02/20/2004, 00.00
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Khomeini's long shadow hangs over elections

by Gerolamo Fazzini

An interview with  Fr. Paolo Nicelli, PIME

Along the difficult and contradictory path leading to elections, Iran is searching for a way to modernize the country without uprooting deep-seated Islamic tradition.

Milan (AsiaNews) – The elections being held today in Iran are, to say the least, controversial after the Council of Guardians (a supervisory body of the country's constitution composed of religious conservatives) said over 2000 parliamentary candidates where "unsuited" for elections.  

Among them were many "reformist" candidates who find themselves excluded from ballots. They are those who have supported a policy of openness to the process of democratization in Iran. In reaction to the Council's decision, the Mosharekat party has decided not to participate in the elections, joining President Khatami's party, the Association of Combatant Clergy.  

At the same time outgoing members of parliament have accused the Council of Guardians of wanting to suppress reforms and even destroy the Republic. Noble peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi recently said that he would not vote and warned that the situation in Iran is heating up, possible leading to chaos and violence.  

To understand the importance of these elections and the very delicate context in which they are taking place we called on Fr. Paolo Nicelli, a PIME missionary and expert in Islam, to explain more.


Recent political events in Iran are signs that the country is in troubled waters. On one hand there are the reformists who seek greater openness and political changes; and on the other, there are the strong reactions of the religious class who tenaciously cling to their positions of power. It must be explicitly said that both parties draw their inspiration from Islam –starting with their very Islamic religious identity – as a basis for their political platforms, giving rise to a political system which unites new social expectations with Islamic teachings and policies.     

But is it possible to have a process of democratization in a country where such positions exist, positions radically opposed to how an Islamic Republic should be?  

More democracy is what people in Iran are asking for. And it is what President Khatami's current government has tried to do, despite its ups and downs. However, the Council of Guardian's decision  –first to remove reformist candidates from electoral lists, them readmitting others –is not only just an act of political obstructionism against the reforms of a government perceived to be too liberal; it is something much deeper, having its basis in the philosophical precepts already found in Khomeini's ideas.  

Is the Khomeinian Islamic Revolution still very much alive?

Its intellectual guide-lines and principles are the same ones which move today's Guardians of the Revolution. Khomeini wanted to make the Shiite clergy the political head of the country, to the point of establishing a priestly theocracy.

This gave the Shiite clergy to chance to keep those privileges and power which the Shah Pahlavi had taken away from them. In his book, "Wilâyat al-faqîh" ("The Jurist's Government"), he presents a theory that only Islamic law experts, and not politicians, should govern the Islamic state in general and Iran in particular. He thinks they are the only ones able to interpret the Shariah and to make sure that all its rules are applied.  

These are ideas the Guardians of the Revolution refer to, who define themselves as the protectors of Islamic tradition.

According to Khomeini only one expert jurists in Islamic law –the most learned and pius one – should become the supreme leader or head of the country, and recognized as such by the people. Only to him should the highest religious government office be entrusted in the name of Allah – that is, interpreting Islamic law.    

This, in Khomeini's view, is what Allah has ordered and wanted his supreme leader to do. This is where the Shiite clergy reacquire all their power to guide the masses and to put a stop to western plots and imperialistic programs.   

Therefore the Shiite clergy have a fundamental role in politics, at the forefront of society, and are chosen by Allah to fulfill his power in the world. It is interesting to note the similarity between these ideas and those of Gramscian Marxism, but which has itsfoundation in Islam and substitutes intellectuals with mullahs.   

What then is at stake?

What is at stake in these elections is not merely something of a political nature or a conflict of interests. It touches upon deeper aspects of Shiite Islamic beliefs and, therefore, takes on a religious aspect as well. It means asserting Islamic reform based on basic Shiite religious beliefs and not against them.

Why is it important today to follow everything happening in Iran?

Because Iran is a laboratory-country. Iran, without a shadow of doubt, is the Islamic country experiencing greatest pressure from within to open itself up to modern practices –right from the very core and future of the country, that is, from Iranian youth expressing their desires for reform at the country's universities. It is their requests pushing forward the country's openness to democratization.

I refer in particular to students belonging to the Tahkim-e Vahdat ("Strengthening of Unity") movement, who recently sent an appeal to the EU envoy, Javier Solana, asking the European Union not just to establish relations of a purely economic nature and to take a closer look at the rights of Iranians.
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