Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s president has mainly been analyzed through the perspective of his pragmatic past and the reformist tone he struck during his campaign. These are indeed important and likely account for why most of the electorate voted for him. But they hardly matter for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who, besides his long-standing personal relationship with Rowhani, had another reason to support his candidacy; namely, that he was the only cleric running in the race.
Although it’s far too early to tell, Rouhani’s election could see the clergy regain some of the power they’ve lost over successive decades.
The beginning of the clergy’s decline in Iran’s political life can really be traced back to the split between the Islamic Republic’s founder, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Although Montazeri was initially Khomeini’s chosen successor, ties between the two became strained over the treatment of the Islamic Republic’s suspected domestic opponents. The two men finally broke over Montazeri’s outspoken opposition to the widespread executions of political prisoners that Khomeini ordered in 1988.
Without a different Grand Ayatollah or Marja (source of emulation) ready to replace Khomeini as Supreme Leader, the qualifications for holding the position were lowered from Majra to simply regular Ayatollah. The theological basis of the supreme leader’s power was further weakened with the selection of then-President Ali Khamenei as Khomeini’s successor in 1989, as Khamenei hadn’t yet achieved Ayatollah-status in the eyes of his religious peers, so the title was artificially bestowed upon him for political purposes. Still, clerics who support the Islamic Republic have continued to dominate some of the most powerful non-elected bodies like the Assembly of Experts.
The same has not been true for Iran’s elected institutions and civil service, where the clergy have become increasingly absent. The clergy’s decline in public life is perhaps most striking in the Majles (Parliament), where clerics went from holding 50 percent or more of the total seats in the 1st and 2nd Majles in the 1980s, to about 14 percent today. Even among the remaining clerical MPs, the overwhelming majority of them today come from political backgrounds like Rouhani, and only about 5 percent were formerly religious teachers.
The clergy’s presence has shrunk dramatically in Iran’s larger administrative structure as well. To begin with, the first post-Khomeini president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, filled his cabinet with technocrats. After assuming office, Reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his appointees in the Ministry of the Interior went further by replacing almost all the provincial governors and city administrators—who at the time were usually clergy— with bureaucrats usually from the Ministry of Education.
Then, in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first non-cleric to hold the presidency in the Islamic Republic since before Khamenei took office in 1981. He quickly proceeded to carry out one of the widest purges in decades. According to William Polk, during his first term alone, Ahmadinejad “replaced the governors of all 30 provinces and sacked dozens of deputy ministers, many administrators of state organizations, several ambassadors and about 10,000 other government employees.” His nominees were usually close allies chosen from the intelligence and security services—notably, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Basij—and even during these initial years Ahmadinejad often won the rebuke of clerics in Iran.
Partly because of his weak religious credentials, and partly because most his political rivals— like former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—are clerics, Supreme Leader Khamenei has generally supported the rise of hardliners and the non-clerical political establishment. Indeed, many senior religious authorities like Montazeri, Khomeini’s initial successor who passed away in late 2009, have been harshly critical of the supreme leader, including when Montazeri publicly condemned Khamenei by stating, “You are not the rank and statue of a Majra…. The Shi'ite marja'iyyat is an independent spiritual authority. Do not try to break the independence of the marja'iyyat and turn the seminary circles into government employees.”
But Khamenei’s strategy to strengthen the non-clergy elements of the Iranian political elite has its limitations. For one thing, clergy has been a potent force in every major social and political movement in modern Iran. Thus, alienating too large a sway of the clergy could have dangerous political implications for the supreme leader, and indeed there has been increasingly frequent signs that the clerics in Iran are becoming more and more alienated from Khamenei’s rule.
Moreover, Khamenei’s authority as supreme leader is rooted in Khomeini’s version of Shi’a Islam, which strongly favors the clergy (at least those who support Khomeinism.) While most of the non-clergy principlists have remained staunchly supportive of the supreme leader and the founding principles of the Islamic Republic, ultimately their power under the current system is limited. If they became too powerful in the current system, they could very conceivably seek to overturn the current rules in favor of ones that did not give religious figures such an exalted status. Indeed, this is what Ahmadinejad and the so-called “deviant” faction appeared to have as their goal.
Having eliminated or strongly curtailed the influence of most of his major political rivals since the 2009 disputed presidential election, Khamenei risked empowering the principlists to such a degree that they could have challenged his authority, or that of successor. While strongly apprehensive about Rafsanjani (or Khatami, for that matter) re-entering elected office, Khamenei was also likely worried about a candidate like former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s potential ability to rally the non-clergy elite against the supreme leader.
Therefore, a candidate like Rouhani who is a cleric, a long-time supporter of Khamenei personally, and someone who the pragmatists and reformists can get behind, provided a happy medium for Khamenei. Whether Rouhani will move to empower the clergy through his appointees will be something to monitor closely in the coming weeks and months ahead.