The Iranian Shiite clerisy has a unique history in the Islamic world. In the twentieth century, in defending their interests in the country, the clergy fought against Reza Shah’s measures to secularize Iran, against land reform, women’s suffrage, as well as the exclusion of Islam and Quranic clauses from the State Elections Bill during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1940s. This campaign led to the clerisy taking control over the 1979 revolution. After the revolution, their fortunes in Iran’s politics went through a short-term development phase followed by a middle-term decline.
There were a number of factors for the decline of clerical influence after the Revolution. One main factor was the growth of public wealth and a modern lifestyle which then checked the dominance of religious values. The second factor was the growing class differences and social discrimination. The third factor was that, unlike in previous eras when they were part of a protesting opposition, the clerisy was now the force in power.
In the recent presidential election, Hassan Rouhani ran for presidency as the only “moderate” candidate in the final round of elections. When he won, his status as a clergyman provoked the following basic question: how did the youth come to trust this cleric and elect him with a majority of votes as their president despite the decline in clerical power in modern day Iran?
A number of factors can be considered here. First, Iranians have shown this tendency throughout history to favour clerics who appear in the role of an opposition, urging change from the status quo. Such an inclination was early witnessed in public support for the political clergymen of the Constitutional Revolution, such as Ayatollahs Behbahani and Tabatabaei. This was further pursued in the 1979 revolution and the public support for the Leader, and reached its highest point in the 1997 presidential election with the victory of Mohammad Khatami from the left Islamic wing, who then became the leading figure for the Reform Movement in the political spectrum of Iran, a stance repeated in the 2013 election.
Rouhani managed to gain public favour by explicitly citing the economic, political, and social problems of the status quo. Secondly, the Shiite clerical stratum has gained great influence by remaining constantly independent, relying for its legitimacy only on the masses. Third, the clergy are highly eloquent, as was the Leader of the Revolution, memorably, in 1979 when through his persuasive language he was able to mobilize a great part of the modern middle classes. In the recent elections too, Rouhani could add those who were not necessarily highly religious to his support base.
Finally, after many years with no political parties, labour unions or independent associations, “religion”, and the clergy as its representative, have become the country’s sole symbol of unity at moments which were historical turning points, so much so that while toward the end of its rule, the Pahlavi dynasty redoubled its repression against a non-religious opposition, and would, for example, beat up and imprison a large number of Iranian Writers Association members, it would let the businessmen and clergy get on with their activities unimpeded.
During the 1979 Revolution a large number of the intelligentsia and non-religious revolutionaries aligned themselves with the clergy since, once the mob were mobilized and the revolution succeeded, they did not expect them to be able to rule the country; but in fact they had miscalculated. The recent election in Iran proves that the clerisy is still able to show a charismatic face capable of attracting public favour. Through learning by trial and error, they have secured another political success.
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