Nuclear deal hangs on Iran’s unfinished revolution

Iran’s ability to abide by the nuclear deal, as well as its economic recovery, depends on a preelection debate over the secular authority of its reigning cleric, the supreme leader.

Iranians walk past a large picture of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (L), and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a park in Tehran, Iran, Jan.17.

To the surprise of skeptics, Iran has quickly implemented the first phase of an American-negotiated deal to dismantle much of its nuclear program. This is welcome news. The world is now safer from nuclear proliferation and possible war. And it suggests Iran might compromise on other issues, such as ending the Syrian war.

Yet a key part of the deal would set Iran free of many international inspections after 10 to 15 years. This assumes Iran will evolve into a very different country, one that will not pursue nuclear weapons.

But will Iran really be that different?

The answer depends on the results of an internal struggle raging within the Iranian elite over whether the supreme leader, who is currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, should continue to hold near-absolute political powers and be respected as the instrument of God in secular matters. That debate is playing out in the run-up to a Feb. 26 election of the Assembly of Experts, the body of Islamic clerics that will choose Mr. Khamenei’s successor.

All evidence suggests that Khamenei retains a strong hand in which candidates will run in the election of the Assembly. Yet at least one critic, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, suggested in December that the Assembly more closely monitor the decisions of the supreme leader. His comment drew sharp rebukes from conservatives.

The concept that a Muslim imam can also be a political ruler is still alien to many Shiite theologians. But in 1970, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeinideveloped the idea from the Islamic idea known as “velayat-e faqih” (guardianship of the jurist). That traditional concept had long applied to mullahs exercising spiritual guidance for orphans, widows, and others – not the body politic. Khomeini elevated it to justify his rule over the Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution in Iran.

Even his chosen successor in the 1980s, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, turned against it, resulting in his house arrest. Mr. Montazeri worried that the idea violated the Quran’s requirement that a ruler abide by the consent of the people. “Islam is for the separation of powers and does not recognize the concentration of power in the hand of a fallible human being,” he told a journalist in 2003, a few years before his death.

This debate over clerical rule is also central to Iran’s economic recovery. While the lifting of most foreign sanctions will help Iran, much of the economy is still controlled by organizations under the control of Khamenei, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Just days after the nuclear pact’s implementation, President Hassan Rouhani complained that the “hands of government” in the economy are growing larger by the day. Private investors will be wary of such a government role, he warned.

Resolving this debate – preferably in favor of full democracy – is essential for Iran. Its young people, who protested in the streets in 2009 but were crushed by the regime, are too Internet-savvy and in touch with the outside world to tolerate strict clerical rule over politics. The power of religion lies in its spiritual attraction to individuals, not its authority over the state.

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