The islamic republic of Iran has survived longer than anyone had a right to expect. Today great revolutions are rare, because revolutions require the unflinching belief that another world is possible. In 1979, when clerics took power in Tehran, another world was possible. This is the world that Iranians still live in. A large—and apparently growing—number of them don’t seem to like it. After a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died in police custody on September 16 after being arrested for wearing her headscarf improperly, anti-government protests spread across the country, just as they seemingly do every few years.
Forty-three years after its founding, the Islamic Republic sputters along as yet another repressive, sclerotic regime. What makes the Iranian system different—exceptional, even—is the arc of its tragedy and the unusual role played by an entirely novel theological doctrine. In the beginning, the Islamic revolution was popular. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have succeeded. The aggressive secularization under the shah in the 1960s and ’70s had been discredited, and millions of Iranians turned to Islamic symbols, concepts, and leaders for inspiration. If the shah’s Westernization project was the problem, then perhaps Islam could be the solution. And yet that solution took a peculiar form, one that foreordained today’s discontent: Iran’s new rulers created a system far more intrusive than clerics of previous centuries could have ever imagined.
If one could sum up the original intent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution, it was, quite simply, to preserve Islam. In his most influential treatise, Islamic Government, published in 1970, Khomeini wrote, “The preservation of Islam is even more important than prayer”—an odd if maddeningly vague claim. In practice, however, this meant something quite specific. For Khomeini, Islam could be “preserved” only through Islamic government. And this, in turn, was possible only if jurists—that is, clerics specializing in Islamic jurisprudence—led the government as guardians of Islam.
The reason this Islamic regime can seem so un-Islamic—merciless and absolutist—is because it did something without precedent in Islamic history. What came to be known as wilayat al-faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist,” married clerical and executive power and intertwined them in a sort of Frankenstein ideology. In the great Islamic caliphates of the premodern era, the legal system was decentralized and the state’s reach was limited, with clerics enjoying considerable autonomy. As the keepers of sharia, God’s law, they interpreted how it applied to matters as varied as criminal codes, business contracts, and inheritance. But these clerics had never ruled directly. Instead, the caliph—who, in most cases, was not trained as a religious scholar—was responsible for executing laws and devising new ones on issues not explicitly covered by sharia. In revolutionary Iran, such distinctions would be put to the side, with a notably sectarian element added to the mix. Iran’s clerics, like the overwhelming majority of Iranians, were part of the Shiite branch of Islam. They would take Shiism’s historical reverence for clergy and fuse it with a modern conception of the state.