What Iran protesters really want

Anger over mandatory hijabs has shifted to challenging the theological pillar for clerical rule.

Protesters in downtown Tehran chant slogans during a Sept. 21 protest over the death of a woman who was detained by Iran's morality police.

Mass protests in Iran over the past 10 days have started to shift their focus from public anger over strict rules on female dress – rules that resulted in the Sept. 16 death of a woman in police custody. Instead, many protesters now hold up signs challenging a theology that justifies the regime’s enforcement of such social rules, namely that one man, known as the supreme leader, has a divine mandate to control Iranian society.

“Mullah’s Days Are Over,” reads one protest sign. Another states, “Down with the Velayat-e Faqih regime,” referring to a peculiar doctrine of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that Islam requires a “guardian jurist,” or a religious scholar, to rule the nation.

Iranians have many grievances, from high inflation to bans on certain women’s attire, but they seem increasingly united in seeking a democratic alternative to Iran’s theocracy. A poll last February by a Netherlands-based research foundation showed 72% of Iranians oppose the head of state being a Shiite religious authority. More than half prefer some sort of secular rule, such as a democratic republic or constitutional monarchy.

Direct criticism of the regime’s governing pillar comes at a sensitive time. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was born in 1939, appears to be maneuvering to assure his successor. Possibilities range from his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, to the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, whose win in an election last year was arranged by the supreme leader. If the public now sees no legitimacy for clerical rule, a new leader – and the regime itself – might not survive. 

“Never has the system been so much in question,” wrote Tara Kangarlou, author of “The Heartbeat of Iran,” in a column published in several European newspapers. Even in Iran’s centers for Islamic study, such as the city of Qom, some scholars have questioned the Velayat-e Faqih doctrine. In 2019, one regime official, Ahmad Vaez, said, “The separation of religion from politics, or indifference [of the clergy] to social and political issues ... is a danger.”

As the protests continue, the role of clerics in Iran is now front and center. In neighboring Iraq, the most respected Shiite clerics play a quiet role, influencing society at a spiritual level rather than dictating moral behavior. They also back democracy. With that model next door, more Iranians can easily challenge their own clerics’ claims to divine rule.

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