Like Russia's Peter the Great and Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Reza Khan Pahlevi wanted to drag his country into the modern world. As the first Shah of Iran, he embarked on a radical program of modernization, despite the opposition of Shi'ite religious leaders. His son, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, tried to follow in his footsteps, promoting literacy programs, the emancipation of women, land redistribution, and extensive construction projects. Despite this, he still faced criticism from clerics who despised his pro-Western stance, and from those who resented the growing disparity between the wealthy elite and the disempowered poor. For a time he maintained control over the country with the aid of the SAVAK, the brutal and widely hated secret police force… and with extensive aid from the U.S., which saw him as a "stabilizing force" in a volatile region. Ultimately, the pressure became too great and in 1979 power passed to his most vocal foe, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Soon thereafter a mob of pro-Khomeini students stormed the American Embassy, setting off a 444-day hostage crisis that ultimately cost Jimmy Carter the Presidency. Today Iran remains an Islamic Republic, a hybrid government of sovereign citizens and a theocracy coexisting in a tense and fragile balance.
Unlike the Wahhabis, Iranian Moslems are overwhelmingly Shi'ite. Shi'ites honor Ali, cousin of the prophet, and those Imans (divinely inspired and sinless leaders) who ruled after him. Their view of Islam is both more mystical and more Messianic than Sunni Islam; they believe that the "Madhi" (the Twelfth Iman, who disappeared as a child) will one day return to rule over an Islamic world. In Iran, in the nineteenth century, there developed the notion of the marja-at taqlid,: an individual so learned and so perfect that it was incumbent to follow (taqlid) his decisions. In the early years of the Revolution and the Islamic Republic, this position was held by Khomeini himself. As marja-at taqlid , Khomeini was functionally the supreme head of the Iranian government, even though he occupied no official position.
Khomeini's vision of government was based on the tradition of fiqh, or "jurisprudence." It granted power to the Ulama, learned clerics who by virtue of their piety and their study and scholarship of the Qur'an , Sunnah, and Hadith, were more capable of applying Islamic principels to the everyday issues of society, law, and disputes. Khomeini also envisioned a Parliament elected in multi-party elections, and made up of people from all walks of life, managed by a Prime Minister representing the majority party, and responsible for passing laws and budgets, as well as a President. These democratic institutions would be overseen by a Guardian Council, made up of the most learned and intelligent clerics, who would determine wehther their actions were in keeping with Islamic principles.
Khomeini was intensely charismatic and wildly popular in Iran. He declared himself to the the "Representative of the Hidden Imam," and many Iranians believed he was the Twelfth Imam revealed. (Although Khomeini never claimed this, he never denied it either). Since his demise no comparable leader has arisen. A growing number of Iranians have become increasingly disillusioned by the rigid Islamic views of the ruling clerics. Reform politicians, led by moderate President Mohamed Khatami, have been fighting hard against roadblocks placed by conservative religious bodies. Student uprisings have become commonplace, and have frequently been put down by the Basij paramilitary forces with a violence that would have shamed the SAVAK.
Recent events in Iraq have brought Iran under close scrutiny. American policymakers know there is widespread discontent with Iran's religious leaders, and would be happy to see a secular rulership in Iran. Iranian support for the Lebanese terrorist movement Hizbollah (who perfected the "suicide attack" techniques introduced by the Iranians in the long, bloody Iran-Iraq War) has long rankled the West. Efforts have been made to link Iran with Al-Qaeda, but most scholars dismiss these. Iran's Shi'ites are seen by Osama Bin Laden and his followers as heretics and blasphemers.
It is possible that Iran's experiment in Islamic Republicanism will fall soon. Iran's economy is suffering and unemployment is widespread. In some cases the clerics have only been able to maintain control by hiring thugs from outside Iran, including Sunni Pakistanis and Arabs, to "keep order." The level of discontent in Iran today is approaching the levels seen before the Shah's downfall… and the Iranian people have repeatedly proven themselves ready to die for a cause. It is equally possible that the U.S. invasion of Iraq could backfire and strengthen the position of Iran's ruling clerics. Much as some regional dictators have come to equate dissent with "terrorism," the Mullahs have begun campaigning against "pro-U.S. traitors." The situation could become even more dangerous if Iraq's majority Shi'ite population decides to hold their own Islamic Revolution, creating a Shi'ite theocracy stretching from Turkey to China.