Abbas Milani explains the “intellectual history of the Green Wave” in Iran in a New Republic piece that provides a glimpse of the deeper theological and philosophical forces at work in the movement. Milani warns that this intellectual tradition “has not always found itself on the side of the angels,” but makes a strong case for it as an authentic incorporation of democracy and other “Western” 20th century ideas into an Islamic framework:
The roots of Iran’s current divide to a great extent lie at the turn of the century, when the country’s ayatollahs essentially split into two camps on questions of religion and politics. The first was led by Ayatollah Na’ini, an advocate of what is called the “Quietist” school of Shiism–today best exemplified in the character and behavior of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq. According to Na’ini, true “Islamic government” could only be established when the twelfth imam returned. Such a government would be the government of God on earth: Its words, deeds, laws, and courts would be absolute and could tolerate no errors. But humans, Na’ini said, were fallible and thus ill-fitted to the sacred task of establishing God’s government. As the pious await the return of the infallible twelfth imam, they must in the interim search for the best form of government. And the form most befitting this period, Na’ini argued, was constitutional democracy. The role of ayatollahs under this arrangement would be to “advise” the rulers and ensure that laws inimical to sharia were not implemented. But it would not be to rule the country themselves.
Opposing Na’ini was an ayatollah named Nuri. He dismissed democracy and the rule of law as inferior alternatives to the divine, eternal, atemporal, nonerrant wisdom embodied in the Koran and sharia. As Ayatollah Khomeini would declare more than once, his own ideas were nothing but an incarnation of Nuri’s arguments. But for the moment, at least, those ideas were on the defensive. It would be decades before they would reemerge to dominate Iranian politics.