In his 1689 publication A Letter Concerning Toleration, the English philosopher John Locke recommended that the institutions of religion and state be made into totally separate entities, because such a separation would lead to a high level of social stability. Locke’s ideas were considered revolutionary at the time, but the notion of a separation of religion and state has long been a staple of developed nations. However, numerous countries, especially in the Middle East, still implement a form of government where religion and state are intertwined. Iran is one such nation.
Iran’s theocratic ruler, the “Supreme Leader”, is a clear representative of the interests of the dominant Shia Islam in the nation’s political sphere, and has a stranglehold over matters pertaining to the Iranian state. This situation has resulted in internal lawmaking that negatively affects the lives of Iranians, and a political structure that denigrates the country’s democracy.
Iran used to have a form of more democratic governance promoting the separation of religion and state until the 1979 uprising that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The uprising was led by the nation’s first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, and was supported by many of the older, more religiously fanatical citizens who were against the rapid modernisation and Westernisation of Iran by the then government. With this new political order came a new constitution, stating that “All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Shia Islamic criteria.” This constitutional basis for the authority of the dominant Shia Islam over matters of state is politically and practically manifest in the role of Supreme Leader.
The current Supreme Leader of Iran is Ali Khamenei. Elected to this position not by popular vote, but by decree of the Assembly of Religious Experts, Khamenei was chosen as a “suitable cleric” to uphold the beliefs of Shia Islam in Iranian politics. The members of the Assembly of Religious Experts are also strict followers of Shia Islam and experts in the Koran and sharia law. The Supreme Leader they elect is guaranteed to be of a similar hardline Shia conviction, which Khamenei is, and act on behalf of Shia interests and principles, which Khamenei does.
The Supreme Leader operates both within and above a largely impotent publicly elected civil government and President, and has powers over matters of state that are far-reaching, controlling, and near absolute. In the Iranian constitution, the Supreme Leader’s role is defined as to “determine the interests of Islam in Iran”, and to “guide” and “supervise” the nation. This was included in the constitution by Iran’s original Islamic revolutionaries in order to assuage fears that a more moderate, democratic and Westernised government would regain power.
The Supreme Leader has far-reaching control over jurisdictions typically considered matters of state in the West. While the elected President of Iran does handle matters of small civil legislation, the theocratic Supreme Leader is totally responsible for control of the armed forces and defence, and can “dictate general guidelines of Iranian foreign and domestic policy”. The Supreme Leader also has the authority to appoint military commanders, the director of national radio and television networks, members of the national security council, the chief judge and prosecutor, and mosque leaders in all of Iran’s major cities.
The Supreme Leader’s power also allows him to appoint the twelve members of the Guardian Council. This theocratic assembly can vet and potentially reject the application of any person wanting to run for any publicly elected role, such as a position on the Assembly of Religious Experts. The Guardian Council also has the power to veto any legislative bill.
The Supreme Leader is the single most powerful political authority in Iran, and, due to his strong religious affiliations, the manifestation of religion’s control over state within the nation.
The constitutionally imposed control of Shia Islam over matters of the Iranian state has had dire consequences on the lives and rights of everyday Iranians. As with the constitution, Iran’s penal code was greatly altered after the 1979 Islamic uprising, leading to a sharia-based legal framework. Khomeini had stated a year before leading the Islamic uprising that an “Islamic state means a state based … and structured upon Islamic rules and laws”. While sharia law is implemented in various forms around the world, Iran is notorious for its strict implementation of this religious legal doctrine. More democratic Muslim nations such as Malaysia enforce a hybrid of secular and sharia law, generally as a result of a power split between the religious establishment and the state; but owing to the control of the Supreme Leader over Iranian law-making, an exceptionally literal and hardline interpretation of sharia is enacted in Iran.
Unlike the liberal laws of pre-1979 Iran, the Islamic rulings implemented by Iran’s theocratic religious and political power brokers, and upheld by the Supreme Leader, are inhumane, brutal and unjust. Stoning, flogging and amputations are carried out by state authorities. Violent forms of the death penalty, such as hanging and “falling from a height”, are also practised on girls as young as nine, and boys as young as fifteen. This is in line with Islamic teaching about the age of responsibility. Women are legally forced to cover their hair in public, and wear long loose-fitting clothing; a ruling supported by sharia law. Before 1979, freedom of dress was permitted.
Since 1979 Iran has been indicted for many human rights abuses against its own citizens relating to torture, murder and lack of personal freedoms. This is a direct result of the enforcement of sharia law.
The political authority of the unelected Supreme Leader, and the role of his personally selected Guardian Council to veto parliamentary bills and to choose presidential candidates, also cheapens, and makes a mockery of, Iran’s supposed “democracy”. The constitutionally supported positions of the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council, acting on behalf of Shia Islam, remove power from the people of Iran, devaluing their vote and drastically impeding their ability to create change in their nation via democratic means. The Islamic revolutionaries in 1979 largely took away the right of Iranians to vote for their own leader, hence ensuring the political power of the theocratic elite.
Although Iranian public opinion about the Supreme Leader and matters of religious control over the state are hard to gauge—three months in prison and seventy-four lashes are potential legal penalties for those who speak out against the Supreme Leader and the political establishment—there is evidence that the Iranian people are unhappy with their theocratic governmental structure. In 2009, this political frustration erupted into the “Green Movement” protests. Some three million Iranians took to the streets to show their discontent at the authority of the Supreme Leader, an action triggered by supposed presidential electoral fraud, which many believed was facilitated by him. “Death to the dictator” was a common slogan at the rallies. The protests showed that a great many Iranians believe that their lives and liberties are being adversely impacted by a theocratic government that takes away their right to cast a fair and meaningful ballot. The power held by the Supreme Leader has led to a belittled and denigrated democracy.
With the current constitutional and political situation of Iran, it is unlikely that any substantial change will develop in future through democratic means. The limited authority of the publicly elected President means that even if the Iranian people did elect a pro-democracy, anti-theocracy President, there are no changes he could make without first receiving approval from the Guardian Council selected by the Supreme Leader. The best hope for the Iranian people, in the short-term future, is that a more moderate Supreme Leader is selected when the current one passes away, someone with a less hardline stance on domestic law-making, and who supports a more democratic Iran.
In the long term, the only foreseeable way for the current theocratic political order to be disempowered is as a result of momentous acts such as the civil disobedience and public rejection of government authority of the 2009 Green Movement protests. While such events do have the potential to bring the theocracy to an end, they are unpredictable, and very rare. Islam itself is never likely to be totally removed from Iranian politics, as it is historically ingrained in Iranian society and culture. The most plausible positive outcome for the Iranian people in the long term is that a more moderate Islamic government, similar to those of Muslim nations such as Malaysia and Tunisia, will take power, if and when the nation’s theocratic elite is ousted.
Oliver Friendship lives in Queensland.