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How Iran's Regime Claims Legitimacy

Raha Tahami, Tehran (source: Mianeh)


From left: Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei


Leaders see themselves as a righteous minority - granting them the right to govern, according to their Shia beliefs.


The Iranian government's violent suppression of the opposition over the last nine months is not just based on a determination to avoid a possible fall of the regime but also has deep-seated ideological roots.


The Islamic Republic has inherited the idea that it is a minority, which in its interpretation from Shia opinion equates to being righteous. Being a minority and righteous gives the government the mandate to oppress the opposition and challenge internationally accepted norms, as far as it is concerned.


Over the past three decades, Iran has not had powerful international friends and allies, leaving it isolated.


Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, said in his will, which is a compulsory subject in all Iranian universities, that it was the only government that had divine approval. "I advise this nation to continue this divine path and not become attached to the unbelieving East or the infidel West and show perseverance on this path," he said.


The government takes pride in being in a minority, as is apparent from official media reports, seeing this as proof of its legitimacy - a justification connected with Shia beliefs.


Shia comprise only ten per cent of the one billion Muslim population of the world and Iran is the only country in the world with an almost entirely Shia population. Shiism is the product of political strife over the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of the prophet of Islam.


Shia believe that only their imams were chosen by God and were eligible to rule. This political belief led to bloody clashes between the Shia opposition and the Sunni caliphs of the past.


Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continuously likens his regime to that of early Islamic rulers some 1,300 years ago. He does this in order to sell the "rule of the just jurisprudent" to the religious masses as the extension of the rule that the Shia imams intended to establish - but which Sunni caliphs prevented by trickery or the use of force.


For the government, this view puts Khamenei on a par with the first Shia imam, Ali.


Iranian Shia believe that Imam Ali was the appointed leader of all Muslims and he was the only person to have the legitimacy and the right to govern. However, Imam Ali, who had few supporters, was unable to establish a lasting rule and, in the view of Shia, he was wrongfully and unjustly denied his right to leadership.


Against this historical background, Khamenei is today the wronged and righteous one and of course in a minority. His devoted followers used to say, "The leader is alone." The intention here being to present him as one who is oppressed. The only difference is that unlike the time of the first Shia imam, now power should not be allowed to slip away under any circumstances.


In a televised interview in December, a hardline member of the parliament and presidential security adviser, Ruhollah Hosseinian, said the opposition should be dealt with in such a manner that the Islamic establishment would never have to face such crises again. After likening Khamenei to the first Shia imam, the hardline cleric rejected the possibility of any compromise or negotiation with the opposition and said, "Throughout history, Shia have never benefited from reconciliation and we should not reconcile with the opposition."


Between 1989 and 2005 - throughout the reform-minded presidencies of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami - a group of veterans of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and radical messianic believers withdrew from Iranian society and formed a powerful minority fundamentalist group that recruited members of the lower classes and religious zealots.


President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an offspring of this minority. Among his closest friends and confidants are a religious group that plays an important role in likening Khamenei to the Shia imams of the past.


Ahmadinejad even starts his speeches at the United Nations General Assembly by offering a prayer calling for the emergence of the 12th Shia imam, whom Shia believe to be the messiah, who long ago went into hiding and will one day return to rule the entire world.


The president and his like have no belief in the will of the people. In the days leading to last year's June 12 presidential election, a group of anonymous interior ministry employees issued a statement in which they said that an influential ayatollah had used a Koranic verse to persuade his followers to rig the vote in favour of Ahmadinejad, who in the ayatollah's opinion was a minority and therefore righteous.


When on June 15, more than over two million people chanted slogans against Ahmadinejad on the streets of Tehran, he referred to them in his victory speech as "merely dust and dirt".


The culture of being in a minority has apparently convinced Ahmadinejad that he is in the right. It is irrelevant to him that millions of people are against his presidency as he has the approval and support of the supreme leader - who claims to be the successor of the Shia imams.


The hardline theoretician Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who is also one of the close friends of Khamenei, has openly stated his view that when Ahmadinejad receives the endorsement of the supreme leader, to obey him is mandatory just as obeying God is.


For Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, western democracy, which derives its legitimacy from the majority vote, is an unforgivable sin committed against God. The Islamic Republic derives its legitimacy from its supreme leader and he can reject and refuse to endorse the vote of the majority.


About the author: Raha Tahami is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and social affairs analyst in Tehran.


This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.


About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

... Payvand News - 03/15/10 ... --

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