Book Review- Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic

Saikal, Amin, Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019) Pp. 326, Price: $29.95. Reviewed by Muzaffar Hussain

How did the Islamic Republic of Iran face the challenges to the survival and sustainability of the Islamic Revolution? International pressure and sanctions notwithstanding, how did Iran manage to remain a leading player in its region? What trajectory is Iran likely to follow—both in its domestic politics and in the conduct of foreign policy? Amin Saikal, in his book Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic has attempted these questions. The book narrates the story of the survival of the Islamic regime and the emergence of the Islamic Republic. Saikal has mapped the complex process of the evolution of the Islamic Republic in the last four decades. The book, divided into eight chapters, covers the major themes related to the politics of contemporary Iran: the process that led to the Islamic revolution, the nature and structure of the theocratic political order, the “unorthodox domestic and foreign policy behaviour,” Iran’s role in the region, its interaction with major powers, its survival and its future.

Besides empirical inquiry, the author has dealt with theoretical issues, mainly the concept of “middle power” in international relations, to situate Iran’s foreign policy behaviour within the matrix of the international system. The book also engages with the theory of revolution to conceptualize the cause, nature and the course of Iran’s revolutionary movement. Saikal presents revolutions and movements as the perennial theme of Iran’s political history in the 20th century. The book first gives a backgrounder of pre-Islamic revolution Iranian politics, mainly the “Constitutional Revolution” and the Mosaddegh led movement under the umbrella of Jebhe-ye-Melli—the National Front. In the case of the revolution of 1979, the book explains the causality: internal and external conditions, leadership, ideology and organization. Saikal traces “outside interference” in Iran that fomented all of the movements and revolutions in Iran in the 20th century. The book elaborates how Ayatollah Khomeini, with the doctrine of Velayat-e-faqih (the Guardianship of Islamic Jurist,) managed to overshadow Karim Sanjibi as the leader of the movement, and how the Islamist organization Jame’eh-ye-Ruhaniyyat-e-Mobarez (JRM) eventually emerged as the dominant player of the revolution.

Saikal employs, what he calls, the jihadi-ijtihad framework to capture and explain the politics of the Islamic republic. This two-pronged approach of Ayatollah Khomeini represents his understanding of state-building in post-revolution Iran. The jihadi dimension is associated with Khomeini’s mission to Islamize Iran’s social and political life. The ijtihad dimension, on the other hand, represents the acceptance of limited pluralism in domestic politics, a certain degree of “personal autonomy” in cultural life and flexibility in foreign policy to develop pragmatic relations with other major powers to compensate for the “bitter opposition to the US and its regional allies.” Saikal argues, this jihadi-ijtihad—combative/reformist approach allowed Iran to build structures, processes and resources that have allowed would “ensure order at home and deter aggression from outside.” 

In this photo taken on September 26, 1980, the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini salutes his followers in the Iranian capital of Tehran. (Stig Nillson/AFP)

As the book displays, in the domestic context, Khomeini employed the two-pronged approach to create the two-tiered Islamic political system combining “divine” and “popular sovereignty.” While the elected President and the Majles (the national assembly) represented popular sovereignty, the Vali-e-faqih—the Supreme leader as a reflection of “sovereignty of God” held the ultimate power of jurisdiction over the entire system. Saikal simplifies the complex politics by inquiring about several institutions and processes resulting from the two-tiered system under Khomeini and later Ayatollah Khamenei. In the case of foreign policy analysis, Saikal has not used the jihadi-ijtihad framework much as he has used it in domestic issues. However, he employs Iran’s resource capability as the main framework to understand Iran’s strengths and weaknesses as an actor in affairs of the region and global politics. 

While Islamization of the system, as Saikal has put it, is the defining trait of the Jihadi approach, the theoretical basis of the Islamic government of Khomeini is his conception of Vilayat-e-Faqih. As the author has argued, the doctrine itself is the product of Ijtihad practiced by Khomeini. In a similar view, the typological distinction employed to categorize the stratum within the clerical establishment identifies three clusters: Jihadi—the conservatives, Ijtihadi—the reformists and the Amalgaran—the pragmatists. However, the engagements with the regime’s policies (both domestic and foreign) have linked postures of pragmatism with the Ijtihadi dimension So, the conceptual distinction between Jihad and Ijtihad is rather cast on a slippery slope. The occasional ambiguities-both empirical and conceptual, are expected considering the vast ambit the attempts to cover. Nevertheless, the book provides a glimpse into the region’s politics and makes a comprehensive attempt to cover most issues related to the politics of Iran. In that sense, it comes across as the foundational reading for anyone with the quest to understand contemporary Iran. 

Muzaffar Hussain is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Maulana Azad National Urdu University Hyderabad.