Nearly two and a half millennia of monarchy came to an end with the emergence of an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini. This particular type of regime is founded on a theory developed by Ayatollah Khomeini himself: the ‘velayat-e faghih,’ the guardianship of the Islamic jurist… Even if this concept originates in reality from the Shiite traditional theology, the manner in which it has been evolved by Khomeini is completely contradictory to the original notion. Why is the understanding of this idea indispensable to the appreciation of the Iranian political identity, including its international aspect? Just as the concept of ‘velayat-e faghih’ is an entirely hybrid one, torn between a religious reality and a political misappropriation, Iran’s political identity too is the result of an odd compromise between a historical context and a theocratic ambition.
First of all, the contemporary concept of ‘velayat-e faghih’ is based on the idea that the legitimacy of the political power lies in the hands of the ‘vali,’ the Islamic jurist. It represents the ultimate politicization of the Shiite jurist, which is contrary to the teachings of the traditional Shiite Islam. Traditionally, if the jurist is to make a decision concerning a religious issue, all his power is restricted to the right of veto only, if the question bears on a juridical matter. Furthermore, this same power loses all its legitimacy in a man-appointed regime. Iranian Shiite Islam is a twelver Imami Shia Islam, which is based on the belief that Imam Ali, Mohammad’s son-in-law and the fourth caliph, is the prophet’s first true successor and on the rejection of the legitimacy of the caliphate. This religious group believes in twelve divinely ordained leaders, known as The Twelve Imams. The last of whom lives presently in hiding. Imam Mahdi entered the Ghayba, the great occultation; and the entire twelver Imami Shiite’s belief is constructed on awaiting his re-appearance… Consequently, the political behavior which is expected of the faithful is waiting in earnest. This misappropriation of a theocratic ambition by a human office consists in the culmination of the re-politicization process of the Shiite jurists that began during the eighteenth century; which arose in its turn from a social and political context, and not out of a theological analysis. The Islamic Republic of Iran has no traditional religious legitimacy.
In short, at present, the Supreme Leader is a form of ‘vali’ who acts as a self-appointed surrogate of the Imam-in-Ghayba, weakening the weight and eminence of the twelfth Shiite Imam, and making decisions which should hardly be his privilege to make, such as the ones bearing international significance and impact. For instance, the Supreme Leader chooses the candidates who might later be elected as members of the Supreme National Security Council. This institution establishes the Iranian foreign policy. It is currently headed by Ali Larijani who holds among other ranks that of the top negotiator on nuclear issues in Iran. His close relations with the Supreme Leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, are decidedly crucial because the Supreme Leader has total and final say over all SNSC decisions. The Supreme Leader shapes the identity of the Iranian foreign policy. According to Iran’s Constitution, the Supreme Leader acts as commander-in-chief of the armed and police forces, the state ministry in control of television and radio, and as the leader of the country judiciary; which point is at variance with the tradition.
Why does the Iranian foreign policy reflect this bizarre combination of political theory and traditional concepts? Firstly, the anti-American characteristics of the Iranian policy have their roots in the anti-Shah and anti-imperialist contexts that triggered the revolutionary aspirations of 1979. The intellectual movement which surfaced and partly fed such insurgent aspirations was markedly undertaken by intellectuals like Ali Shari’ati. The theories expounded by these intellectuals were influenced by Marxist ideas; however this fact is not explicitly acknowledged. Shariati presents a complex and eclectic mix of ideas: traditional Muslim-Shi`a thought and radical Islamic fundamentalism are encompassed by Western existentialism, dialectical Marxism, and anti-imperialism.
Searching for the motor of societal change, Shariati interprets the Quran to identify al-nas (the people) as the main factor inducing social change. The people as a whole represent God, and the Quran equates God with the people in social matters. This fits surprisingly well with his Marxist convictions, and legitimizes his efforts to mobilize the masses by revolutionary Islamic discourse. Displaying both a Marxist predilection for the revolutionary vanguard and islamic thoughts which seduces an initiated minority that hold the esoteric knowledge, and the rather despised and ignorant mass, he shapes a pattern for different audiences. In this news context, the US embody imperialism, capitalism, and actually, evil.
The anti-American characteristics of the Iranian policy have their roots in these movements. Officially, Tehran and Washington have had no formal diplomatic relations since the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. This crisis embodies the rejection of western society by Islamic forces.
More recently, even when Iran have expressed a desire to deal directly with Washington, instead of proxies like Russia or Europe on nuclear issue, the United States are designed in these words by the National Security and Foreign Committee describes : “It’s better to negotiate with the Great Satan than with little Satans” (Ali Zadsar)
Now, how to consider the relation with Israel? Even if the connection between these two targets is evident, the nature of the hatred Iran feeds for these countries is really different.
The denial of Israel existence originates in traditional religious concepts which have specifically been applied to the Hebrew state. The concepts we have to consider are those of Dar al-Islam (house of Islam) and Dar al-harb (House of war).
Dar al-Islam is a term used by Muslims to refer to countries where Muslims represent the majority of the population and where Muslims can practice their religion freely protected by the government. It is an area of the world under the rule of Islam. This concept is traditionally defined as opposed to Dar al Harb, the house of war, which classically refers to countries which are not under Islamic rule, to the territories where Islam does not prevail. Symbolically, the Dar al Harb is the domain, even in an individual’s life, where there is a struggle against or opposition to, the Will of God.
Logically, Israel might be considered to be a territory of Dar al Harb, but to many Iranian scholars, things are not so easy to identify: Israel is not considered to be a secular society in which Muslims are not secure, Israel is a stolen-Dar al Islam. This case is more than just those of Dar al Harb. Israel is regarded as a target of utmost importance. So Israel represents a new concept: a concept that has its roots in the traditional religion and which, at the same time, gets out of the religious domain.
The elimination of the State of Israel defines the iranian political identity and this fact has nothing to do with an eventual or presumed desire to eliminate Jewish people. Jewish people are considered as Dhimmis. Dhimmi status was originally afforded to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. These religious groups are protected in areas under Islamic rules because these faithful are “people of the Book”, actually monotheist believers.
It’s one of the many paradoxes of islamic republic of Iran that this most virulent anti-Israeli country hosts by far the largest Jewish population of all Muslim countries.
The denial of Israel manifests itself by a lack of communication, postal service or telephone contact with Israel and any Iranian who dares travel to Israel faces imprisonment and passport confiscation.
In short, the current Iranian state anti-Semitism is an importation from Europe to serve a deep religious anti-Zionism. The anti-Semitism we have known in Europe has never existed as it was, in Iran. The Iranian State learnt how to use the European sense of the word to take the population into the position of the major part of the scholars, by a different way.
To illustrate my last point, I would like to give you an example of the Iranian paradox concerning its new regard on Israel as it is promoted by the Iranian media propaganda. The paradox finds its incarnation in a TV series called Madar sefr darajeh (Zero degree turn) supported financially by the government. This TV series tells the story of an Iranian-Palestinian man who saves a Jewish girl from Nazi authorities. This story does not give any legitimacy to Israel anyway, but it alludes to Holocaust and to the heroic role of Iran at that time. In one hand, Mahmood Ahmadinejad denies Holocaust, for example during the conferences of 2006 in Tehran, and in the other hand, the state gives financial support to the different projects if they promote the savior image of Iran.