From the Supreme Leader to the economy to nuclear weapons, the west is all wrong on Iran—and these misconceptions will have consequences.by Jahangir Amuzegar / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran. Photo: DragonFire1024
Though Iran remains the intense focus of western media and politicians, it is largely misunderstood. Common notions of the Islamic Republic are that it is: a puritanical and religious state; dominated by an austere dictator; presided over by a fanatical xenophobe; burdened by an economy that is collapsing due to sanctions; developing the nuclear bomb. But these are all myths.
First, Iran is theocratic only to a degree and is not puritanical. It has a written constitution, separation of powers, periodic elections and a judicial system. The country’s civil and penal codes are not strictly Islamic and women enjoy more civil and political rights than in most Islamic countries. Leadership is not hereditary and several grand ayatollahs are openly critical of the notion of velayat-e-faqih, the theological concept that gives jurists custodianship of the people. Gourmet dining, alcohol, gambling, drug use and pleasures of the flesh are tolerated and enjoyed by both rulers and ruled.
Second, the powers of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are limited. He is neither a supreme religious authority, nor personally above the law. His occasional fatwas (religious edicts) are often ridiculed, his proclamations issued from the bully pulpit ignored. He is the titular head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but his powers are circumscribed by the constitution. Unlike Machiavelli’s ideal prince, Khamenei is neither widely respected nor truly feared. He is routinely obeyed only because he has convinced other members of the ruling oligarchy that, in any shake-up, they would all come out losers.
Third, President Ahmadinejad’s religious fanaticism and his repeated references to the imminent return of Imam Mahdi are nothing but a political stratagem, designed to clip the clergy’s wings. As for Ahmadinejad’s regular grandstanding against the United States, this too has been largely an act, a parroting of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fulminations against the “Great Satan” in the 1980s. In fact, among Iran’s current political leaders, Ahmadinejad is probably the most ardent closet advocate of a resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States. He is the only president of the Islamic Republic who has congratulated an American president on an election victory. He has written to both Presidents Bush and Obama proposing dialogue. On his annual trips to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, he has repeatedly asked to meet US leaders, to no avail. During his…