Small Wars Journal

Book Review: The Ayatollah's Democracy: An Iranian Challenge

Wed, 04/20/2011 - 7:43am
Book Review: The Ayatollah's Democracy: An Iranian Challenge

by Hooman Majd.

Published by W. W. Norton, New York. 2010, 282 pages.

Reviewed by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN

Hooman Majd offers a deep analytic look at the politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the varying interpretations of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the 21st century. His previous book "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," was well received and widely read by those watching the nuances of the Iran's Islamic polity. This book begins with an attempt at reconstructing the events of June 2009. It starts on June 12th, with a call from Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani to Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, congratulating him on his win as Iran's new President. What makes this even more of a curious phone call, was that it was published in a pro-government newspaper owned by Fatemah Rajabi, known as Fati the Saw, for her vicious attacks on opposition members who criticize her beloved President Ahmed-i-Nejad. The accusations of vote rigging by Ahmed-i-Nejad supporters and the way the election was called before the close of polls would lead to the Green Revolution. By June 19th, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took the unprecedented step of interjecting himself in the election dispute, siding with Ahmed-i-Nejad. This broke a cardinal rule of Khomeinism (the political philosophy of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution) that the Supreme Leader is to guide the moral course of the state, a key construct of what constitutes an Islamic polity in Khomeinism.

Majd immerses readers in the details of the political schisms within the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Assembly of Experts, composed of 86 clerics, is constitutionally charged with monitoring the Supreme Leader's performance. It meets semi-annually and although led by Ayatollah Ali Rasfanjani, a proponent of placing the Iranian Islamic Revolution on a more constructive path, and who has used his power to challenge the current regime's absolutism, also contains hardliners like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. Among the proposals to alter the current concentration of power in the hands of the president and Supreme Leader, is to replace the Supreme Leader with a council of three, and amending the constitution to allow non-clerics into the Assembly of Experts. The Expediency Council was created in 1988, and resolves disputes between the Guardian Council and Parliament, since 2005 it was given supervisory powers over the executive branch and presidency. Ahmed-i-Nejad chooses to ignore this constitutional amendment, leaving such leaders of the Expediency Council like Rasfanjani, Larinjani, and until 2010 Ahmed-i-Nejad's opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi outraged at the current president's unwillingness to work within the bounds of the constitution.

The Green Movement is very much an establishment movement and is attempting to redefine some argue redirect the Islamic Revolution on a more positive course. To understand what this means, consider Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, who died in December 2009. As Khomeini's hand-picked successor, he would fall out with Khomeini over the issue of clerical moral oversight versus direct clerical rule. Motazeri did not believe in the absolute authority of the Supreme Leader, and is in line with Iraq's Grand Ayatollah (Marja) Ali Sistani. He also stated that the notion of Velayet e-Faqih (Supreme Jurist) is incompatible with Islamic democracy. It is these nuances that the United States must comprehend to uncover the dynamics of Iranian discontent of the current regime. Another chapter of interest focuses on Iranian encroachment in such places as Latin America. In 2008, Bolivian leader Evo Morales moved the country's sole Middle East embassy from Cairo to Tehran. On Telemundo television, threats to President George W. Bush were made from Ciudad del Este in Paraguay in 2007. Majd highlights testimony from Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressing concern about Iranian and Hizbullah encroachment in Latin America in 2009. Despite this, Iran is not without its share of challenges, such as hard economic times that have led to questioning by people as to the amount of Iranian treasure spent outside of Iran on Hamas, and Hizbullah. Of note, the book stresses that no one knows how much money Iran has spends on both organization's annually.

Majd's book is a required read for those interested in Iran specifically, and the Middle East generally. Already Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces have entered Bahrain to enable that country's forces to address growing unrest by its majority Shiite population, and fear of agitation by Iran's hardliners. Understanding the internal and external dynamics of Iran will be crucial in the decades to come and must go beyond just looking at all Iranians as supporting an interpretation of the Iranian Islamic Revolution.

Commander Aboul-Enein is author of "Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat," (Naval Institute Press, 2010). He is Adjunct Islamic Studies Chair at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and is a Senior Defense Department counter-terrorism advisor.


Mark Pyruz

Wed, 04/20/2011 - 12:55pm

Majd is political liberal with many personal connections to the Iranian political establishment. Although not an academic, his works deserve attention. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, in particular, is an easy book to read and offers a rare insight into generalized Iranian frames of mind.

Bear in mind, though, it is now evident through a number of independent public opinion polls and an analysis that has withstood all serious challenge to date that there was no significant fraud during the 2009 election.