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The Role and Impact of Supreme Leader (Velayat-e Faqih) on Iranian Foreign Policy

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  • April 15, 2011
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Ambassador Ishrat Aziz
    Discussants: Professor Qamar Agha and Professor A K Ramakrishnan

    Dr. Rizvi started his presentation with the concept of velayat-e-faqih and its evolution. Velayat-e-Faqih is the most important institution in the post-revolution political system of Iran. The essence of this theory, developed and applied by Ayatollah Khomeini, is that one man with a thorough knowledge of Islamic law is to be designated as vali-e-faqih. Preamble of the Iranian constitution provides for the leadership of a fully qualified faqih whom the people consider as the leader who ensures that no institution deviates from its Islamic mandate. Despite the division of the three branches of government, the constitution gives the velayat-e-faqih total control over the affairs of the state. Since the religious and political powers rest in one person, the Imam’s powers are far beyond those of any contemporary head of state.

    Given this background, this paper studied the role of the institution of velayat-e-faqih during three phases of Iranian politics. The first phase covered the period 1979-1989, during which Khomeini was the supreme leader. The second phase dealt with the period 1989-2005. Seyyed Ali Hossein Khamenei became the supreme leader in 1989 and during this period, there were two presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Seyyed Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). The third phase dealt with the post-2005 period, when the hardliner Ahmadinejad was elected as President of Iran. It also examined how the institution has interacted with an executive presidency with differing ideological orientations and whether it has ensured continuity in the foreign policy of the Islamic republic.

    Initiating the discussion, Mr. Qamar Agha clarified that there is no rule of clergy in Islam, though among Shia it is still continuing. He said that it was basically a Christian concept. Conversely, the holy Quran is a guide and one does not need anybody in between. Though interpretation is traditionally allowed, the present problem lies in the fact that interpretation has been stopped. Further, people in general believe that legitimacy of state lies with people, not with god. Therefore, government should be elected and hence democracy is considered as the best form of governance.

    Then, he talked about Shi’a theology and the concept of jihad and argued that there is no offensive jihad as killing of people is considered as killing of civilisation. Moreover, Imam is needed to wage an offensive jihad. Rather, they believe in jihad-e-Akbar, fight with evil forces all the time; take out everything bad from the society like poverty and illiteracy. On the other hand, the modern concept of holy war (jihad) is a medieval Christian concept adopted by the Muslims. Applying the principles of jihad, Mr. Agha supported that if the government is corrupt, it is the duty of its citizens to wage jihad against it and Iran did the same. The Iranian revolution is also unique as there was large popular participation. In the recent past, voluntary demonstrations posed a grave threat to dictatorial regimes in many Muslim countries.

    Taking the talk to the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Agha pointed out that Khomeini opposed any compromise. He wanted to introduce liberal Islam but during the war, lesser clergy took over the reigns and Khomeini had to compromise. Separately, the Najaf School mentions that clerics have no right to be part of government because it corrupts both religion and politics. But Khamenei, present ruler, managed things tactfully and was able to use both conservatives as well as liberals. He followed the policy of rapprochement, as a result, relations improved with Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, Iranians are still fighting for democracy.

    Prof. A. K. Ramakrishnan commented that the significance of the institution of faqih is intertwined with the aspects of Khomeini’s personality. In essence, it is both constitutional and extra-constitutional authority derived from political, constitutional religious as well as personality factors. He mentioned three important moments in Iranian history after the revolution:

    1. Immediate days when faqih became an institution. It is a constitutional process.
    2. Khomeini and drafting of constitution and his death led to a crisis as to what would happen to faqih (political crisis).
    3. 2009 presidential elections—the institution of faqih was questioned.

    Then, Prof. Ramakrishnan touched upon some conceptual aspects and asked what Khomeini did to make Islam contemporary? He answered that Khomeini made it a religious as well as political concept after the concepts of Wahabbia and Muqaddama. He believed that religion and politics cannot be separated by any means and hence made it a part of worldly affair. There was also mention about the concept of ummah and the concept of grand struggle, anti-imperialism, global solidarity and non-alignment. Further, Khomeini made faqih a political institution. Again, the controversy between ummah and nationalism was resolved by Khomeini while invoking reference to Shi’a traditions. There was also debate between Islamic republic as a state and its people as civil society. People beyond clergy are included in political system and ideological difference is clearly different from earlier days. However, the current period is one where there is crisis of democracy. Added to the trend is a notion of loosening of hegemony with 2009 elections. He ended discussion with a question, whether there are counter-hegemonic forces?

    Dr. Ashok K Behuria raised some important issues like origin of the concept, faqih as political institution-elite hegemony, main foreign policy making institutions in Iranian political system and some definitional issues. He also discussed certain issues like relations with West, the Iranian nuclear issue and the approach of faqih towards the same. Finally, he touched upon the political process and role of civil society.

    Dr. Meena Singh Roy stressed upon the Iranian foreign policy goals and impact of faqih on foreign policy. She also referred to post 2009 changes and its impact. She posed a question of whether Islamic societies can embrace democracy and argued that Islam is not inherently hostile to democracy. Regarding the Iranian reform, she insisted that it is a broad multiclass reform movement.

    The discussion was followed by a meticulous Q&A session focused on a range of topics like the concept of faqih and its pan-Islamic impact, distance between Indian Shi’as and Khomeini regime, organic interconnection between Islam and politics and the future of faqih under present revolutionary phase in the Middle East. It was noted that the Iranian system is more similar to Saudi Arabian system where democracy and dictatorship are continuing simultaneously. However, Iranian regime is very strong. Further discussion raised questions on dilution of faqih in 1989 and challenges in 2009, internal debates within the institution about its role, people’s perception about faqih especially non-Iranians, reactions in Arab world, process of faqih in foreign policy making, role of Indian government, and possible conflict between Iranian Shi’a clergy and nationalists. It is to be noted here that the influence of faqih was felt as threatening by other nations. It did not go well with Arabs as it was anti-monarchical revolution in Iran and threatened established monarchies in the Gulf. When Khomeini took over, Iran was not entirely Islamic (it’s a religious discourse). Khomeini wanted to achieve Islamic unity. But in 1979, there was division between radicals and liberals and continued till 1985.

    Finally, Ambassador Ishrat Aziz summarized the discussion with questions like what were goals of Khomeini —political or religious; interpreting Islam or governance; does faqih lead to democracy; whether faqih is elected or selected etc. He explained that many came to power through ideology but few could rule (govern) on ideology and Khomeini was one of them. He was also a pragmatist and successfully made a distinction between final and absolute power.

    Report prepared by Mr. Babjee Pothuraju, Research Assistant, IDSA.