Iran, meaning the land of Arians, is the 18th largest country in the world, with nearly 80 million population, with impressive advancements in science and technology since the 1979 Revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic. It ranks 8th in arms production in the world, with 11 million trained paramilitary on reserve. It is a country of special geostrategic significance due to its central location in the Middle East and between Europe and Asia. Iran is bordered on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the south by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, on the west by Iraq, northwest by Turkey, on the north by Russia and Kazakhstan, Iran also holds an important position in international energy security and world economy because of its huge reserves of oil and natural gas. Thus, it is utmost important particularly to governments in Europe and United States to understand the Iranian mind and system of government if they desire to have good relations with it.
One of the essential problems toward understanding the nature of the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran is the lack of knowledge of the concept “Islamic Republic.” The result has been a serious iran telephone misunderstanding of governing principles, political structure, decision making process, the system of operation, and the bases for foreign relations. For proper understanding of this concept, one has to pay attention first to the structure of Islamic religion and then within this context consider the meaning of the republic and ensuing form of government.
The Islamic religion, unlike Christianity, is devoid of hierarchical structure. For example, under the catholic sect of Christianity, there is a strict hierarchical structure. It starts at its summit with the Pope and goes downward to cardinals, archbishops, bishops and ends with the parish priests. The total operation of the system is governed quite strictly from the top. The higher we go within the administrative structure of Christianity, the offices become more luxurious and the officeholder’s outfits more expensive, more symbolic, more impressive, vary for different occasions, and the number of servants increases. Everything excels to its summit when it reach the Vatican and the highest officeholder, the Pope.
There is no such religious hierarchy in Islam. Islam is an individualized socialistic oriented religion. Everyone is the master of his own faith and individually follows the teachings of Islam to the degree that he desires. Millions of Iranians, as in the rest of the Muslim world, do not pray five times a day, do not fast, don’t believe in full covering of body for women, and do not attend the Friday sermon. Yet, they confidently consider themselves Muslim. Often, it is forgotten that to be a Muslim, you need only to believe in Allah (God) and Mohammed as his prophet. What extras you believe and follow is totally up to you and between you and your creator. In studying the Islamic Principles and Laws developed at the time of Prophet Mohammad and later, it is obvious that many may have problems in proper understanding of them and need to refer to a man of knowledge in Islam to solve them. These are a few who have devoted many years of their life and their time in studying Islam and its corresponding societal norms,
Each large community, depending on its size, has one or more of these men of knowledge. They are classified based on the level of their knowledge, extensiveness of their studies, and scholarly contributions At the lowest official level of knowledge are those known as “mullah” followed by “hojjatol-Islam” and the “ayatollah” which is the highest scholarly degree bestowed upon an expert on Islamic religion, its principles, laws, history and tradition. To reach this title requires many years of hard studies, several levels of examinations, scholarly writings and a final oral examination before a panel of ayatollahs who are recognized as proven experts. The title of ayatollah in Islamic world is comparable to a Ph.D. degree in the other institutions of higher education, but much more difficult to attain. The student is well into his 40s and 50s when he finally becomes qualified for the title.
Among some 80 millions Iranians, the number of ayatollahs may be around a hundred.
They are residents in large communities except the City of Gum which is the center of Islamic education and many resident Ayatollahs are full time teachers like professors at the universities. Each ayatollah is free to choose his place of residence. Individuals in their area of residence are free to refer to one of them if they encounter certain religious problems, But the majority of Iranians never refer to an ayatollah or follow them. This is a good evidence of the individual nature of the Islamic religion. Islam is the religion that each individual believe in it on his own and not what the ayatollahs prescribe. Millions of Iranians do not follow the principle of official daily prayer or fasting in the month of Ramadan yet they consider themselves a devote Muslim. Mullahs and other lesser scholars select one or more ayatollah to refer to them in resolving their religious questions. They are free in their choice and can change them at will or may refer to more than one.