Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss



Muhammad had only one surviving child, a daughter Fatima. Her husband Ali was Muhammad’s cousin.  Ali is the father of Muhammad’s only grandchildren, Hassan and Hussein. Muhammad stated just before his death that Ali is his ‘mawla’, meaning friend.  Some considered this a proclamation of succession, some did not.  Ali was considered a great warrior and in one on one fight killed the Goliath of his enemies. In another fight at Khaybar he is reputed to have killed the Jewish Champion Marhab.

The majority of Muhammad’s disciples elected one of Muhammad’s leading disciples and the father of one of his wives, Abu Bakr as his successor. When Abu Bakr died he appointed Uman. In both cases Ali refused to compete and preferred Muslim unity.

Ali was killed as he entered the Mosque to lead the prayers by an unknown assassin. Ali’s son Hassan refused to recognize Uman as the selected Caliph. Hassan was forced to retire and was apparently poisoned. His brother Hussein succeeded him and is known by Shi’ites as the third Iman.

The key date in Shi’ite Islam developed beginning on October 3, 680 CE (61 in the Islamic calendar) on the Plain of Karbala.  Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad  stood facing the several thousand man army of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid who succeeded Uman. This was the beginning of the Sunni Shi’ite conflict.  1

Hussein and his family and perhaps two hundred men went into the conflict. Being barred by his enemies of water Hussein released his men from an oath to fight; some left. But seventy-two of his companions (and his family) refused and they went to a certain death. Hussein was beheaded at Kerbala as was his one year old son. This event is celebrated annually by flagellation as a ritual commemorating Hussein’s martyrdom by Shi’ites. 2 This created a cult of martyrdom.

These deaths became the founding myth of the Shi’ite movement. There are some obvious similarities to Jesus’ crucifixion and Christian martyrdom. 3

Shi’ites believe the successor an Imam or a Caliph must be a descendant of Muhammad. The twelvth Imam (a young boy) disappeared (supposedly to God) in 874 and the Twelver Shi’ites expect his arrival at the end of history as the Mahdi or Messiah.  This is the belief of the Iranian Shi’ites, the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the majority of Shi’ites in the world.


Today Shi’ites represent 95% of the population in Iran, 70% in Bahrain, 60% in Iraq and 30% in Lebanon.

B. SHI’ITE THEOLOGY: Activists vs. Quietists –

Shi’ite’s are more concerned with Theology than Sunni’s.

Activists wish to force God’s hand; Quietists wait for God. Both positions can be found in Jewish Holy Books. In Judaism the activists were the Zealots who fought the Romans during the Second Temple and 60 years later during the messianic Bar Kokhba war. The quietists were the followers of Hillel and then Jochanan ben Zakai.  Nineteen hundred years later the activists were the Secular Zionists and the quietists the Orthodox who believed in awaiting for God to bring the Messiah . One century later the Orthodox became the Activists and most of the Secular the Quietists.

In both religions clerics define when the time is right – H’Ari in 1570 (a century after the expulsion from Spain) created an active Kabbalism that led a century later to Rabbi Nathan of Gaza proclaiming the Messianism of  the false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi. A century later the Baal Shem Tov created Hasidism, a Jewish reform movement and more recently Yehuda Tzvi Kook, the religious leader of Gush Emunim created his own form of active Messianism.

In most of Muslim history the Sunni’s had political authority and the Shi’ite Clerics developed a position of quietism relative them. The Shi’ite’s, the Activists in the early centuries, continually lost and gave up activism to rely on God to await  the return of the Mahdi  - the successor of the twelfth Imam ( a form of the Messiah). This called ‘Occulation’ in Shi’ite theology  – the awaiting of the future return of the twelfth Imam, when Allah chooses. The failure of earlier zealotry made it difficult to activate movements to foster political action.

Another pillars of Shi’ite belief as noted above is martyrdom. Martyrdom is glorified in a way not true of the Sunnis (although that may have changed). Martyrdom makes the ‘Other’ world more important than the present world.

Two Ayattolahs in recent decades have developed an Activist stand relative to Occultation; Ayattolah Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr in Iraq is one. He wrote ‘We are not fighting within the rules of the world as it exists today. We reject all those rules. 4 He (and his sister Bint al-Huda) were executed by Saddam Hussein on April 9, 1980.

The second was Ayatolla Khomeini.

Khomeini established the idea of the ‘Guardianship of the Jurist’ making him a pre-Messianic figure. (velayat e faqih) – the lspiritual and temporal leader of the People. This view was a revolutionary idea developed by Khomeini known as the ‘Imam.  This assumes he is the successor to the twelfth Imam. According to A. Sachedina  he heard many times the expression in Iran after the Revolution ‘There were three idol breakers, Abraham, Muhammad and Khomeini’.

The Shi’ite modern version of Islamic martyrdom - suicide bombing - can be attributed to the Ayatollah Khomeini. He elaborated on the Shi’ite tradition using the Qur’anic term ‘mustazafin’ – the weak, the disinherited and the enfeebled who in Christian language will inherit the earth. They became the leaders of his revolution. During the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) he convinced ten of thousands of defenseless boys and teenagers to go through fields mined by the Iraqi’s to die yelling ‘Ya Hussein’. There deaths became a form of redemption earned through works – the works being death by suicide/martyrdom.  

Despite these martyrdoms Khomeini lost the war to Iraq and signed a ceasefire on February 15, 1989.  To hide his bitterness and shame of this defeat he declared on February 14, 1989 a ‘fatwa’ against Salmon Rushdie seeking his death.  

Khomeini developed a theology of death from a fringe of shi’ite theology.  In this he goes back to the beginning of Shi’ism begun in Kerbala in the year 680.  In the 1300 years since Kerbala however the vast majority of Shiite thinking has been of a ‘quietist’ nature. This school does not believe in a totalitarian theocracy run by clerics. This is the position of the current Grand Ayatollah al Sistani (Iraq) and the Grand Ayatollah Ali Montozeri (Iran) and their century’s old predecessors. The other three Iraqi Grand Ayatollahs are also of the ‘quietist’ school as are most of the ten current Iranian Grand Ayatollahs.

The conflict between the Activists and the Quietists has been described by Amir Taheri as duel for leadership.

Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein, many people had expected it to happen: a ‘theological duel between Najaf, in central Iraq, and Qom, south of Tehran, over the leadership of the world’s Shiite Muslims.

The first moves in the duel have come from Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani in Najaf and Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi in Qom. The issue that triggered it is one connected with lifestyle: Does Islam permit smoking? The question was put to the two clerics by the Islamic Students Association, a pro-reform movement based in Tehran.

The answers given by the two clerics show them to be poles apart in their understanding of theology and the role it plays in a modern Muslim society.

Sistani is the primus inter pares of Iraqi Shiite theologians. Having lived under house arrest through much of Saddam’s rule, and thus prevented from communicating with Shi’ites outside Iraq, Sistani was unable to use his position to project his vision of Shi’ism. With Saddam gone, he is now free to help rebuild Najaf as a center of “Ijtihad”. Sistani was a pupil of the late Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Khoi, regarded by many as the greatest of Shiite theologians of the last century. Khoi preached a version of Islam that emphasizes personal piety as opposed to public militancy. He also insisted that clerics should not seek political power but act as arbiters between state and society.

Shirazi is one of six mullahs appointed by Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei as a collective “source of emulation” (Marja’a al-Taqlid).

The rival fatwas reveal not only two schools of “Ijtihad” but two visions of the role of religion in society.

Shirazi is categorical in declaring that smoking tobacco in any form and under any circumstances and by anyone is a sin. He uses the term “haram” (forbidden). Shirazi bases his position on verse 195 of the surah Al-Baqara in the Qur’an which admonishes Muslims not to lead themselves to destruction. The verse, however, has hitherto been interpreted as a command to believers not to take suicidal action in war.

Sistani’s fatwa says that smoking is not forbidden as such but anyone who knows that it is harmful to his or her health should refrain from doing so. He regards the issue of smoking as one to be settled by human reason and individual choice, not through anathema and interdict. In doing so, Sistani shows that in most issues concerning human existence, “reason” must prevail over dogma. The “ texts” should be used for graver issues that fall beyond fallible human reasoning.

The two schools of “Ijtihad” could lead to two different forms of social and political organization. Shirazi uses words such as “must” and “obligatory”. This means that the clergy should exercise authority over society, and that their edicts should leave no room for individual choice and judgment. That position is based on the claim that a majority of the believers are incapable of knowing right from wrong and need the guidance of the clergy. Shirazi’s ideal society is ultimately Platonic: The government of the elite over the ignorant populace. Its Khomeinist version is “wilayt al-faqih”.

Sistani uses such words as “recommended” or “preferable”. He casts the clergy into the role of “advisors” and “ethical counselors” of society. The ultimate decision is made by the individual on the basis of reason, which is the most precious gift from God to man.

Sistani’s vision is ultimately Aristotelian. His ideal society is one in which rulers are ordinary pious citizens. Because the concept of an intercessor is alien to Islam, Sistani rejects the idea that an individual could escape the consequences of his deeds by simply following the clergy.

There are other differences between the two schools. For Shirazi every issue under the sun is theological. Sistani, however, allows for public and private spaces in which theology would intervene by invitation only, and then as one voice among many. In this view science, politics, literature, art, and culture in general, are independent entities not mere branches of theology.

The re-emergence of Najaf as a center of “Ijtihad” is the best news for Shiism in more than half a century. Competition between Najaf and Qom could enrich Shiite theology and benefit both centers. This is one duel that should be welcome, because it is one of ideas’.

One could define the differences that  Shirazi who represents the views of Khomeini is coercive religion while Sistani believes in a theology of reason. The same views can be found in different Judaic theologies.



1. Introduction:

Khomeini was a religious revolutionary and a charismatic. Prior to his return to Iran in 1979 he was pronounced by popular supporters, (although not by  the clerical elite) as the ‘Imam’, a title reserved for the Twelve Holy Imams, the last one having disappeared over a millennium ago to return at the end of days.

The idea of an Islamic Republic was theoretical until Khomeini’s successful revolution. It is difficult for those of us in the West to understand the impact of this Islamic revolution – perhaps the only comparison in the West would be the French Revolution.  

Shortly after his arrival in Teheran he stated ‘I assure the nation that if Islamic government works under the supervision of the Vice Regency of the Chief Theologian . . . no harm will befall the country . . . The Chief Theologian  will control and prevent any measures taken by the government . .  if they are contrary to the path. . .’5 He had made himself absolute theocratic Ruler of Iran. He replaced the absolutism of the Shah with a new absolutism.

Perhaps aware that only he could solve conflict and aware of his age he approved a new constitution separating the role of the Spiritual Ruler and establishing a direct elected President and Parliament. It was passed days after his death in June 1989. It left power of the Armed Forces, the Judiciary and the head of radio and TV in the hands of the Spiritual Ruler and his Guardian Council. The President had all other executive powers. Laws had to be approved by the Parliament. Thus three centers of power exist; this constitution is a mixture of Western political theory and Islamic oriented theology. It is an Islamic Republic not an Islamic State.

It is questionable whether this innovative political system designed by Khomeini can be called a fundamentalist since his system contains free elections. It is a limited theocracy. It has as much to do with third world populism (and perhaps Latin American Liberation Theology) and less the Islamic fundamentalism of Saudi Arabian.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who helped develop the new Constitution became its first President. Rafsanjani and Khamanei (a not well respected conservative spiritual leader elected by the clergy after Khomeini’s death) working together and eliminated reformers from the Parliament. While there was some concern about the new leader Rafsanjani claimed that the Imam had directly told him of Khamane’i’s succession. Many believe he is a puppet to the hard liners in the Clerical Party. Rafsanjani agreed that the ‘faqih’ – the Spiritual Leader - took precedence over the President. Rafsanjani claimed that his major function was to correct the economy.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (aged 80 in 2004) , the successor to Khomeini before he objected the murdering of political opponents and the Fatya proclaimed by Khomeini on Salman Rushdie, was placed under house arrest when he said Khamanei (1997) was unqualified for the job as Supreme Leader. In January 2003 he was released. He continues to reject the clerical oppression.

As Bernard Lewis has noted Khomeini established a Catholic-like clerical institution that did not exist previously. He became the Pope, the Guardian Council became a college of Cardinals, the Judges became the bishops. In the early days there was an Inquisition as reformers were killed. The current reform movement under President Khatami may be creating a Reformation. 6

Ayattolah Khamenei’s official newspaper (on January 1, 2003) the conservative daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami, stated his position as follows:

"Today, those [in Iran] who spread slogans such as reform, liberty, political development, democracy, [and] human rights... are fighting [the] religion [of Islam], and... with their demonic and colonialist theories, [they] call for separation of religion and state or support people who pursue these principles. They must realize that they are moving in the opposite direction from the path of Imam [Khomeini], and, as the Imam said, 'Maybe these people do not realize that the words against religion and against Islamic values that come from their mouths are the same words coming from the mouths of people like Bush, Sharon, Jack Straw, and others in power in the dictatorial colonialist regimes."

The rules of the Iranian Islamic Republic:

1. All power and authority emanate from God

2. No distinction between Mosque and State, between Religious and Secular

3. The community of the faithful have precedence over individuals, families, tribes of nations.

4. Divine Law was revealed through the Prophet.

5. Sharia is to be interpreted by the clerics (mujtahids).

6. A Special leader – a President - oversees the political system. He must be learned, righteous and accepted by the people.

7. Within this political participation is an important right of the people.

8. A National Assembly (Majlis)  must be elected.

9. Justice and Equality demand protection of the poor and the deprived. 7

2. Reform Theology:

Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri (in an interview with Nicholas D. Kristof - 2004) stated his positions:

The freedom that was a demand of the people has not been achieved. And a republic means a government that is democratic, where people have a say in the politics of their country. But we see that it is not that way today. You saw for instance in this recent election that the guardian council imposes anybody it wants on the voters. In fact, they are the new masters of the people, choosing winners in place of the people. But all elements of society have rights to decide the fate of their country. When minorities in the country have members in parliament, then religious elements of society should have the same right [rather than be excluded by hardliners] Religious elements have right to be represented in parliament, but they are denied this right. [in other words, reformers should be allowed in parliament] The full freedom and democratic government, in which all people participate, has not been achieved. If the demands of the people from the revolution aren’t achieved, it’s possible that they will start shouting their demands. Since the trend in the world today is not the one of force and imposing things on people, you cannot force people to have religion.. Either officials change their methods and give freedom to the people, and stop interfering in elections, or people will rise up with another revolution

These gentlemen became dominant in this country in the name of Islam. They do what they do in the name of Islam. All this repression, all these convictions, are done in the name of Islam. Islam is presented as a tough and harsh religion. And the young may well be turned off by that. The style of these gentlemen has caused it. And they should rethink how they do things and give more freedom to the young. More than 100 newspapers have been shut in the last few years. Why do they shut down these newspapers? These days, in contrast to most of the world, the mass media are in the hands of the state. And if people want to put out their own ideas and criticism, they do not have access to the media. For instance, I participated in the revolution myself. No newspaper is allowed to write the things I say. Forget about radio and TV that are run by the state. There is no freedom. Repression is carried out in the name of Islam, and that turns people off. Young people in their heart are naturally interested in religion. It’s instinct. …but violence and harsh actions, arrests and court summons, done in the name of religion turn people off. Officials should reexamine and change their practice. All these court summons, newspaper closings, and prosecutions of dissidents are wrong. These are the same things that were done under the shah and are now being repeated. And now they are done in the name of Islam and therefore alienate people.

Q. You knew Imam Khomeini very well. If he were to come back today, what would he do? Would he lead a new revolution, or would he work within the system?

A.: He wouldn’t approve of the way these gentlemen act…. We have the right to decide our country’s destiny. Three-quarters of the population was not alive when the present laws were adopted, so these laws should not bind them. Ask them what laws they want. If we give them freedom, then they will be interested in religion too. [Implicitly, he’s suggesting that it’s time to let young people establish a new constitution and even a new system of government to replace theocracy in Iran.]

Q. When I talk to clerics about you or Ayatollah Taheri, they tend to say that you are great scholars but that you are out of the mainstream. Do you think most clerics agree with you but are scared to say so, or are you indeed outside the mainstream?

A. I don’t know what they think. But I know this much. I’ve always been frank. Both with Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Boroujerdi, I was frank. I would say what I thought and offer advice. My comments caused some ill will and led people to tell lies behind my back [apparently to Khomeini]. I couldn’t defend myself. That’s how I am, and I think everybody should be like that. I don’t believe in diplomatic-style speech.

Q. So do you think a lot of clerics are running scared and aren’t saying what they think?

A. It’s about like that. A lot of society’s elites are like that, too. I always tell Iranian journalists who come here not to censor themselves, and if all of them write the truth they can’t all be suppressed….Even Imam Ali would say, 'I’m not above mistakes,’ and he would consult with people, listen to diverse ideas and make decisions. He would give freedom and the right to decide to the people. If that was the way we did things now, our problems would go away. As for depression of the youth, they’re depressed because they’re not being allowed into the game, and because economically life is very hard. Frankly, they have the right to be depressed. If all this unnecessary expenditure for foreign trips and conferences was given to youth, things would be better for them. 8


Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his mentor in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qassim al-Khoei, promoted the "quietist" school of Shiite Islam, which advocated that religious leaders remove themselves from direct involvement in politics — a view that ran counter to that of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Close associates of Ayatollah Sistani have said he is intent on transforming Najaf into a Shiite power center to rival Qum, which was strengthened in the 1980's by an influx of clerics fleeing Najaf during Mr. Hussein's rule.

3  Reform Politics – Mohammad Khatami

With the election of the reform minded President Mohammad Khatami – by 70% of the electorate in 1997 a conflict was apparent. His election was based on the younger vote (all over 16 can vote – ½ of the population was under 16 years of age), student vote and women. The number of higher education students had quadrupled from 1977-1992, the literacy rate for women had doubled between 1980 – 1990.  At a poll taken in 1995 at Teheran University 81% did not think religion very important, 61% admired western models of behavior and 15% favored the Iranian revolution. 9

Khatami is the son of an Ayatollah and received his education in Qum.

In his inaugural address in August 1997 he noted the necessity for a dialogue among civilizations. He set about re-establishing relations with the EU which had been broken in 1992. By November 1997 all the EU members but Britain had Ambassadors in Teheran. In December 1997 Khatami stated his respect for ‘the great American nation’.

The political strategy of Khatami is that he is following the Road defined by the Imam. The most basic part of their state ideology is that God is sovereign; Khatami claims that God’s will is expressed by the people. Thus he as the fairly elected President is following God’s will. The Ayatollah’s position is that the Reformers wish to separate Mosque and State and this is against God’s will. The Reformers of course have never stated that as an objective. The Ayatollah claims that a basis of the Islamic state is ‘Clerical Rule’. The Reformers demand a Free Press and all Communication sources and individual rights. Khatami has stated that ‘the pen is the manifestation of the thought and the thought is the essence of man’. Thoughts do not grow except in a liberal environment. Khatami wishes to have dialogues with the West and quotes the Prophet as having relations with non-Islamic states. The Ayatollah believes the U.S. represents the Devil.

Later in that same year (1997) at the Summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference Ayatollah Khamenei stated ‘The West with its comprehensive invasion has targeted our Islamic faith [with] its disregard. for religion and ethics.  [We will] engulf Western civilization and wipe it out’ The spiritual leader of Iran spoke of the West as full of ‘money, gluttony and carnal desires’

Khatami then spoke of the ‘Western civilization whose accomplishments are not a few and in an interdependent world we must strive toward mutual trust.  . . . A new order based on pluralism is taking shape in the world’.   We must join this world. Khatami once stated that he wished for his country what America’s founders wished for there country several centuries ago.

Khatami has said: ‘Given  the multiplicity of views of religion over history, we must ensure that we do not think that our view of religion is the only one. . . . True, these are sacred matters, but our interpretations of them are human. Only through this realization will humans open their minds to the experience and innovations of others . . . We should all avoid considering our own understandings and interpretations as absolute, which can only be attributed to the Book and the Divine Revelation itself.’ 10 ’ In criticizing medieval Christianity he stated in ‘the Church had given its practices a sacred façade such that its excesses led Westerners not only to overturn the extant social order, but to doubt the whole validity of religion and spirituality’. One wonders whether he was talking about medieval Christianity or current day Iran?

Khatami spoke of borrowing from the West the idea a civic society and freedom yet retaining its Islamic identity.’ In the civil society that we espouse, although centered around the axis of Islamic thinking and culture . . . personal or group dictatorship or even the tyranny of the majority and elimination of the minority has no place. . . . Citizens of the Islamic civil society enjoy the right to determine their own destiny. The government is the servant of the people and not its master. . . Our society is not a society where only Muslims are entitled to rights . . . all individuals are entitled to rights within the framework of law and order. Defending such rights ranks among the important fundamental duties of the government.’ 11 Western civilization rests on the idea of liberty and freedom . . .[these are] the most cherished values for human beings of all ages.’

The only way to fight the ‘cultural onslaught of the West [is to develop] an active, evolving society in contact and communicates with different, sometimes opposing views is to equip itself with a more powerful, attractive and effective  thought than that of the opponent.’ 12

Christine Amanpour the CNN correspondent listening to these two speeches interviewed Khatami and asked how one could understand Iran ‘whose Spiritual Leader speaks about conflict, enemies and harps on the past and he, the President talking about dialogue, understanding and moving forward. Which of you represents the real Iran?’ 13

At the Non-Aligned Summit in South Africa on September 1998 Khatami began his speech as follows: ‘Allow me to speak for a human being who has come from the Orient, the origins of illustrious civilizations and te cradle of highly placed divine .prophets, namely Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad’  He proposed that the year 2001 be the Year of ‘Dialogue Among Civilizations’.

The next year he visited Europe and the Pope. He also visited the UNESCO headquarters where he stated that ‘Cultures and civilizations survive only through exchange and negotiations’. He has visited China, Russian and South America. He has developed a cooperative détente policy.

Khatami’s political platform in his second election (2002) was ‘Freedom of expression, civil society, social justice and fundamental rights’. The clerics position was that the issue was Khatami was against Islamic values and he conducted the management of his government in a ‘western style’. Unfortunately for Khatami the economy is not in good shape, partly due to his inability to connect with the West and his reform platform has been vetoed by the Clerics. A Parliament was elected with a majority of reformers in 2000 and Khatami’s reelection in 2002 with 77% of the vote, the conflict over Iran future is being fought over. Khatami’s overwhelming reelection came despite the fact that he has accomplished little during his first term due to the hardline position of the Supreme Leader.

After his overwhelming election he began talking about diplomatic relations with the U.S. The Ayatollah declared that ‘talks with the Great Satan were treason. The Justice department then arrested journalists favoring US-Iranian détente. Khatami’s brother declared that ‘illegal and illegitimate’. The Parliament reacted as well. The Justice Department threatened and did indeed arrest members of the Parliament for discussing these ‘forbidden’ subjects. The most popular women elected Member of Parliament, Fatemeh Haqiqat Joo was arrested for criticizing the Guardian Council and sentenced to 22 months in prison.

Khatami does not believe in a Clash of civilizations, Khomeini and Khamenei’s hardline position are based on it.

The Reformers have suggested that the whole Regime may collapse unless things change. They claim that the government is 1) loosing its Legitimacy 2) the Conservatives block the Reform agenda (they need to approve acts of the Parliament) 3) the Conservatives are undermining Religious Values by acting in the Politcal arena 4) Iran must realte to the U.S., the only military and economic power in the world (75% of a poll shoed people favoring relations with the U.S. – the survey company was closed down) 5) The Judiciary was oppressive.

Saeed Hajjarian, Khatami’s chief strategist, recently explained the accommodationist position in a long article.

"Change in Iraq has become inevitable," he wrote. "And it is clear that we can neither stop nor go against it. We must thus go along with it and seek two things: a guarantee that the next regime in Baghdad will not be hostile to Iran, and a guarantee that we are not [Washington"s] next target."

Hajjarian asserts that the time to make a deal with the Americans is now because Washington cannot we sure of how things will turn out in Iraq. "Once the Americans have won the war and have their man ruling Baghdad, they would have no need of anyone, least of all we in Iran," Hajjarian wrote.

The accommodationist analysis is shared by a majority of the members of the Islamic Majlis, the Parliament whose members are elected by the people from an official pre-selected list.


4. The Confrontationists:

Facing the reformers (as noted above) are the ‘confrontationists’ led by the ‘Supreme Guide’ Ali Khamenei, and former President and now Chairman of the Guardian Council Rafsanjani. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards represents the extremists of this  faction.

The Conservatives have reacted by accusing the Reformists of being unpatriotic, enemies of the state and served the foreign media. They accuse the President’s brother and advisor Reza Khatami of being disloyal and being a ‘Secularist’. He in turn claimed that he and all the Reformers (75% of the Parliament) should resign.

The question of Iran is very important to world wide Islam. When Khomeini overthrew the Shah and brought in his version of the ‘Islamic State’ in 1979 his revolution had enormous impact of the Islamic world. Twenty five years later the question of whether that government succeeds or fails will also have an important impact.  If Khatami succeeds he will show that an Islamic and Democratic government is possible.

At the 24th anniversary of the Ayatollah’s arrival in Teheran Khomeini’s grandson spoke. He said ‘We should take value in the achievements of the revolution. This is a country that elects its own President, its own Parliament, its own Leadership, in contrast to George W. Bush who was elected President fraudulently with the power of the Judiciary behind him’. 14 There is great irony in that statement.

Rafsanjani  spoke on the future of Relations with the U.S.

Rafsanjani quoted the Ayatollah  Khomeini to the effect that the most important religious duties of Iranians could be overlooked whenever the system required it, and applied that principle to contemporary circumstances:  "Whenever it comes to our experience, we can solve whatever foreign problem is threatening us from the viewpoint of Islam...  Our ideology is flexible. We can choose our expediency on the basis of Islam. Still, to put the country in jeopardy on the grounds that we are acting on an Islamic basis is not at all Islamic."


Rafsanjani added that the problem of relations with the U.S. could be solved in one of two ways. The first is by referendum, with the approval of the Majlis (Parliament) and the Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei, and the second is "referring the problem to the Expediency Council, and we will discuss it and announce what is expedient [i.e. what is in the country's best interest]. Of course, the leader has to approve it, too... When an issue turns into a problem it is referred to the Council to make a decision on that... When we approve an issue, we send it to the [Supreme] Leader, who usually accepts it. If the issue of relations with the U.S. and Egypt is considered a problem, the Council can study it."


Rafsanjani added that Supreme Leader Khamenei did not customarily interfere directly in decision-making regarding the constitution, or even the performance of state institutions, except in very special cases: "It is clear that the problems with the U.S. and Egypt do exist, and we have had these problems from the era of the late founder of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini. However, the Supreme Leader has his own considerations regarding these cases."  Rafsanjani added that the Foreign Ministry's decision-making process should be speeded up "when it is obvious what we are about to do." 15

Iran's Revolutionary Guards represent the extreme version of the Confrontationist position.  

The London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that "an Iranian intelligence unit has established a center called The Brigades of the Shahids of the Global Islamic Awakening to replace the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Department of Liberation and Revolutionary Movements, which had been in charge of helping and training revolutionary forces across the world." The article went on to report a speech given by an official of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, threatening the U.S. with suicide and missile attacks at already-selected sensitive targets, and threatening to "take over" Britain.

The Revolutionary Guards stated further that Khatami speaks of the dialogue between civilizations, and I have grave doubts about this. It is a dubious idea. We do not want to take over the British Embassy, since they (the British) have already cleared the embassy of documents; we must take over Britain [itself].'

After harshly attacking Khatami and the reformists, the spokesmen for the Revolutionary Guards said in his speech: 'The West sees us as terrorists, and depicts our strategy as terrorism and repression. Had our youth agreed to Khatami's teachings and interpretations, it would never have fought the arrogance, and would never have defended the holy places - because Khatami speaks always of being conciliatory, of patience, and of rejecting terrorism, while we defend [the line of] toughness and war against the enemies of revolutionary Islam. I take pride in my actions that cause anxiety and fear to the Americans.

'Haven't the Jews and the Christians achieved their progress by means of toughness and repression? We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization and for the uprooting of the Americans and the English.

'Our missiles are now ready to strike at their civilization, and as soon as the instructions arrive from Leader ['Ali Khamenei] , we will launch our missiles at their cities and installations. Our motto during the war (in Iraq) was: Karbala, we are coming, Jerusalem, we are coming. And because of Khatami's policies and dialogue between the civilizations, we have been compelled to freeze our plan to liberate the Islamic cities. And now we are [again] about to carry out the program.'

"In his speech, he added: 'The global infidel front is a front against Allah and the Muslims, and we must make use of everything we have at hand to strike at this front, by means of our suicide operations or by means of our missiles. There are 29 sensitive sites in the U.S. and in the West. We have already spied on these sites and we know how we are going to attack them.'

5. The Reform Reaction - Accommodation

The Accommodations  reject such strategies as dangerous. "The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be good news for everyone, the Iraqis, the Iranians and the entire Muslim world," says Ali-Muhammad Abtahi, an assistant to Khatami for parliamentary affairs.

"The end of Saddam must be the start of a period of peace and understanding in the region, not of new adventures."The fight between the accommodationists and the confrontationists has split Shi"ite religious opinion with regard to Iraq.

Most senior Iraqi and Iranian ayatollahs have issued fatwas approving an alliance with "the Americans infidel" to get rid of Saddam. These include Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani (in Najaf, Iraq) and Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Muhammad Shirazi (in Qom, Iran).

Mullahs linked with the confrontationist faction, however, have issued fatwas urging alliance with "the infidel Saddam and his Ba"athists" against the US. Among these mullahs are Muhammad-Hussein Fadhlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese branch of the Hizbullah, and Taqi Muddaressi, a Syrian-backed Iraqi mullah.

While Khamenei continues to make hostile statements about the U.S., former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who currently heads the powerful conservative Expediency Council, took a realistic view of the new circumstances and showed pragmatism. In an interview, he told the Iranian periodical Rahbord ["Strategy"], published by Iran's Strategic Research Center, that he did not rule out changes in Iran's traditionally hostile attitude towards the U.S. (and Egypt), and noted that although the U.S. was perceived by Iran as a threat - or perhaps precisely because of this - a change in tactics might be a good way to improve Iran's standing.


Apparently, this pragmatic approach regarding the U.S. is the trial balloon for top Iranian conservative officials' reactions to the fall of Baghdad (Iraq, it will be recalled, was the first of the three countries of the "axis of evil").   Rafsanjani's position also apparently emerged as a result of Iran's increasing apprehensions regarding the U.S.'s stance towards its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. 


Even prior to the war, Iranian policy was aimed at preparing for any eventuality (1),  but Rafsanjani's statements went much further than any previous declarations by Iranian leaders regarding the U.S.  Although Rafsanjani is best known for his extremist conservative views, he has been the first post-revolutionary Iranian leader to issue pragmatic statements, beginning in 1983.

At the present time (summer 2004) the confrontation camp seems to be in the ascendant. They may be speeding up Iran’s nuclear program in the hope of having an "effective deterrent" within two years, the period needed before things become clear in Iraq. 16


1 A Caliph is a political leader; an Imam is a religious leader. Imam is primarily a Shi’ite term.

2 Flagellation was also used by Christian medieval ‘Saints/mystics’ and by Jewish mystics in the holy city of Tzfat in the 16th century.

3 Death or martyrdom seems to have followed the early Islamic leadership. Caliph Uman  was stabbed in 644; Uthman was hacked to death in 656; Marwan was smothered by his wife in 683; Uman ibn Abd al-Aziz was poisoned in 720 and Al-Walid ibn Yazid hacked to death.

4 Hoffman, Bruce, Inside Terrorism, (Columbia University Press, N.Y., 1998) pg. 96.

5 Appleby, R.S., Spokesmen for the Despised, (University of Chiago Press, Chicago, 1999) pg.42.

6 Lewis, Bernard, What Went Wrong, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002) pg. 109.

7 Bill & Williams, pg. 131-132.

8 Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, May 11, 2004

9 Brumberg, pg. 188-190.

10 Shadid, pg. 216

11 Shadid, pg. 218.

12 Brumberg, pg. 200-201.

13 Brumberg, D., Reinventing Khomeini, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001) pg. 4.

14 Elaine Sciolino, NYT, Feb. 2, 2003

15 From Ayelet Savyon, Director of the Iranian Media Project

16 The writer ( ) is editor of Politique Internationale in Paris