Michael Nazir-Ali writes: The installation of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran next month heralds a new chapter for the country. It is clear that he was elected not only because it was felt — both at the highest levels and by the people — that he was best placed to negotiate with the West on Iran’s nuclear programme but also because he was the candidate most likely to appeal to reform-hungry Iranians.
Rouhani is a protégé of the former president Muhammed Khatami, with whom I have had the chance to work. When he was President, I spent a whole day with him meeting political, civil society and religious leaders. Visiting him in Iran, I was always struck by his learning and his humility. Khatami knew about the puritan origins of the United States and the ways that tension between religious beliefs and liberty was resolved. He never tired of pointing out similarities between the difficulties of the Iranian experience and the founding of America. In opposition to the then fashionable ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, he launched his own ‘dialogue of civilisations’ programme.
Khatami’s presidency failed because the West, especially the US, did not respond adequately to his overtures, but also because he ran into opposition from hard-liners. His failure showed where real power resided — with the ‘Ulama’, the legal authority made up of the Guardianship of the Revolution, and with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The popular portrayal of Iran as a nation either driven by Islamic revolutionary fervour or by the periodic welling up of liberal political dissent does not do justice to the complexity of this society. There is constant interplay between the ancient civilisation of Iran and Islam in its political form. Iranians understand their identity as continuous with the pre-Islamic as well as the Islamic periods. Their attitude to art, for instance, particularly pictorial and even religious art, is quite different from the rest of the Islamic world’s.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the revolution, developed the notion of Wilayet-i-Faqui: the custodianship of the nation by Islamic Islamic jurists. Although there are some precedents for this in the constitutional history of Iran, such a comprehensive claim to the supremacy of Sharia and its interpreters strikes many as novel and there have been various challenges to it. [Continue reading…]