Reza Aslan at The Daily Beast has a new post up on the origins and theological underpinnings of the religious portions of the Iranian government.
Called Valayat-e Faqih, or “Guardianship of the Jurist,” this unique religio-political system was the brainchild of the founder of the Islamic republic, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in 1988. In theory, the faqih—what the West calls the supreme leader—was supposed to be the most learned religious authority in the country. He was originally supposed to be a sort of pope-like figure that would ensure the Islamic nature of what would otherwise be a democratic state. He would have moral and spiritual authority, and he would certainly wield enormous political influence, but he would by no means maintain direct political control over the state.
However, in the years following the revolution of 1979, through a series of constitutional amendments pushed through parliament, the position of faqih [supreme leader] was gradually transformed from a symbolic moral authority into the supreme authority of the state.
Aslan then goes on to explain how this new system when originally conceived ran counter to a thousand years of Shi'ite clerical non-meddling in politics as all government was illegitimate until the coming of the Madhi, the messiah figure of the Islamic end times. Khomeini though adopted for himself the trappings (if not the actual title) of the Madhi for himself as supreme leader; his thought was that as agents of the messiah, the clerics must work to build his kingdom of earth before his coming.
But by far the most overt connection Khomeini established between himself and the messiah was his doctrine of the Valayat-e Faqih. In Khomeini’s view, the faqih would have more than just supreme authority, he would have infallible and divine authority—authority that, in fact, would be equal to the authority of the Prophet Muhammad.
Khamenei was chosen to succeed Khomeini because he was considered a safe bet, someone who would not rock the boat, someone who could be easily controlled by more powerful, more charismatic figures who chaired the various clerical subcommittees, like his fellow revolutionary Hashemi Rafsanjani (now an ayatollah himself), who was instrumental in Khamenei’s selection to the post of supreme leader.
This leads us to the present situation. Khomenei's power was slowly diffused among the committees of the clerics, but Aslan points out that this crisis is his attempt to reassert absolute control.
Simply put, Khamenei’s reckless and rambling Friday sermon has changed the tenor of Iran’s uprising, making it as much about his own leadership and the nature of clerical rule, as it is about Ahmadinejad’s presidency. He has, in other words, helped create a revolution.
Thanks to Hot Air. I also suggest reading this primer on the geopolitical situation for Shi'ites across the Middle East and into South Asia as detailed by Spengler.