Iran's tradition of divinely inspired rule has often been debated but never before denounced in a mass political protest. This tradition has deep roots in Iranian culture and history.
The tradition of God-sanctified rule dates back to the sixth century B.C.E. In pre-Islamic times, ancient kings ruled on behalf of the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda. So did King Darius I of the Achaemenid dynasty (558 B.C.E.-330 C.E.) and Ardeshir and Shahpur of the Sassanid Empire (224 C.E.-651 C.E.) before the arrival of Islam in Iran in the seventh century C.E.
Since then, most Iranian leaders have claimed kingship on the basis of divine favor. Shah Ismail I (1501-1524) considered himself "the Agent of God" and Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) was believed to represent the Twelfth Imam. They were all addressed with the honorific title, "the shadow of God" on earth.
But in 1979, the Islamic Revolution, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, destroyed Iran's ancient institution of kingship. In its place, Khomeini created a "government of God" ruled by a divinely approved and politically qualified religious jurist. As such a leader, Khomeini ruled from 1979 until his death in 1989, after which Khamenei took up the mantle.
This revolutionary change is said to contradict mainstream Shia tradition, which excludes clerical rule. It is also contrary to Iran's ancient tradition of governance. In the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras before the Revolution, Zoroastrian priests and learned Shia jurists were influential in politics, but they never ruled the state.
Khomeini, however, created the Islamic state as a republic in which the people would also govern. This duality of rule - by the divinely approved supreme leader and by ordinary people - was considered contradictory at the founding of the Islamic Republic and has been debated ever since.
The debate has taken an unprecedented turn in the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections of June 2009. Critics charge that the regime has deviated from the core principles of the Islamic Republic: to be for the people as well as for Islam. Ironically, the most vocal critics are members of the religious and political elites.
Critics include the leaders of the political opposition, the so-called Green Movement, Mir Hussein Mousavi, a former lay prime minister, and Mehdi Karroubi, a former clerical speaker of the parliament, and two former clerical presidents, Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.
Even the architect of the divinely based political system, the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, turned against it. He charged the regime with committing acts of "oppression, repression, torture, jailing enlightened people, and killing," and declared the system neither Islamic nor democratic. But no critic has ever called for ending the Islamic Republic.
So, where does that leave Iran?
Three major scenarios may be envisaged: statist, reformist and secularist.Statist: that the regime would retain the coercive power needed to maintain political order and defense against foreign invasion. It would have much greater support of the people than the opposition, which would lack a charismatic leader, unified forces or a coherent mission. Maintaining order and defense would require harsh measures, while the fall of the regime likely would lead to chaos and violence internally and national vulnerability internationally. Reformist: that the regime would heed the reformists' call for reconciliation. It would overhaul the system, empowering the people to participate in the political process without discrimination. People's participation in politics was a promise of the Revolution and this outcome would show the continuing relevance of the Revolution. Secularist: that the political system would be deemed a failure and a new way forward envisioned. The younger generation of Iranians would be not only highly educated and politically sophisticated, but also would become increasingly disenchanted with the nature of the extant theocracy - intolerant and repressive. The secularists would separate religion from the state, which would be good for Islam and the Iranian state.
This secular scenario is familiar to us in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, the sage of Monticello, advocated a "wall of separation between church and state" in1802 and that wall still stands: there is no established religion in American society.
Separation does not mean a society is devoid of religious belief; it means only that faith should be the concern of the individual. In spite of separation, Americans are one of the most God-fearing people in Western democracies. Still, the boundary between religion and state continues to be disputed and litigated.
Yet, Iranian secularists might note that the system of governance created by the founding fathers of the American Republic has been able to cope with religion-state controversies peacefully, without violence and bloodshed, for more than 200 years.
Iranians created the systemic predicament they now face and they alone must find a peaceful and constructive way to resolve it.About the author: R. K. Ramazani, coeditor of Religion, State and Society: Jefferson's Wall of Separation in Comparative Perspective, is Edward R. Stettinius Emeritus Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia