The Shia theological proposition that justifies Iran's dictatorial system of rule and export of "revolution" across the region, known as Guardianship of the Jurist, is largely dismissed in the broader Shia community as a theological anomaly.
Discussed in Shia Islam since at least the 10th century, it addresses the governance of an Islamic society in the absence of Mahdi, the last of the 12 Shia Imams who are considered to be direct descendants of Prophet Mohammed.
The dominant view of Shia Islam holds that Islamic society should be ruled only by those who are direct descendants of the Prophet's household.
Mahdi, or Imam of the Ages, is said to be in "occultation" or "temporary absence" since 941 CE. Shia tradition holds that his reappearance will usher in the Day of Judgement. In the interim, a jurist -- a highly qualified cleric and expert on religious doctrine -- is to guide the Shia community.
The debate among Shia scholars has focused on how much of the day-to-day administration of the state is supposed to be left to the jurist.
The dominant interpretation is that the jurist must avoid direct intervention in the murky world of politics and state administration to remain religiously pure.
Under this interpretation, the jurist's purview is limited to settling matters of dispute in the Shia religious tradition, administering religious endowments and advising political rulers.
Iraq's top Shia cleric, Ali al-Sistani, is arguably the most prominent adherent of this interpretation. With rare exceptions, he has stayed out of Iraqi politics.
The minority view, on the other hand, holds that the jurist must oversee and be involved in the administration of the state.
Rouhollah Khomeini (1900-1989), founder of the Islamic Republic, is arguably the most prominent proponent of this view, which he espoused and expanded upon, ultimately leading to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Guardianship of the Jurist
The dominant interpretation, which holds that the jurist must not directly interfere in politics, has prevailed since at least the 16th century, when the Safavid Empire declared Shiism the official state religion of Iran.
In 1970, Khomeini starting delivering a series of lectures while in exile, questioning the legitimacy of the Shah's rule, arguing that Iran should be under "the guardianship of a jurist".
Khomeini is credited with transforming the traditional understanding of the role of the jurist to one in which the "guardian" must be the leader of a Shia nation, not merely a political and moral advisor to the nation and its rulers.
Under his formulation -- which justifies the position of a "supreme leader" -- the authority of the Guardian Jurist or "Vali-ye Faqih" (al-Wali al-Faqih in Arabic) is absolute, and controls or overrides all other branches of an Islamic government.
The expansive powers of the supreme leader are meant to "check dictatorial tendencies" by the president, the parliament or other elected officials, he said.
Iran's current constitution, written after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought Khomeini to power, is designed to enact that expansive vision.
It enumerates the supreme leader's powers, giving him the sole authority to appoint the heads of all branches of the armed forces, the top leadership of the state-backed broadcasting, and half of the members of the Guardian Council.
The powerful Guardian Council, a 12-member body, decides who can and cannot stand for elected office in the Islamic Republic.
The criteria for approval are ill-defined, shift from one election to the next, and largely serve to keep critics of the Islamic Republic or the supreme leader out of power.
The Guardian Council also vets candidates for the Assembly of Experts, tasked with electing a supreme leader and ostensibly overseeing his performance.
Although the Assembly of Experts technically has the power to remove the supreme leader, in practice, it largely serves to rubber-stamp the supreme leader's preferences.
In any event, the supreme leader's influence over the Guardian Council enables him to make sure his critics are disqualified from running for election to the Assembly of Experts.
Furthermore, the supreme leader is permitted to override the decisions of public officials. He can issue decrees that reverse presidential decisions based on what he considers the "expedient decision for the national interest".
Iran's current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has at times issued public declarations, including some that pertain to such minutiae as who is qualified to advise the sitting president.
He effectively has the last say on any domestic issue of his choosing and on all foreign policy matters.
IRGC's use of guardianship
In 1979, Khomeini authorised the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with the goal of "exporting" the Islamic Revolution.
In 2010, then-IRGC commander Mohammad-Ali Jafari said the IRGC "considers any opposition to the Guardianship of the Jurist to be treason".
In September, the IRGC's chief architect, Mohsen Rafighdoust, said it "has grown with the [doctrine] of the Guardianship of the Jurist at its core".
Under the pretext of "protecting the revolution" from ideological dissidents and mass domestic unrest, the IRGC has repeatedly engaged in acts of repression.
In the aftermath of the controversial presidential election of 2009, it cracked down on demonstrators who chanted against Khamenei's rule and supporters of the movement they created, known as the Green Movement.
Jafari said the IRGC "must back" the political movement that most closely adhered to Khamenei's view, after the supreme leader stated his preference for the sitting president – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-right nationalist – over the challenger.
Demonstrators in 2019 and 2020 were even more critical of Khamenei and the IRGC. In multiple video clips shared on social media, they are seen tearing up posters of Khamenei and IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
For decades, the IRGC's Quds Force has funded and trained militias that use violence and political coercion with the ultimate intent of growing the Islamic Republic's influence in the region.
As with the rest of the IRGC, the Quds Force derives its legitimacy from its self-described mission to protect the Guardianship of the Jurist.
Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the late leader of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), both swore fealty to Khamenei, rather than expressing loyalty to the political systems within their own nations.
The IRGC "demands that all its proxies swear fealty to Khamenei", said Mohsen Hosseini, a US-based Iran analyst.
From the PMF militias in Iraq, to Hizbullah in Lebanon, and even the Houthis in Yemen, the Quds Force uses the mirage of religious piety and serving the needs of "the Muslim community" to expand the Iranian regime's influence, he said.
Shia luminaries reject jurist rule
The idea of absolute rule by a Shia jurist has had its detractors in Iran from the moment Khomeini proposed it.
Even before that, many luminaries of the Shia community in Iran rejected the idea that the cleric recognised as the jurist should have any formal leadership role in politics.
These include Ahmad Naraghi (1806-1866), a cleric recognised as the most significant contributor to the concept of the Guardianship of the Jurist as it is understood in Iran today.
But Naraghi argued against direct rule by a jurist, much less absolute rule.
More recently -- in addition to Iraq's al-Sistani -- senior Shia scholars, including Bashir al-Najafi, Mohammad al-Fayyaz and Mohammad-Saeed al-Hakim, have voiced their opposition to the idea of political rule by an Islamic jurist.
"The idea of [political] rule by a jurist, as we have it in [the Islamic Republic's] constitution, is an anomaly that is rejected by most members of the Shia community," Mostafa Tajzadeh, once a high-profile revolutionary who later became an advocate for reform, said in 2019.
"I was among the people who worked to include the concept [of absolute rule] in the constitution," Tajzadeh said. "But later I came to realise that it was wrong."