Fereydoon Abbasi is a hardline parliamentarian and former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. In 2010, he barely survived what looked like an Israeli assassination attempt. And in December 2022, this stalwart of the mullahcracy issued an unusual rebuke. “Just complaining is not enough,” he said. “It is expected that the seminary will offer its opinion on how to solve our problems.” In the middle of the most serious uprising that Iran’s Islamic Republic has confronted in its 44-year lifespan, Abbasi chose to single out the nation’s clerical elders for a solution to the troubles swirling around the theocracy since the death of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, on September 16, 2022. Given the strain on the security services, the rapid decline of Iran’s currency, its accelerating nuclear program, and near-constant Israeli covert action inside the Islamic Republic, it seems curious that a nuclear physicist and a former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who isn’t known to opine on religious issues, should be so concerned with the musings of nonagenarian ayatollahs in the shrine city of Qom.

Since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, the Islamic Republic has not infrequently had to deal with city-shaking demonstrations, strikes, and even rebellions. The clerical regime has found itself confronting sullen members of the middle class and angry youth time and again. In 2009, protests against a rigged presidential election reached a million people in the streets of Tehran; in 2019, the security forces used automatic-weapons fire to suppress dissent that verged on insurrection. But the continuing protests sparked by the death of Amini at the hands of the morality police last year are different.

The slogan at the center of the protests is “Women, Life, Freedom”—zan, zendegi, âzâdi—and it deliberately conceals more than it reveals. This is not a revolt for clean elections, better wages, or even female emancipation. It is a plea for personal dignity and individual sovereignty. This upwelling explicitly aims to overturn the theocracy and replace it with a democracy no longer limited by clerical oversight. Although not well appreciated by many outside of Iran, democratic aspirations were a significant driver of the revolution in 1978–79. The ruling clergy was compelled by that fact to incorporate democratic elements into the new religious order; and so for many, even within the clergy, the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is believed to rise from the people as well as God and the holy law. The people need to be supervised, of course, by those who know better—the clergy. But the body politic has constituent authority that even hardcore theocrats reluctantly recognize. And the Islamic Republic’s flirtation with limited democracy throughout its tenure, which led Iranians to hope intermittently that they might be able to change the course of their country at the ballot box, has whetted the appetite among many for the real thing. As the legitimacy of theocracy has collapsed, the desire for popular sovereignty has risen.

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Revolution-loyal clerics have worried about the health of the republic since Khomeini’s passing more than 30 years ago. The late Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, himself a cleric of unimpeachable revolutionary credentials who often served as an intermediary between the clerical establishment in Qom and the ruling political clergy in Tehran, warned in the early 1990s that clerics were becoming corrupted by power and wealth, that they were losing the affections of the faithful. According to him, mullahs needed to remember that their essential role in Iranian society depended on their spiritual and juridical work away from power.

His counsel wasn’t followed, and partly as a result, official Iranian studies have that shown a rapidly declining number of young men are seeking a clerical education even though it remains the pathway to power and wealth for the poor. Even more telling, Iranian women of the lower and middle classes, where the wives of clerics have usually come from, no longer find mullahs attractive as mates. And the regime is well aware that mosque attendance has dropped precipitously. The historic norm for Shiites, who had a complicated relationship with state authority throughout most of Islamic history, was irregular mosque attendance. That changed with the Islamic revolution. What far-sighted revolutionary clerics like Mahdavi-Kani feared would happen has come to pass: The public expression of Muslim fraternity, if it still exists in the Islamic Republic, has distanced itself from state-controlled mosques and imams. This likely explains the growth of a more mystical, mullah-hostile, populist Shiism among the poor.

Clerical leaders have taken note of all this discontent. Their usually subtle, indirect critiques of the theocracy have become bolder. The grand ayatollahs are cautious men inclined toward consensus who usually present themselves as concerned guardians of the revolution and the faith. Outside of religious ritual and the mundane aspects of Islamic law, they tend to focus on economics, the people’s material well-being—but politics are never far behind.

When the troubles broke out in September 2022, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi stressed, “We will not resolve the issue of hijab or poverty with pressure.” Hossein Nuri Hamadani, a clerical leader who is arch-conservative on most issues, including women, insisted, “If plans to eliminate oppression, discrimination, and poverty are not on the agenda, and if these issues are not resolved, then the Islamic revolution has not reached its objectives.” He went further: “It is necessary for officials to listen to the people’s demands and solve their problems and be sensitive to their rights.” His fellow divine, Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi-Amoli, embraced the opposition, noting, “We also accept this slogan.…Listen to the students.” He ended his message with a stark warning: “If the nation rises up, we have no way to escape.”

All this has sparked its share of consternation in the capital of Tehran. Emissaries from the capital frequently journey to Qom hoping to quiet aggrieved ayatollahs. In the past months, speaker of the parliament Mohammad Qalibaf and various ministers have pleaded their case. President Ibrahim Raisi, who has been crisscrossing the country since his election and is known to work the phones, has also been calling Qom.

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So why does the regime care now? Tehran is known for disciplining recalcitrant and disrespectful mullahs. It usually shows a certain decorum toward the grand ayatollahs, whose patronage systems aren’t legally under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s control. The politicized clergy are often tied by affection and family to mullahs who’ve chosen to keep their distance from government. But there is no question who rules. And the fossilized theological elite atop Iran’s clerical establishment surely have no base of support among the rebellious youth. In fact, given the public’s long experience with theocratic rule, Iran has perhaps become the most secular Muslim nation in the Middle East, Turkey included.

What Mahdavi-Kani worried about 30 years ago—if religion is about everything, then it becomes about nothing—has probably happened for most people under 30. That may well also be true for people under 50. An Islamic Republic that makes worship its business routinely issues reports documenting the increasing secular direction of its subjects. The mosques, as the regime points out, are mostly empty even on days of religious commemoration. Hardly anyone purchases religious tomes issued by the state publishing houses. It’s a decent guess that no one in Iran who listens to Western music, diaspora Persian pop, or Sufi compositions has ever voluntarily touched a religious guidebook by Khamenei. In terms of appearance, men eschew beards and women hate the headscarf. Since the outbreak of the latest insurrection, mullahs have routinely been accosted on the streets. (This has been a problem since the 1990s, but it appears to have gotten much worse.) In sharp contrast to the 1970s, religion has lost its centrality in Iranian society.

The supreme leader and his allies take a dim view of the grand divines. Given Khamenei’s lack of theological erudition (he was a middling scholar when Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, then the majordomo of the political clergy, made him the supreme leader), he has always approached his more accomplished brethren with a mixture of envy, suspicion, and hostility. As an aspiring totalitarian state, the Islamic Republic sought to nationalize religion and diminish the autonomy of seminarians. The Revolutionary Guards have even set up their own religious school; Khamenei controls the selection and sermons of the Friday prayer leaders.

But the hawza—the community of senior clerics of Qomhas not succumbed to the state’s attempts at total control. And the marjas, the “sources of emulation” considered the highest authorities in Iran’s branch of Shia Islam, continue to offer benediction to supplicants, collect alms from the faithful, and to some extent chart their own path. Khamenei doesn’t esteem these old men, but he has to take into consideration any criticisms they might make, for the simple reason that many of his foot soldiers might care a lot what these divines think.

The Islamic Republic has never been a traditional authoritarian state; it’s more an ideological construct. Such regimes require a dogma, a serious argument sanctioning repression. They ask their security forces routinely to bloody their hands, even sometimes to commit atrocities.

Its working-class enforcers often come from religious families. And Iran’s overlapping security services have a lot of conscripts. Even within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the country’s elite military force, conscripts may represent more than half the corps. The top echelons of the guards may be tied to the government by financial rewards and privileges of power, as well as a militant creed, but such dispensations do not trickle down all that generously. Faithful enlisted men need religion to justify their actions. They likely respond best, without guilty consciences, when the gravamen against the enemy is defined by religious belief. The regime, given its fairly accurate understanding of what has been taking place in Iranian society, likely views its conscripts as sentries who themselves need to be watched for wobbliness.

This is why the clerical critique is so subversive. The Islamic Republic’s current dilemma is existential. All national armies that confront civilian protestors have their share of doubts and defections. The esteemed leaders of the Shiite community—and nonpolitical clerics work their way up the totem pole through a combination of skills (erudition, fundraising, marriage)—cannot operate without the approbation of their families and fellows. A marja knows people voluntarily follow his views; if someone strongly disagrees with a grand ayatollah, he or she is free to search elsewhere for guidance. That undoubtedly disconcerts, if not frightens, the regime as its popularity has collapsed. Khamenei is demanding that poor young men be willing to return to their own neighborhoods and kill those who are culturally close. They need to be willing to kill young, unveiled women. The clerics are not making that demand easy to enforce.

Although it has become commonplace to hear Western and Iranian feminists describe Iran’s Islamic society as misogynistic, that isn’t how the faithful, especially the regime’s supporters, view it. They see themselves as protecting women from the depredations of men. It’s been obviously hard for the regime to square the imperative to protect women, which is at the core of male Islamic culture, with the demand to beat and kill girls. Khamenei, who isn’t soft-hearted and has a proven fondness for men who excel at killing, has flinched in his rhetoric when it comes to describing young women as the “enemies of God,” which is the usual way the regime labels those who rebel. As they always do when demonstrations disquiet them, Khamenei and the guards have tried to cast the latest revolt as a Western and Zionist plot to undermine Islam and an uncompromising revolution. In their eyes, the tumult after Amini’s murder is a conflict between believers and nefarious agents of foreigners. This charge is also hard for Iranians to take seriously when young women and girls—some may well be the daughters and granddaughters of clerics and guardsmen—are on the front lines.

Given that female dissent in Iran is now present even among the poor and lower middle class, the pressure on the poorly educated foot soldiers of the regime must be intense. The Islamic Republic’s increasingly permanent state of instability is a minefield for those who must oppress dissenters who look and talk like them.

Khamenei likely knows he will have no surcease to this agitation before his death. He is 83 years old and not in the best of health. He sees his true enemy—Westernization—pretty clearly since he himself was once enraptured by European literature. He translated the works of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian father of modern Islamic militancy, into Farsi because he, too, was appalled by, and perhaps guiltily attracted to, the Occident’s personal freedom. Khamenei knows that the West’s secret sauce is its capacity to encourage people to self-actuate.

Among women, even in the holy city of Qom, which has seen frequent demonstrations since September, Western views, values, and sentiments appear to have penetrated quite deeply. It’s a perverse paradox for the theocracy: The Islamic revolution’s success has produced a secularizing nemesis. For the moment, on the streets, the regime appears to have the upper hand. Though strained, the security services have held.

But all revolutions have their ebbs and flows. Intense activity alternates with relative calm. Iran’s senior seminarians have extensive alms-collecting networks throughout the country. They have, in other words, informal intelligence services nationwide feeding information back to them. They are surely aware how deep the anger is now against the theocracy. They probably sense more tumult coming. Like the ruling elite, they don’t appear to have any clear idea of how to stop it. They obviously don’t want more violence. It’s a biting irony that their pacific intentions, that their commendable public airing of their concerns, may well make the Islamic Republic even more unstable.

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