After usurping power in Iran in 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of the clerical regime, emphasized that “preserving the state is one of the most important religious and intellectual obligations”¹. He made clear that the obligation to preserve clerical rule meant that religion and state should be permanently indivisible. (In the same book)², Khomeini said: “Those who want to abandon politics are practically willing to abandon Islam.”
Throughout Khomeini’s reign as well as his successor’s, Ali Khamenei, demands the separation of religion and state have been considered anathema. The mullahs know that such a separation, which has been advocated around the world since at least the Age of Enlightenment, will eventually accelerate the regime’s imminent collapse.
But today, there are calls even heard from inside the clerical regime that indicate the emergence of a deep rift in the ruling establishment. This conflict shows that new tendencies are taking hold that recognizes the practical necessity of separating religion from state, primarily as a result of fears regarding a popular uprising.
According to the official news agency IRNA, Taghi Rostamvandi, Minister of Interior and Head of the Social Affairs Organization, said on January 16 that “various indicators show that the desire to create fundamental changes in the country is on the rise.”
In a separate TV interview, he stated that there is a “trend in governance which we can interpret as a secular tendency, which is very dangerous and alarming.”
Hosseini Bushehri, the head of the Qom Teachers’ Association, also warned on state TV on January 24: “Some clerics should be warned against aligning with others… They are denying their roots and claim that religion must be separated from politics!”
While conducting his Friday Prayer sermon, Mohammad Ali al-Hashem, the Supreme Leader’s representative in East Azerbaijan, also spoke of a “deviation within the system” and of a “scourge called promoting the idea of separating religion from politics, which is a plague that threatens the system”.
Speaking in Tehran, Ahmad Khatami, an extremist cleric who is close to Khamenei, warned on January 23: “Some seminarians and religious authorities are talking about separating religion from politics and they’re pointing in the wrong direction!”
Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meybodi, a member of the Assembly of Researchers and Teachers of the Seminary of Qom, said on January 4: “Many young clerics do not have a positive view of the clergy entering the realm of governance and do not want clerics to enter politics.”
The emerging trend, which according to Khomeini leads to the denial of the entire clerical system, is not accidental. Rather, it is the result of a fascist regime being trapped in major crises it has helped to create. These crises have accelerated the coming of imminent uprisings against the regime.
Jafar Sobhani, a senior cleric in Qom, said on January 15: “Some scholars are making their minds about leaving the seminary, which is to be taken seriously”.
“Young clerics say people are cursing us”, Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a former IRGC commander and an extremist theorist, said on January 15. Mohammadreza Zaeri, another cleric who works for state television, said: “People spit on me”, “hurl severe insults” and “a taxi driver refused to give me a ride, saying he won’t have a cleric as his passenger”.
Public calls for a secular and democratic Iran are on the rise. They are growing so loud that even regime officials can no longer ignore them. Whispers of “separation of religion from state” inside the ruling establishment itself have become so evident that Khamenei has been forced to warn about “division” and “confrontation” within the system. This rift will further erode and weaken the clerical regime, rendering it more fragile and vulnerable against a disenchanted population emboldened by an organized and increasingly powerful resistance movement.