In a move designed to further curtail President Hassan Rouhani’s scope for policy-making, the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has ordered the creation of a new supervisory body to “hold all branches of government to account in the implementation of their policies.”
Khamenei unveiled his plan at a special meeting Thursday in Tehran of the Assembly of Experts, a 92-member outfit initially formed to surprise the performance of the “Supreme Guide” himself. However, in a lengthy speech Khamenei made no mention of that task which is enshrined in the very Constitution of the Iranian Republic.
Instead, he said the Assembly must “assume grand supervisory mission designed to ensure the direction and progress of the Islamic revolution.”
“The three branches of government are in charge of administering the country in a revolutionary manner,” Khamenei said. “But the Assembly of Experts must supervise the branches to make sure they move in the direction set by the revolution, and to hold to account when there is a lacunae.”
Split between a vision of Iran as a vehicle for Khomeinist revolution on the one hand and an ordinary nation-state on the other, the Iranian Republic has faced deep contradictions from the very beginning. For radical elements the risk in seeing Iran normalize itself and start behaving like a nation-state is almost as great as that of “foreign plots for regime change.”
The current Constitution is already designed to limit the powers of the official government represented by a President and a Council of Ministers. This is done through three existing organs.
The first such organ is the Council of the Ascertainment of the Interests of the System (Majlis Tashkhis Maslehat al-Nizam). This Majlis is supposed to arbitrate disagreements between the President and his Cabinet on the one hand and the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, on the other.
Worse still, as far as the official government is concerned, in 2015 Khamenei extended the powers of the Majlis al-Maslehat by ordering it to work out 20-year plans for all key aspects of national policy. In other words, whoever forms the government at any given time would not have to freedom to work out any policy unless it fully conforms with the plans already fixed.
Since all members of the Majlis al-Maslehat are appointed by the “Supreme Guide” it is safe to assume that it is ultimately his view that would prevail.
The second control organ is Guardians of the Constitution which could veto any government decision even if approved by the Parliament.
Again, Khamenei’s control over the Guardians Council is almost total. He directly appoints six of the 12 members but would also have to approve the six others named by the Parliament.
The new organ decreed by Khamenei is to be composed of “a team of thinkers”.
It is not clear whether the “thinkers” in question will be members of the Assembly of Experts or recruited from other fields. But since the nominees would have to be approved by Khamenei, it is clear that the new proposed organ will add a third layer to the control already exercised by the “Supreme Guide.”
Even then, the “Supreme Guide” is not satisfied with formal control over the official government which he clearly does not fully trust. His fear is that the President and his Council of Ministers, although appointed with the approval of the “Supreme Guide”, may be tempted to sacrifice the interests of the evolution in order to protect the interests of the nation-state.
This is why some “sensitive areas” are kept outside the remit of the President and the Council of Ministers from the start. For example, Iran’s regional policy is directly controlled by the office of the “Supreme Guide” known as “Beit rahbar” (Leader’s Household) with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ task limited to protocol and ceremonial occasions. All of Iran’s ambassadors to Arab countries, for example, are chosen by the Quds Corps, the organ charged with the task of “exporting the revolution” and directly accountable to the “Supreme Guide.”
The Iran policy adopted by former US President Barack Obama was partly responsible for Khamenei’s decision to reduce the power of the official government and increase that of revolutionary organs under his control. Obama publicly spoke of “supporting moderate elements” in what he thought would be a “change of direction in Iran.”
With US policy apparently now moving in the direction opposite to that set by Obama, Khamenei is anxious to consolidate the position of his revolutionary organs before another US administration is tempted by a new version of Obama’s love-affairs with “Tehran moderates.”
Two events dramatically illustrated Khamenei’s decision to clip the wings of Rouhani’s “moderate” administration.
The first was Khamenei’s four-hour long tete-a-tete with Russian President Vladimir Putin from which Rouhani was excluded. Since then, Iran’s Russia policy, dubbed by Khamenei as “Looking to the East” is handled by the office of the “Supreme Guide” with such emissaries as Quds Corps Commander General Qassem Soleimani and Khamenei adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati running errands to Moscow instead of the official Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
The second event was the historic visit to Ankara by the newly appointed Chief of Staff General Muhammad Baqeri establishing direct contact between the military of the Iranian Republic and that of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Once again, the official government played no role in the dramatic event. Since then, General Baqeri has also established direct contact with the top brass of the Pakistan Armed Forces, once again by-passing the Cabinet nominally headed by Rouhani.
The decision to test a new ballistic missile, named Khorramshahr, jut 48 hours after Rouhani’s return from New York, was equally noteworthy. In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Rouhani had sounded moderate and conciliatory and ready to comply with Iran’s obligations under UN resolutions, the most recent one of which forbids such missile tests. Khorramshahr was designed to tell the world that what matters is not what Iran promises as a country but what Iran does as a revolution.
Khamenei’s message is clear: Iran must be in the service of its Revolution, not the other way round.