Are we making too much of the clerical structures in these countries?
I do not think that we are making too much of the clerical structures in these countries. In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi are literally “constantly indulged as the co-rulers of the Saudi government” (Real Stories, 2016). The political and social influence of the Wahhabi (and the ‘Ulema) as co-rulers of the dynastic monarchy that is Saudi Arabia is immense. Under the guidance of the Wahhabi, “Islamic law has always formed the basis of the Saudi constitutional system and is supreme, reigning even over the king” (Maisel, 2017). Therefore, it seems quite impossible to make “too much” of the clerical structure in Saudi Arabia. In Iran, there is somewhat of a democratic system, but the clerical structures still play immensely important roles in society. While there is a (relatively) democratically elected president, parliament, and “experts”, there is also velayat-e faqih. Velayat-e faqih is essentially the principle which gives the Islamic faqih (jurist) sweeping power over the people (Zubaida, 2018). The faqih and the Council of Guardians watch over the compatibility of the legislation with Islamic law and general principals (Zubaida, 2018). The faqih in Iran is also known as the “Supreme Leader”. The Supreme Leader is unelected, but nevertheless has control over the “armed forces, the intelligence services, the media, the judiciary, and the clergy” (Sciolino, 2014). In addition, Imam Khomeini has been quoted as saying that “the will of the people must be second to the will of God” (Sciolino, 2014). This being said, it seems quite impossible to make “too much” of the clerical structure in Iran. However, it is much easier to envision a future Iran separate from the clerical establishment than a future Saudi Arabia. I will expand on this in a moment.
Can you understand these two regimes without understanding Islam as a governing structure?
I do not think that you can understand Saudi Arabia without understanding Islam as a governing structure. Article I of Saudi’s Basic Law of Government (1992) makes this clear, stating that “The Saudi Arabian Kingdom is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s book and the Sunna are its constitution…” (Maisel, 2017). Religious legitimacy is the cornerstone of the Saudi regime. The balance of power between the royal family and the Wahhabi is crucial to the regime, and has been since Muhammad ibn Saud (the founder of the dynasty) became the patron of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (a zealous Sunni revivalist of the Hanibal School of Islamic Jurisprudence, the most conservative Sunni school of Islam) (Maisel, 2017). On the other hand, I think that it is possible to understand Iran without understanding Islam as a governing structure. While Saudi Arabia exists as a dynastic monarchy with the Wahhabi as its co-rulers, Iran is partly a theocracy and partly a democracy (Vox, 2016). It is true that right now, “the theory of the [Iranian] constitution is clear. It is a democratic model. The practice might be something different” (Sciolino, 2014). However, it is much easier to envision a future Iran separate from the clerical establishment than a future Saudi Arabia. As previously mentioned, Religious legitimacy is the cornerstone of the Saudi regime. Without the balance of the Wahhabi and the royal family, Saudi Arabia would be a very different place, as the royal family derives much of its legitimacy from the religious clerics. Iran, however, is already (in part) a democracy. According to Vox (2016), in 2016 the people of Iran voted to elect a new Assembly of Experts, who are currently serving an 8-year term. The Assembly of Experts are the body responsible for selecting the new Supreme Leader once the sitting one dies or becomes too sick to rule. The current Supreme Leader has announced that he is likely to die in this time (Vox, 2016). If this does happen, then Iran might have a chance to expand its democracy. According to Rezaian (2018), “theocracies — governments rooted in religious law with clerics holding the bulk of decision-making powers — [like Iran] are a relic of the past that can’t stand up to time or scrutiny”. Although there are many different people in Iran with many different wishes for the future (everything from totalitarianism to (more) real form of democracy), right now, “for the first time in history… all sides of the regime acknowledge its mortal deficiency: it isn’t delivering to people what they want” (Rezaian, 2018). Those in power may not want to make reforms, but they are seeming to realize that they have no other choice. Rezaian (2018) also points out that “Iran was the first country in the region to be run by the clergy in modern times, and there is a very good chance it will also be the first where theocratic rule reaches its expiration date”. The one downside to all of this is that, even if the theocracy is toppled, there is no currently no viable form of government which could replace it (Rezaian). Overall, however, I believe that it is still much easier to envision a future Iran separate from the clerical establishment than a future Saudi Arabia.
All sources used can be found in the “Works Cited” section of the infographic above.