On Monday, Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew a monarchy and put in its place absolute rule by a Muslim cleric. That model of governance, however, was not a big part of the celebrations, and for good reason. Many Muslims inside and outside Iran have shown they prefer a strong say in who rules their societies.
Popular demand for accountable government was not expected when the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious Shiite scholar, assumed power in 1979. At the heart of the revolution was his notion that all affairs of state should be subject to one Islamic leader, starting with him. He also chose his successor, the current ruler, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“I hope that [Iran] will become a model for all the meek and Muslim nations in the world,” Ayatollah Khomeini said in 1980. Now, four decades later, the model known as “guardianship of the jurist” still holds sway in Iran but only through ruthless force and mass imprisonment. It is openly challenged by protesters, political dissidents, and prominent clerics who insist on equality of citizenship. And it is almost universally rejected in the rest of the Middle East.
Even the Islamic State, crushed in Iraq and Syria, cheered on demonstrations against the Tehran regime in late 2017 and early 2018. Thousands of Iranians, angered by worsening economic conditions, went to the streets chanting “We don’t want an Islamic republic” and “Clerics! Get lost.”
The Iranian revolution has accomplished much. It expanded education, especially for girls. And it freed Iran of entanglement with big powers. But the ruling mullahs have driven the economy into negative growth. Their policies have forced many Iranians to go abroad for freedom or opportunities. And even as it tries to keep the facade of a nominal democracy, the regime has suppressed dissent, such as a violent crackdown on mass protests in 2009 as well as in cyberspace.
Neighboring countries, especially those with large populations of Shiite Muslims, have also rebelled against Iran’s attempt to export its governing model. Last May in a free election, Iraq voters preferred parties that oppose Iran’s influence. In the Arab Spring of 2011, the majority Shiites in Bahrain were protesting for democracy, not clerical rule. In Lebanon, the powerful and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia is wary of alienating the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. Only in Syria does Iran hold some power. But that country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, rules like a regular dictator, not one who claims divine authority.
Iran’s theocracy was set up on the premise that the revolution would perish unless it expanded beyond its borders. It has not expanded in large part because many popular Shiite clerics, such as Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reject the idea of clerics running secular government. Many of Iran’s most famous prisoners have been once-prominent clerics who championed separation of mosque and state.
Most all Muslims cherish freedom of conscience and rule of law for their mixed societies. Many in the Middle East not yet have such liberties. But they, not Iran’s revolutionary model, are worth celebrating.