Among the voluminous commentary on the Taliban’s return to power, only a few observed its apparent desire to emulate the Islamic Republic of Iran. Before assembling the government, it was announced that Haibatullah Akhundzadah, the spiritual authority of the groups, would serve as a supreme leader modeled on Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As well known, Khomeini stipulated that the governance of Iran should be based on the principle of velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of the jurist), whose role it was to assure that the state supervises the behavior of its citizens according to sharia laws. The radical interpretation of these laws in both the Sunni and the Shite tradition mandates the state to create structures and processes to assure that individuals do not engage in “un-Islamic behavior.”
Numerous institutions in Iran are devoted to the “Enjoying the Good and Prohibiting the Forbidden” ideas, with policing the public (and some private) spaces by the so-called “morality police” being the most visible aspect of this mandate. Less visible but powerful was the network of organizations directed by Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, which underpinned the regime.
A virtually unknown in the West, Mesbah Yazdi was an ultra-conservative who profoundly influenced the regime through multiple avenues. He was associated with the secretive Hojjatia society, which strove to expediate the coming of the Hidden Imam, the Haqqani School, his flagship seminary, and the Imam Khomeini Institute that published his voluminous writing. Graduates of both institutions held positions of power in the Revolutionary Guards, the Ministry of Intelligence, the large bonyads (foundations) and, most critically, the judiciary. Ebrahim Raisi, who rose through the ranks of the judiciary, was an energetic implementer of the ayatollah’s ideology. While less publicly outspoken, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has shared the same beliefs.
This extensive network, generally referred to as the Haqqani circle, managed to subvert even the limited rights that the regime allowed. More to the point, Mesbah Yazdi and his followers developed ways to camouflage their campaign under the veneer of official legitimacy.
Unlike Khomeini, who found it necessary to accept that the jurist’s guardianship had to be somewhat limited by a convoluted version of “democracy,” Mesbah Yazdi was clear that people have no insight into the Divine and thus have no right to vote. To him, the Iranian republic was a contradiction in terms, and the ballot was a total travesty. As he stated, “Who are the majority of people who vote, a bunch of hooligans who drink vodka and are paid to vote.”
Unable to prevail in the call for a pure theocracy, however, the Haqqani circle mobilized to make a sham of the voting process, including vote-rigging. For instance, the ayatollah believed that protest against authorities should not be allowed and encouraged the Basij, the paramilitary militia wing of the Revolutionary Guards, to get involved. In 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a disciple of Mesbah Yazdi, won was an obviously fraudulent election, the Basij put down the ensuing protest with extremely brutality. Popular protest over the deteriorating economy in 2019, was met with live fire that killed hundreds. Critics accused the ayatollah of being “the theoretician of violence.” When electing Ebrahim Raisi president in 2021, the hardliners’ network abandoned all pretense of conducting a fair ballot. The number of approved candidates was extremely limited; even those who survived the scrutiny of the Guardian Council, which certifies eligible candidates, were pressured to withdraw to assure Raisi’s win.
Arguably, Mesbah Yazdi’s main achievement was his opposition to internationally recognized human rights. Iran under the shah was a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the Khomenist regime declined to participate. After considerable wrangling, Iran joined the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) of 1990, a document said to adjust the differences between the universality of human rights and the strictures of Islam. Mesbah Yazdi, however, adamantly rejected the compromise, claiming that international human rights were essentially a Judeo-Christian concoction dressed up in secular-liberal language. As such, it was inimical to Islam on multiple levels, in his opinion. At its most basic, the concept of tolerance and pluralism underlying human rights were “a Trojan horse” introduced to destroy the Islamic society. Equal rights for women and efforts to strengthen their position in society were yet another way to undermine the Quran-prescribed structure of the populace.
Mesbah Yazdi and the Haqqani network reserved their strongest opposition to religious freedoms and the rights of religious minorities. Religious discrimination against minorities has varied. The Bahais, for instance, are deemed to be unprotected infidels and subject to harsh persecution. Jews and Christians, the “People of the Book,” are dhimmi, protected second-class citizens and nominally recognized as legacy religions. But Mesbah Yazdi postulated that non-Muslim are highly impure, an idea that Ayatollah Khomeini enthusiastically embraced; he once stated that in terms of purity, they rank between “the feces and the urine of a camel that consumed impure food.” Fearing an international outcry, however, the regime did not outlaw the legacy communities, choosing to impose numerous restrictions in covert and arcane ways.
Such considerations did not extend to Muslim converts to Christianly, viewed as apostates, heretics, traitors to Islam, and “corrupters of the earth.” As a rule, Islam is hostile to conversion, but the regime was especially anxious because, according to Operation World, Iran has the fastest-growing evangelical movement, most notably among the younger cohorts. The Haqqani- linked institute In the Path of Truth was founded to counter the influence of Christianity among Iranian youth. Persuasion aside, the regime resorted to harsh measure against the converts. The house churches where most of the new Christians worship have been often raided and their members arrested. Ayatollah Ali Khomeini warned that the network of house churches had “threatened the Islamic faith and deceive young Muslims.” Punishment for conversion or facilitating conversion can be stiff death penalty, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and long prison terms.
America’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan greatly empowered the hardliners who had long sought to push out the United States from the region. The Taliban’s embrace of the velayat-e-faqih principle was an unexpected bonus for a regime proud of its theocracy. Raisi appointed a cabinet that was “a virtual A-list” of ministries sanctioned for terrorism and human rights violations. Raisi was sanctioned for his role in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in the notorious Evin jail. His minister of defense is sought by the Interpol for his role in the bombing of the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires in 1994. At the symbolic level, the US step-down has encouraged the belief that determination, perseverance, and internal resilience would enable the Islamic Republic to resist international pressure.
That the hardliners would take such a brazen step also reflects their belief that Iran can operate with impunity despite its grave human rights violations. International lawyers define “impunity” as a “situation in which there are no effective measures to penalize violations or there or where such violations are not enforced.” There are numerous reasons why Iran has escaped paying the cost. A major one is its nuclear program, which the Obama administration tried to contain by negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA). As an inducement, the White House overlooked Iran’s record both as a human right violator and sponsor of terrorism. Washington also hoped that lifting of the nuclear sanctions would induce the regime to rejoin the “community of nations.” President Joe Biden’s current effort to restart the deal does not bode well for reducing the impunity factor.
Underreporting of Tehran’s human rights violations, especially religious ones, is another dynamic in creating impunity. Because much of the abuse, as noted, is arcane or covert, human rights organizations find it hard to document its extent. Without credible tracking, however, Iran’s impunity will continue.