Iranwire – The founder of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, repeatedly claimed that the principle of Velayat-e Faqih in Iran’s constitution – the guardianship of an Islamic jurist as supreme leader, which underpins the Islamic Republic – would prevent autocracy. “Do not be afraid of Velayat-e Faqih,” he one said. “If a Faqih [Supreme Leader] wants to coerce then he will no longer have the guardianship.”
Khomein also said during a meeting with Hamed Elgar, an American Muslim thinker, on December 28, 1979, that “The principle of Velayat-e Faqih prevents autocracy in this country. We want to stop autocracy. … The same article in the constitution that provides for Velayat-e Faqih will also prevent autocracy. Those who opposed it principle said it would bring autocratic rule. What does autocracy bring? Autocracy does not come with the law. A tyrant may come later; whatever you do, a tyrant who overturns the system may come and do whatever he wants. But the jurist does not become a tyrant. … Such a human being cannot do wrong. He wants to prevent these violations and will block a president or a chief justice who does wrong or makes a mistake. The jurist has the right to relieve them of duty. The heart of the constitution is the principle of Velayat-e Faqih.”
Khomeini had also said, on October 22, 1979, when speaking to some of Iran’s nomadic tribes, that since the Prophet Muhammad or his descendants were not tyrants then the supreme leader would likewise not be a tyrant.
But has the principle of Velayat-e Faqih prevented autocracy in Iran?
The idea had not been tested in 1979 so it was impossible to answer at the time – even critics of the theory had little grounds to claim that it would lead to autocracy. And many of Khomeini’s supporters were ready to defend the system. But today, more than 41 years later, we can now look at these questions based on experience; and we have a more accurate understanding of the relationship between Velayat-e Faqih and dictatorship in Iran.
The principle of Velayat-e-Faqih and the components of dictatorship
In order to understand whether the principle of Velayat-e Faqih in the constitution of the Islamic Republic causes and reinforces autocracy, or impedes it, we have to look at the components and characteristics of dictatorial systems.
1- Having extra-legal and unlimited power
The first component of a dictatorship is its extrajudicial and unlimited power; that is, the dictator considers himself beyond the law and holds authority without any checks. Does Iran’s Supreme Leader have extrajudicial and unlimited power?
Article 110 of the Constitution specifies the powers of the Supreme Leader:
- Determining the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran after consulting the Expediency Council.
- Supervising the proper implementation of the government’s policies.
- Calling referendums.
- Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
- Declaration of war and peace and mobilization of the Armed Forces.
- Appointment, dismissal and acceptance of resignations of: a- The jurists of the Guardian Council; b- Senior judiciary officials; c- The head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB); d- Chief of the Joint Staff, Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other senior military and law enforcement officers.
- Resolve disputes and regulate relations between the three branches of government.
- Solving problems within the system that cannot be solved by normal means i.e. through expedient measures.
- Confirming democratically-elected presidents.
- Dismissing the president, if necessary, taking into account the interests of the country after the ruling of the Supreme Court on a violation of legal duties or a vote of parliament contesting adequacy, according to Article 89.
- Amnesty or commutation of sentence of convicts within the limits of Islamic law following an application from the head of the judiciary.
The range of powers in the constitution is already vast. But are the supreme leader’s powers limited to what is enshrined in the law? The constitution says the authority of the supreme leader is limited to matters set forth in Article 110, as above; but in the real world, the supreme leader has not been bound to this for the past 41 years.
Khomeini had said on December 28, 1979: “What is mentioned in the constitution are only some of the aspects of Velayat-e-Faqih, not all of them.”
In other words: Khomeini himself did not believe the powers of the leadership were limited to Article 110 of the constitution. He had previously said in a speech, on October 22, 1979: “Velayat-e Faqih is not something that the Assembly of Experts has created. Velayat-e Faqih is created by God Almighty; it is in fact the rule of God’s Prophet.”
Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also shown during the 30 years of his rule that he does not believe his powers are limited to the constitution.
Banning the import of American and British coronavirus vaccines into Iran is the latest example of actions of the leadership that have no basis in law. And in an article on the scope of the supreme leader’s powers under the constitution, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Research Center wrote: “One of the issues that was on the agenda of the Review Council in 1989 was the issue of leadership powers. The proposal to add an ‘absolute’ clause to the text of Article 57 was approved … [stating that] The ruling powers in the Islamic Republic of Iran are the legislature, the executive branch, and the judiciary, which are exercised under the absolute authority of the leadership of the ummah [community of believers] in accordance with future principles of this law. These forces are independent of each other. … The Supreme Leader has extensive powers and an absolute guardianship. … The absolute authority of the jurisprudent according to Imam Khomeini … means that the authority of the Supreme Leader in public affairs and governance is comparable to the authority of the Prophet and the Imam Ali and the only thing that can limit the powers of the Islamic ruler is the interest of Islam and Muslims.”
2- Lifelong and unelected leadership
The second characteristic of dictatorial leaders their longevity and that they were probably not elected. Iran’s constitution does not stipulate a time limit for leadership. The Assembly of Experts, as the body that has the right to appoint and remove the supreme leader, can remove the leader if it considers it necessary, according to the law; but there is no time limit in the law. But can it be said that the leader is elected for a fixed term? The answer is no. According to Article 109 of the constitution, the supreme leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts. But qualifying for the Assembly of Experts is determined by the supreme leader’s appointments to the Guardian Council – meaning the Assembly of Experts has practically lost its effectiveness. The Guardian Council has shown in past elections of the Assembly of Experts that it does not believe in the integrity of its elections, or in holding free, fair and competitive elections, and that it only supports those who support the concept of Velayat-e Faqih and who support the actual supreme leader. The Assembly of Experts is a puppet of the leadership and is unable to perform its constitutional duties.
The third characteristic of dictators is their unaccountability. Iran’s supreme leaders have not been held accountable for any of the events (and crimes) that have taken place during their rule. Other institutions do not have the right to question these figures. The Assembly of Experts is meant to supervise the supreme leader – but this body has shown that it is not in a position to question the leadership. The supreme leader does not attend the Assembly’s meetings and answer questions; instead, the members attend on the supreme leader, and listen to his guidance and orders. And no independent journalists have conducted any interviews with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over the past 33 years.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Revolution, insisted that the supreme leader would not coerce the system. But for this to have been true then the leader would have had to be held accountable, be elected, be questioned and his mistakes exposed, and if found to have failed at governing the country, dismissed. None of this is possible in the Islamic Republic.
4- Charismatic holiness
Charisma is usually a key quality for dictators. Sanctifying government officials also definitely pushes him toward dictatorship. Note Khomeini’s insistence that Velayat-e Faqih was created by God and not a man-made concept.
Iran’s constitution describes the supreme leader as the guardianship of the rule and the continuation of the Imams – the successors to the Prophet Muhammad in Shia Islam. But when the position of Velayat-e Faqih is exalted to something like that of the Prophet and the Imams then it means the only right the people have is to obey the supreme leader. Opposition of the leader is interpreted as opposing God himself.
5- Individualism and authoritarianism
A further characteristic of dictatorial systems is the authoritarianism and concentration of power in the hands of one person. According to Iran’s constitution, there are three pillars of authority in an independent country, or three branches of government, but all must govern under the supervision of the absolute guardianship of the jurisprudent; that is, the opinion of the supreme leader takes precedence over all other authorities. The three branches powers have authority as long as the leader has not expressed his views.
Decrees issued by the supreme leader over the past four decades give substance to this principle: they have always taken precedence over decrees or decisions made in other branches of the government. The fact that parliament is not allowed to legislate against the opinion of the supreme leader, for instance, shows the authority the supreme leader holds. The fact that the leadership issues an order banning the import of a special vaccine, which is a highly specialized matter and within the purview of the elected government, yet the government is obliged to implement the decree, shows the country is run by an authoritarian power.
IranWire’s review demonstrates that, contrary to Ayatollah Khomeini’s claim that Iran’s supreme leader would prevent autocracy and dictatorship, the experience of four decades of the shows that the supreme leader possesses all the attributes of dictatorial regimes. But not only did the Velayat-e Faqih not prevent tyranny, but because the supreme leader has extra-judicial powers, is not accountable and holds the post for life, today Khamenei has caused the government to be run not by the people but by just himself.
Fear of the coercive power the leadership has forced most people to remain silent, to go into exile or to obey against their wishes. Iran is governed not by the will of the people but by the will of the Supreme Leader – it is not a republic.