Iran debates shift to parliamentary system
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
TEHRAN - Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's hint last week that the "presidential system" might give way to a parliamentary system has sparked an intensive debate about the merits of such a shift. Though couched in the language of a future possibility, the statement provides new ammunition in the country's factional politics.
"In the future, the parliamentary system can be possibly revived," Khamenei said at a lecture during his week-long trip to the province of Kermanshah, where he scolded the government officials for not doing enough to tackle rising unemployment in the province.
Replacement of the presidential system with a more European-style parliamentary system would mean scrapping the office of president and a resurrection of the role of prime minister in a revised system based on parliamentary consensus. Defenders of the proposal point to often tense relations between the Majlis (parliament) and the executive branch headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and say the change would bring about closer parliamentary scrutiny of the government.
Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of the Majlis, and other Majlis deputies have embraced the idea, with Larijani claiming that this would result in a more smooth and efficient form of government. Former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who heads the Expediency Council, has opposed this idea, as well as the related notion that the council, which serves as a quasi-parliamentary group, should also be scrapped. Defending the role and legitimacy of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani this week vigorously defended the "republican" nature of the system, and in so many words expressed his opposition at any attempt to weaken it.
The idea of replacing the present system with a parliamentary system "has been under study in Majlis for sometime," according to Hamid Reza Katouzian, a Tehran MP.
The end of the presidential system may prove to a boon for party politics by encouraging the development of coalitions - a feature of political life that is dreadfully weak if not absent in Iran today.
A number of Tehran pundits, such as the reformist and vocal Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Ziba Kalam, have fully endorsed the leader's suggestion and penned in its favor, with Ziba Kalam putting the emphasis on government accountability.
Public support for a more robust parliamentary role in the governmental affairs is growing in light of the recent impeachment of the finance minister in a scandal which has also put some key bank executives, including the head of the central bank, in the firing line. In the immediate future that may well culminate in a constitutional revision.
There is no particular rush to reach a final resolution on this matter. Hassan Ghafoorifard, another Tehran deputy, told the media that "the leader's point in raising this issue has been to generate discussion and debate on this and I am certain it will not materialize for another 10 years".
Meanwhile, Khamenei's suggestion has been vastly misinterpreted outside Iran, with a number of commentators seizing on the issue as yet another expression of conflict and hostility from the supreme leader toward Ahmadinejad. This is clearly not the case. The leader's passing remark clearly shows that he was speaking of a long-term prospect, ie nothing that would stop Ahmadinejad from staying in office for the one-and-a-half years that remains of his term.
In a clue to the systematic efforts to patch up differences between and inside the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government, Mahdavi Kani, the current chairman of the Assembly of Experts, was appointed to mediate, and there are on-going "unity meetings" between the heads and key members of the three branches. As an overture to the president, Larijani and his supporters in the Majlis have backed the resignation of a fierce critic of Ahmadinejad, Ali Mottahari, who in the opinion of many experts "went too far in attacking the president and his chief of staff Rahim Mashaee".
On the whole, the mood in today's Majlis is toward reconciliation and working relations with the president rather than constantly challenging him. This is partly due to the plethora of foreign policy challenges confronting the regime, given the recent US allegations of Iran terror plot in Washington; allegations which the Tehran leaders have adamantly denied.
Regarding the claims that Tehran was involved in a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US, since Iran is a signatory to the international conventions dictating cooperation in the investigation of such matters, Iran is likely to tag this to its previous complaints of US complicity in both the assassination of its nuclear scientists as well as US support for the terrorist group Jundallah, whose leader Abdulmalek Riggi, was apprehended last spring en route to a US base in Central Asia.
Tehran may be able to turn tables on the US and prove a case to the international community that it is "victim of Western-sponsored terrorism". A number of Tehran foreign policy experts have told the author that in their opinion Iran is willing to engage in earnest dialogue on Afghanistan, in light of the upcoming Afghan summit in Bonn in December. The big question is whether such needed dialogue becomes a collateral casualty in the US-Iran cold war now raging in full force.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press). For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.
Ali Khamenei - Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hoseyni Kha-mene'i born 17 July 1939 is the Supreme Leader of Iran and the figurative head of the Muslim conservative establishment in Iran and Twelver Shi'a marja. In 2010, Forbes selected him 26th in the list of 'World's Most Powerful People'
He was president of Iran from 1981 to 1989, and has been Supreme Leader of Iran since June 1989 when the Assembly of Experts appointed him to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He has been described as one of only three people having "important influence" on the Islamic Republic of Iran (the other two being the founder of the republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the president of Iran for much of the 1990s, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani)
Khamenei, however, continued to strongly support Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policies and re-election. Khamenei was the victim of an attack aimed to assassinate him in June 1981 that paralyzed his right arm.
In 1981, after the assassination of Mohammad-Ali Rajai, Khamenei was elected President of Iran by a landslide vote in the Iranian presidential election, October 1981 and became the first cleric to serve in the office.
Seyyed Ali Khamene'i succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, after Khomeini's death, being elected as the new Supreme Leader by the Assembly of Experts on June 4, 1989.
Officials under Khamenei influence the country's various powerful, and sometimes bickering, institutions, including "the parliament, the presidency, the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, the military, the intelligence services, the police agencies, the clerical elite, the Friday prayer leaders and much of the media", as well as various "nongovernmental foundations, organizations, councils, seminaries and business groups"
Khamenei stays aloof from day-to-day politics. He gives no press conferences or interviews, and, as noted in Hooman Majd's book:
[He] speaks only at special gatherings, such as an occasional Friday prayer or commemoration ceremonies of one sort or another. The Leader meets with foreign dignitaries (almost exclusively Muslim) but limits any televised and public words to generalities, such as Iran's support for the country (or entity like Hamas or Hezbollah) whose emissary he is meeting, Iran's peaceful and Islamic nature, and Iran's eagerness to expand trade and contacts with the friendly country in question. He pointedly does not meet with representatives of Western powers. The Supreme Leader does not travel overseas; if anyone wishes to see him, that person must travel to Iran.
Fatwa against nuclear weapons
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam. The fatwa was cited in an official statement by the Iranian government at an August 2005 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.