It was almost five years ago when Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched the idea of constitutional reform to transform the Islamic Republic’s presidential system into a parliamentary one. The idea was to end election of the President of the Republic through universal suffrage and give the Islamic Majlis (parliament) the right to select a Prime Minister to head the executive branch of government.
Khamenei launched the idea in the wake of a public quarrel with then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who had wanted to replace the Minister of Security and Information but had been ordered not to do so by the “Supreme Guide”.
Ahmadinejad’s argument was that since the president is directly elected by the people, he should also have the right to choose his Cabinet colleagues. Khamenei’s counter argument was that under the Islamic Constitution, then “Supreme Guide” had the final say on all matters and could even suspend the application of basic rules of Islam.
Ahmadinejad reacted by 11 days of sulking during which he went on strike from his duties as President. In the end, however, he had to eat humble pie, and submit to Khamenei’s order.
Sources said the open quarrel led to Khamenei ordering small group of constitutional experts to prepare a report on adopting a parliamentary system. According to the sources, the report, which has not been made public, appears to have recommended three options to the” Supreme Guide”.
The first option is to keep the title of President but have the person who will occupy the post be nominated by the “Supreme Guide” and approved by the Islamic Majlis. Keeping the word “President” is deemed important to maintain the claim that Iran will remain a republic.
The second option, for a while favored by late President Hashemi Rafsanjani, would be a merger of the position of the President with that of the “Supreme Guide” with the person occupying the post selected by a Congress consisting of both the Islamic Majlis and the Assembly of Experts. Such a system would end the apparent contradiction between an elected political executive and a non-elected religious authority.
The third option is to have the head of the executive branch directly appointed and, when needed, replaced, by the “Supreme Guide” who could assume the title of Imam. In such a system, the heads of executive would be an administrator, not a policymaker, carrying out policies determined by the “Imam.”
“The Islamic Republic created by the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini was full of contradictions from the start,” says historian Parviz Nuri. “It wanted to appear democratic so as to seduce the Westernized middle classes. But it also wanted to establish absolute rule by the Shi’ite clergy.”
Initially, the Khomeinist system included both a President, directly elected by the people, and a prime minister named by that President and approved by the Islamic Majlis. But that was a source of tension right from the start as Abol-Hassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic’s first president who remained in office for just over a year, was in constant dispute with Prime Minister Muhammad-Ali Rajai.
Banisadr was dismissed by Khomeini, then acting as “Supreme Guide”. But the quarrel between President and Prime Minister continue. For eight years Ali Khamenei, the present “Supreme Guide”, who acted as president was in constant dispute with Prime Minster Mir-Hussein Mussawi-Khameneh. In the end Khamenei formed an alliance with then Majlis Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani and pushed through a constitutional amendment that abolished the post of prime minister altogether.
Thus, the trend has been towards a gradual concentration of executive power in the hands of the “Supreme Guide”.
But why has the debate been re-launched now, just weeks after President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election for a second and final four years term?
One reason may be the growing concern over the consequences of Khamenei’s departure from the scene and the difficulty of choosing a successor who could pretend to the status he has gained over the past 30 years. A weak “Supreme Guide”, named by a club of second rate mullahs known as the Assembly of Experts, would wield little authority against a President elected by popular vote.
Such a president would wield immense powers that, given certain conditions, could be used to reduce the role of Shi’ite clerics in the nation’s politics. An even bigger risk is that the Iranian electorate, increasingly secular in mood and persuasion, may go for candidates who offer a policy of de-emphasizing, if not actually abandoning, the religious character of the system.
Having the head of executive named by the parliament could also lead to instability as majorities form and disintegrate within the Majlis.
“Islamic Majlis” member Abdul-Reza Hashem Zai says what matters is who controls the majority in the parliament at any given time. “It is also crucial to see which tendencies are behind the idea of a parliamentary system,” he says.
Another Majlis member Ezzat-Allah Yussefian insists that whatever change is to be introduced must reflect “the wishes of the Supreme Guide”.
Writing in the newspaper Etemad, a pro-Rouhani, daily, columnist Ali-Akbar Gorji, rejects the idea of a parliamentary system on the grounds that Iran does not have regular political parties that could ensure parliamentary discipline through stable majorities or coalitions. “Right now we should focus our attention on allowing the formation of political parties,” he insists.
Sadeq Ziba-Kalam, a prominent intellectual and supporter of Rouhani, goes further by asserting that introducing a parliamentary system in Iran at this time could be “a setback for democracy”. The reason is that hardline factions control the institutions, including the “Islamic Majlis,” leaving the direct election of a president as the only opportunity for ordinary citizens to express their wishes.
Ziba-Kalam speculates that in a parliamentary system Rouhani would not be chosen as President by the current “Islamic Majlis;” the post will go to Hojat al-Islam Radii’s, his more radical rival in the least presidential election.
However, the option of imamate may be more suitable for the Islamic Republic. In Jaafari theology, people should recognize no authority as legitimate unless it comes from the “Imam” who is “Massoum” (infallible). This was why late Ayatollah Khomeini adopted the title of “Imam” to put his authority above worldly, political and secular, consideration. In recent times a campaign has been launched to give Khamenei the same title of “Imam”. This was highly publicized when the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, wrote Khamenei a letter calling him “Grand Ayatollah and Imam” at the same time.
In Jaafari theology, the concept of ”infallibility” (‘ismah) is reserved for Ali, Faitmah and their 11 male descendants. However, a new campaign now aims at extending the concept to also cover Khamenei.
In a speech in Qom earlier this month Ayatollah Ali Ansarian said the concept of “Islam” also applied to all the 124,000 prophets plus many other “muqarrabin” (those close to God) and should apply to Khamenei as well.
“Introducing a full Imamate in Iran would fully reflect the true nature of the system founded by Ayatollah Khomeini,” says religious historian Nuri. “It would also resolve the inner contradictions of a system torn between imitating modern Western political practice and nostalgia for an imagery Islamic system under the Imams.”
A system of imamate existed in Yemen under Zaidi Imams for centuries. In Batinah, inner Oman, the Ibadhis also had an imamate with the last Imam, Ghalib bin-Ali al-Hanai, who died in 2009.
Khamenei seems anxious to introduce as yet unclear constitutional reforms as part of his legacy. For him, and for Iran, the clock is ticking.