Populist Piety

Speaking of populism, Abbas Milani looks at Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the Boston Review:

The regime in Iran today is deeply divided, and tensions between different factions have recently intensified. Moreover, of the two-dozen clerics who have dominated Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution, the youngest are septuagenarians. The “spiritual leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, is known to suffer from cancer, and there is no clear heir apparent to his mantle. Many of the younger clerics in Iran, particularly among the advocates of Ayatollah Sistani’s quietist version of Shi’ism, have been more openly critical of the regime’s interpretation of Shi’ism. According to the quietist school, an Islamic government is a government of god on earth; obeying its words and commands is incumbent on all citizens and leaves no room for error. Until the “return” of the twelfth Imam, then, no such government can be created. In the meantime, according to Ayatollah Sistani and others in this school, the duty of the clergy is simply to supervise the moral life of the flock. This view is in direct conflict with Ayatollah Khomeini’s activist version of Shi’ism, which holds that the clergy can and must seize power any time the opportunity avails itself.

An even larger number of those working with the regime, particularly among the thousands of often-Western-educated mid-level managers, are increasingly aware that the status quo is untenable. As the economy continues to falter, and as radicals like Ahmadinejad seek more stringent enforcement of Islamic laws—by, for example, charging more than 160,000 women in the past two months of being insufficiently veiled—it is easy to imagine the emergence of a grand coalition, consisting of technocrats within and outside the regime, disgruntled reformists, quietist clerics, members of the Iranian private sector, women demanding equality, students, democratic parties, and labor unions, all willing to compromise in favor of a better society. That coalition, joined by Iran’s civil society organizations and even members of the Diaspora, could come together on a program of building a more democratic republic, free of the despotic power of the guardian-jurist. Prudent U.S. policy—principled, unconditional negotiations with the regime in Tehran on all outstanding issues, and continuing insistence on the democratic and human rights of the Iranian people—can help expedite the formation of such a coalition.