New book by Baker Institute’s Tabaar explores ‘The Politics of Islam in Iran’

In a book published this month, “Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran” (Columbia University Press, 392 pages, $60), Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar traces half a century of shifting Islamist doctrines against the backdrop of Iran’s factional and international politics. The fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Tabaar demonstrates that religious narratives in Iran can change rapidly, frequently and dramatically in accordance with elites’ threat perceptions.

Since the 1979 revolution, scholars and policymakers alike have tended to see Iranian political actors as religiously driven — dedicated to overturning the international order in line with a theologically prescribed outlook, Tabaar said. His book argues that such views have the link between religious ideology and political order in Iran backward.

As Tabaar puts it in “Religious Statecraft,” “There is no such thing as political Islam. There is, however, a politics of Islam.” He hopes his book will help achieve a new understanding of Iranian politics and its ideological contradictions.

Tabaar argues that the Islamists’ gambit to capture the state depended on attaining a monopoly over the use of religious narratives. He explains how competing political actors strategically develop and deploy Shi’a-inspired ideologies to gain credibility, constrain political rivals and raise mass support. He also challenges readers to rethink conventional wisdom regarding the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the Green Movement, nuclear politics and U.S.-Iran relations.

Based on a micro-level analysis of post-revolutionary Iranian media and recently declassified documents as well as theological journals and political memoirs, “Religious Statecraft” constructs a new picture of Iranian politics in which power drives Islamist ideology, Tabaar said.

“Tabaar depicts Ayatollah Khomeini’s nimble ability to tailor religious and nationalist ideology to outmaneuver the Shah, the Iranian Left and factional opponents,” wrote Jack Snyder, the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University, in a review. “Though unabashed in arguing that political expediency has determined the regime’s selections from its toolkit of revolutionary religious doctrine, ‘Religious Statecraft’ subtly portrays how factions struggle not so much to ‘tell people what to think’ as ‘what to think about.’”

Tabaar’s research focuses on U.S.-Iran relations and the politics of religion. He joined the Baker Institute in 2015. He is also an assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.