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  • Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran by Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar
  • Sussan Siavoshi (bio)
Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran, by Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 392 pages. $60.

In a speech at the Iran Chamber of Commerce in June 2018, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned that the ultimate goal of Iran's enemies is not the toppling of the Islamic Republic or the government of Hassan Rouhani but the destruction of Iran. He then advised the administration's factional rivals not to deceive themselves by thinking that if they replace Rouhani's government all will go as they wish, implying that pursuit of factional interests would harm not only the Islamic Republic but Iran's sovereignty.

A durable characteristic of the Islamic Republic's political system, factionalism has been the subject of numerous studies of Iranian politics. Most of these works analyze the dynamic of factional politics, not only through an examination of actors and their agenda but also a description of their discourses. Implied in such studies is the notion of instrumental use of religious discourse in pursuance of political interest. In his book, Religious Statecraft, Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar makes this point sharply explicit.

Tabaar argues that religion does not explain the behavior of Iran's political elite but is explained by it, thus advising that, for the sake of good analysis, we should replace the prevalent notion of "political Islam" with "politics of Islam." Here is the gist of the book's argument: the Islamic Republic elite frequently craft new religious narratives to deal with new circumstances. Given the factionalized nature of the Iranian political system, the explanation for such narratives must be sought in the position of actors and their factional interests, which on many occasions have been in tension with the interest of the Islamic Republic or that of the country itself.

To show how all this plays out is the task of several thematic and chronologically structured chapters. Starting with the revolutionary years in Chapter Four, the book examines periods related to the institutionalization of velayat-e faqih (literally "guardianship of the jurist," referring to Ruhollah Khomeini's system of clerical rule); the hostage crisis; the Iran-Iraq War, the postwar era, and the battle over the character of the post-Khomeini velayat-e faqih; the Green Movement; and the era of nuclear politics. To support the assertion that Iranian politics is realist in nature, the book links the crafting of the dominant and competing discourses of some of the members of the elite, most prominently Khomeini, to the actual challenges that have confronted the country, the regime, and the existing factions. For example, in the chapter titled "The 'Islamic' Revolution," Tabaar argues that in the course of the revolution the fluidity of circumstances led Khomeini to resort to a varied set of narratives. When in exile in Paris, he supported liberal democratic principles and was conciliatory toward the United States, while after his triumphant return to Iran he appropriated a leftist language with harsh anti-imperialist/anti-American tenets. The former was intended to create a broad coalition against the Pahlavi regime and dissuade the US administration from supporting the shah, while the latter was aimed to reduce the appeal of leftist forces. Other chapters follow the same principle (i.e., the crafting of narratives by Islamists in response to new political challenges). So, the adoption [End Page 155] of anti-American/anti-imperialist slogans during the occupation of the US embassy was to take the wind out of the leftist sail (this one in particular is used to show how a factional interest trumped the state's interest), while the discourse of velayat-e faqih was to neutralize both traditional clergy and secular nationalists. Again, the use of varied religious narratives during the war with Iraq and the whole conduct of the war was to get rid of the remnants of nationalists and secularists through the promotion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and demotion of the regular army. Tabaar also argues that the whole conduct of the war, its prolongation, and the ultimate acceptance of its end was in the service of...


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pp. 155-156
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