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The Islamic Republic of Iran is the “head of the axis” of political Shi’a in the Middle East. What is “political Shi’a”? I am referring to an understanding of Shi’ite identity and culture, as well as Shi’ite community and social resources, as a platform for the creation of a political force with a broad worldview. Shia’s transformation into a political force was not an obvious move. Traditionally, as early as the ninth century, the sixth Shia imam held that the leaders of the Shi’ite community would not seek executive political authority for themselves. Up until the revolution of 1979 in Iran, Shi’ites in the Middle East were a religious community that fought for sectoral interests against other communities. The political circumstances that developed in Iran since the 1960’s caused a clash between the authoritarian and Western Shah, and a small group of clerics led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini, who spent 16 years in exile, formulated a governmental theory during this period according to which clerics are entitled and even obliged to seek active rule in their country. The revolution, which took place in Iran in 1979, was not originally conceived as an Islamic revolution. Similar to other popular revolutions that took place in Iran in the 20th century, this was also a revolution of a coalition aimed at ousting the incumbent Shah. Its leaders, which included both conservative and liberal elements, assumed that they could use the unifying force of religious discourse to mobilize various segments of the public. They were surprised to discover that the religious opposition considered itself capable of taking power and they were even more surprised when the establishment of the Islamic Republic, according to the model of "guardianship of the Islamic jurist", was approved by referendum.
The new Islamic Republic spent the first ten years of its existence in a difficult and destructive war. For several years, Iran’s leaders tried to promote the “export of the Islamic revolution”. The Shi'ite political gospel combined anti-imperialist rhetoric with the protection of Shi’ites in distress (for example, in Lebanon), yet the potential for creating a large Shi’ite political movement was never realized. Iranian efforts to export the revolution died out several years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The Shi’ite community in the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent did not hurry to adopt the model of "guardianship of the Islamic jurist” (Wilayat-Faqih) as a blueprint for political development. The specific political distress of those Shi’ite communities - from the aggressive policies of Saddam Hussein in Iraq to the discrimination against Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - were not addressed under the possible rule of an Islamic jurist. Furthermore, they objected in principle to the concept and perceived it as a blatant deviation from the Shi’ite tradition.