Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran (Columbia University Press, Hardcover 2018, Paperback 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar (MAT): I started graduate school with the goal of studying what I had observed and experienced as a child during and after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Religion formed a central component of the revolution and certainly one of its most visible consequences in people’s daily lives. My curiosity was further heightened by how the academic literature and the media outside Iran analyzed Iranian politics and religion. While I view religion as a medium for political actors to rule, protest, contest, communicate, and bargain, many scholars see it as a variable that constitutes elites’ worldviews and thus explains their behavior. Ascribing rationality to self-proclaimed religious actors often leads to pushback: “But they are true believers.” This false strategic-ideological dichotomy assumes an actor cannot be both rational and a true believer. My goal was to examine political behavior alongside ideological discourse in the larger domestic and international context. I wanted to write a book that would “normalize” and “de-exoticize” Iranian politics, relieve it from self-imposed over-predictive theological constraints, and yet not ignore the role of religion.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

MAT: The book examines the politics of Islam, instead of “political Islam.” It studies how Ayatollah Khomeini established what he called “God’s Government” on Earth by first and foremost acquiring a monopoly over the construction and use of religion. I challenge the conventional wisdom that Islamist actors seek to control the state in order to implement sharia. Instead, I argue that sharia is a means to capture the state.

Relying on both international relations and comparative politics literatures, the book reveals how religious narratives can change and change rapidly, frequently, and dramatically in accordance with elites’ threat perceptions. It traces the evolution of various ideological discourses in Iran since the 1950s to demonstrate how Islamist, nationalist, and leftist ideologies interacted, evolved, and were adopted in the course of the revolution, the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the economic and political reforms of the ‘90s, and finally the 2016 nuclear agreement and the ongoing US-Iranian tensions. I show that elites develop and deploy various ideologies instrumentally to expand their constituencies while bargaining with each other and jockeying for power. That is not to say that the masses are simply manipulated by the elites. Rather, elites often respond to popular sentiments gauged through historical experiences and collective learning processes. The book covers the era in which Islamism was the dominant ideology in Iran, and ends with the rise of Persian nationalism in more recent years, showing how Iranian Islamist elites have had to gradually shift their ideology according to public sentiments.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MAT: The core of the book was a series of academic and policy papers that I wrote to make sense of current US-Iranian relations. Delving into the intricacies of daily Iranian domestic politics, I tried to develop an analytical framework that could explain why political factions in Iran adopt contradictory views on the United States. Hardline anti-American hostage takers of 1979 are now outspoken proponents of a rapprochement with the United States. Similarly, moderate figures of the ‘80s have turned into leading opponents of engagement with Washington. I noticed that actors’ positions within the political system help determine where they stand on US-Iranian relations. Once I could make sense of current politics in Iran, I went back and reexamined the revolutionary phase as if it was happening in real time. Studying daily debates and political exchanges in an uncertain environment helped me realize the contingency of political outcomes in every stage. For example, the post-revolutionary political order was by no means pre-ordained but a contingent outcome of strategic interactions among elites. Iran’s current political system was not the inevitable incarnation of Khomeini’s theory of Velayat-e Faqih (The Guardianship of the Jurist), which he had developed a decade before the revolution. Instead, it was the result of the threats that the non-Islamist clerics, nationalists, and leftists posed to Khomeini, and more importantly to his militant followers after the ‘79 revolution. Later, the anti-American outbidding competition between the Islamists and the leftists led to the occupation of the US embassy. In short, through a micro-level analytical approach, which I first adopted to understand current Iranian politics, I could unearth what I think is the broader logic of the politics of religion and ideology.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MAT: My audience is primarily students and scholars of the social sciences and the Middle East, as well as policymakers who deal with Iranian politics. For forty years, scholarship and the media have hardwired us to see religious influences on Iranian politics. My hope is that this book serves as a step toward seeing how politics shapes religion. We tend to ascribe outcomes that we do not understand to religion, ideology, culture, history, etc. These factors certainly matter, but many of the decisions that actors make often reflect their immediate political concerns. Our focus on what these actors claim about themselves and their motivations has come at the expense of understanding their actual threat perceptions. And these threat perceptions are not just about their enemies but their rivals, too. As I show consistently in analyzing the course of contemporary Iranian politics, actors fear their competitors with overlapping beliefs as much as, if not more than, their enemies with contradictory ideologies. For example, Khomeini understood that he could not have conquered the monarchy had he not first acquired a monopoly over the use of religion by silencing competing clerics. Until death, he remained as deeply preoccupied with two or three aging senior clerics as he was concerned with the outcome of the Iran-Iraq War and the threat from the “Great Satan” (the United States). My hope is that students, scholars, and policymakers pay more attention to these political rivalries on factional, regime, and state levels. Our understanding of the role of religion is still underdeveloped, despite major theoretical and methodological advancements. Although I look at the Iranian case, my argument about the political underpinnings of religious ideology could very well apply to other contexts.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MAT: I am currently studying a number of leftist Iranian rebel groups that emerged in the ‘60s and later became social democrats. They were part of a broader international armed struggle inspired by the success of the Cuban, Vietnamese, Algerian, and other militant groups. These young Marxist, nationalist, and Islamist students broke away from traditional parties and began an incredible ideological journey to found cohesive and formidable rebel groups that shook and shaped Iranian politics with consequences that endure to this day. Being intellectuals, these actors left behind enormous materials on topics ranging from Marxist-Leninist theories and their compatibility with Islamic texts and Iranian context to tactical battlefield effectiveness against the Shah and later Khomeini’s revolutionary forces. We now have access to the most secretive ideological debates among competing organizations’ leaders, smuggled prison notes, daily newspapers, internal bulletins, military operation assessments, and many other fascinating materials.

As a child, I remember the street fighting between Khomeini’s Islamist revolutionary forces and these militant groups in Tehran; a bloody tale that cost tens of thousands of lives, many of whom were young university and even high school students. I have been puzzled by these highly dedicated actors who joined organizations knowing that as a guerilla fighter they would last between six months to two years. I am particularly interested to see how some of these organizations transitioned from Islamism to Marxism, and what kind of impact this conversion had on their rank and file members. I started this project about two years ago, thinking it would be a paper, but I suddenly found myself swamped in notes reaching about one hundred thousand words.


Excerpt from the book 

IN FEBRUARY 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sat at the helm of God’s Government in Iran. While history has remembered him as a man of unbending principle, he charted a complex and contradictory course— from defender of the constitutional monarchy in 1961, calling on Mohammad Reza Shah to reign, not rule; to developing a doctrine of supreme clerical rule, Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), to replace the monarchy; to reverting to advocating a progressive constitutional government minus the Shah on the eve of the Iranian Revolution in 1979; to institutionalizing Velayat-e Faqih in the new constitution, putting him at the top of the combined supreme religious and political authority. On his deathbed, he revised even Velayat-e Faqih, no long requiring his successor to possess the highest possible clerical qualifications but instead endowing the position with ultimate political authority— Absolute Velayat-e Faqih.

Before ascending to power, Khomeini pledged freedom to the opposition to unite under his Islamist banner, made alliances with nationalists, attracted leftists to his political cause, endeared himself to the Iranian army, and promised the monarch’s American patron unobstructed access to oil. Once in power, he and his followers would “break the pens” of the dissidents, uproot the nationalists, liquidate the leftists, decapitate the army, install their own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and bring the entire state apparatus under the Islamists’ control. He had vowed friendship with the United States but then blessed the seizure of the American embassy. He sought a united Shi’a authority to capture the state, only to end its independence and bring it under the state’s control. Khomeini preached the establishment of an Islamic state to implement Islamic law but reversed the means and ends when he sanctioned abrogation of Islamic law to protect the state.

His followers were no less fickle. After Khomeini’s death in 1989, they split into two groups and took his ideological legacy down opposite paths. The radical Islamist leftists who had structured their faction around statism and anti-imperialism, and seized the U.S. embassy in 1979, later reinvented themselves in 1997 as proponents of reformist Islam, human rights, and better relations with the United States. By contrast, the conservative Islamist right, which was considered more “moderate” in the early years of the revolution, evolved into a more statist, ultraconservative, anti-American faction. Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei, initially downplayed his predecessor’s preference for the Absolute Guardianship of the Jurist, only to further expand it once he himself became the Guardian Jurist; he then went from a middling title, Hojjat al-Islam, to Ayatollah, before ultimately claiming to be a grand ayatollah. Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who played a critical role in institutionalizing Velayat-e Faqih in 1979 and then tailoring that robe for Khamenei in 1989, backed the popular pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009 and strove to weaken the position of the Guardian Jurist to the clerical equivalent of the British monarchy. His reformist successor, Mohammad Khatami, symbolized the transformation of a staunchly anti-imperialist faction into one that would advocate better relations with the United States. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his circle spoke of wiping Israel off the map, but later declared friendship with the Israeli people. His anti-American position was followed by numerous unsuccessful attempts to open a secret channel to the White House.

The story of post-revolutionary Iran is a story of ideological and political contradictions—often articulated by the same actors. Religion is a ubiquitous and yet mercurial feature of contemporary Iranian politics. “Islam” has taken a wide range of quietist, revolutionary, reformist, nationalist, secular manifestations in contemporary Iran. Scholars and policymakers have not paid sufficient attention to how elites have constructed and used religious narratives for political purposes, and changed these narratives in the process. Religion is often described as either a mask for Iranian leaders’ hunger for power or a determinant of their behavior. Lost in between is an analysis of how religion is instrumentally crafted, negotiated, and contested in the political sphere. If elites unremittingly develop and deploy religious discourse, scholars should study this continual development and deployment. Just as social scientists examine elites’ electoral and nuclear politics, so should they examine their religious politics.

Ignoring the role of religion in political analysis, Clifford Geertz once prudently observed, “is not so much to stage the play without the prince as without the plot.” Conversely, one can argue that ignoring politics is to stage a play that—despite having a plot—leaves out the prince and the rest of the cast. Beneath the façade of a seemingly static, consistent ideological political system is a dynamic, fast-paced underworld of bold ideational impresarios unabashedly comfortable with supplying any religious commodity necessary to control the state.

In this book, I demonstrate that Iranian politics revolve around instrumentally constructed religious doctrines and narratives. Interactive and embedded in daily politics, these doctrines and narratives shift as the positions of their carriers change within the political system. Actors develop and deploy these narratives to meet their factional and regime-level interests, depending on their locus in the system and their subsequent threat perceptions. Rather than the driving force behind behavior, religious ideas are the constructs of actors seeking to meet the challenges of elite competition. In an uncertain climate, political actors are prone to become ideational entrepreneurs, reformulating their goals according to ideological references that capture the popular imagination and bring them closer to dominating the polity. The state is not “a means for the production of meaning,” but the opposite. Meaning production is a means for capturing the state. A monopoly over the legitimate use of religion is a sine qua non of an “Islamic” state.