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In its evolution, the system took shape as an outdated dictatorship of the religious class, artificially lashed together with a series of modern institutions, such as a parliament and an executive, that served only as a front in the hands of the real powerbrokers.
Chief among the architects of velayat-e faqih and its inclusion in the Iranian constitution was Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, once Khomeini’s designated successor who fell from grace in the Islamic regime of Iran shortly before Khomeini’s death. Montazeri, who had had a change of heart back then, became an influential voice in questioning the validity of the political philosophy. He said in 2008, “Granting absolute political authority to the expert in Islamic jurisprudence is tantamount to blasphemy”. Meeting with leaders of the Freedom Movement of Iran in Qom in January 2009, Montazeri said, “Issues such as relations with the U.S. or other states are essentially out of the jurisdiction of the supreme leader,” adding, “Even the prophet did not have absolute velayat-e faqih.”
Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who was instrumental in elevating Khamenei to the position of supreme leader, also seems to have had second thoughts. He had called for a council to replace the one-man position of supreme leader and questioned the logic that a single person, however learned, could be an expert in all fields and the “focal point of imitation” for Shiites in all matters.
It seems until such time that Iran gets this notion out of its way, many options will be closed to it. The velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih, or absolute political authority of an expert in Islamic jurisprudence over the regime of Iran is inherently opposed to notions like democracy, freedom and human rights and respect to fundamental rights of the people.