الأحد، 0 شوال 1438 - 25 حزيران / يونيو 2017
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Is Iran Changing

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Since the early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Supreme Leader notion has been well embedded in the Iranian political life, giving almost absolute powers to the Supreme Leader in a country that witnessed more than 20 referendums on constitutional amendments as well as elections of the Shura Council (Parliament), Assembly of Experts, Municipalities, and other bodies.

It is the mixture of religion and elections — religion according to the Shiite, Iranian viewpoint, and elections that aim at implementing the constitutional provisions that dictate popular participation in the decision-making process.

Last month's election was held to determine the 290 members of the Islamic Shura Council. However, candidates were first qualified by the Council of Guardians, whose role is to ensure the compatibility of the laws issued by the Shura Council with the principles of the country's official religious doctrine, and with the provisions of its constitution.

The Conservatives' landslide victory secured them more than 70 percent of the seats in the first round, with a turnout of 65 percent.

There were four major electoral lists in the election. Two of those lists were conservative: the pro-Ahmadinejad United Front of Fundamentalists led by the current parliament speaker, Ghulam-Ali Haddad Adel, and the Broad Coalition of Fundamentalists, which opposes Ahmadenejad and his policies with regard to the nuclear crisis in particular. One of the latter's distinguished leaders is Ali Larijani, Iran's ex-chief nuclear negotiator. The Reformist list included various parties and factions, and one of its leaders was ex-president Mohamed Khatami.

Other prominent figures participated in the election, including the Islamic Republic's ex-president Hashimi Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council, who was part of the moderate coalition, and Mahdi Karrubi, former speaker of the Shura Council and head of the National Trust party. The fourth electoral list included independent and minority candidates.

Experts on Iranian can notice the dramatic developments in Iranian politics. A few years ago, a stunning Reformist victory brought Khatami to power. However, Reformist failures have helped Conservatives make a comeback of conservatives in a series of elections, enabling them to control the Shura Council as well as other major institutions.

Iran is not a representative democracy; rather, it is "an Islamic Republic," whose founders wanted it to be a unique, new model.

The relationship between Reformists and Conservatives in Iran is different from the relationship between conservatives and liberals in modern democracies. Iran is not a representative democracy; rather, it is — according to its constitution —"an Islamic Republic," whose founders wanted it to be a unique, new model — a combination of an official ideology, namely the Shiite Jaafari doctrine and the Guardianship of the Jurist theory on the one hand, and popular participation through elections on the other.

The first component of this combination is religious, and it is concerned with the role of the Supreme Leader, who enjoys large prerogatives according to the Shiite Jaafari (Twelver) school.

According to article 107 of the Islamic Republic's constitution, the Supreme Leader is appointed by the Assembly of Experts. Members of the Assembly must be Shiite Muslims, who believe in the Guardianship of the Jurist theory.

Article 122 of the constitution gives the Supreme Leader the right to form the Expediency Council, which is established in an advisory capacity. Also, the Expediency Council mediates between the Shura Council and the Council of Guardians in the case of disagreement, but still the decisions of the Expediency Council must be approved by the Supreme Leader.

The second component of the abovementioned combination is elections, which is a modern mechanism borrowed mainly from the Western democratic experience. The founders of the Islamic Republic and the authors of the constitution adopted the electoral mechanism because it provided the Islamic system with something that all the previous regimes lacked: legitimacy derived from popular participation.

The founding fathers of the Islamic Republic were aware that integrating such a democratic mechanism into the system would protect it from being labeled as dictatorial and authoritarian. It is important to note that article 3 of the constitution prohibits power monopoly, and calls for the abolition of all aspects of dictatorship and for the participation of all people in deciding their destiny.

Elections in Iran have functions other than those of truly democratic elections, which can be easily noticed by reviewing the statements made before and during the elections by Iranian scholars, such as Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, who described the elections as a divine and social test.

Popular Mandate for Ahmadinejad?

One of the weaknesses of the Reformist camp is that it is not a unified front.

It is well-known that Reformists are being discriminated against by the Council of Guardians, which was reflected in the disqualification of many Reformist candidates for parliamentary elections. And since the Council of Guardians consists of Islamic scholars and jurists (six of its members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and the remaining six are proposed by the head of the judiciary and approved by the Shura Council), it is more likely that its decisions would be pro-Conservative.

Thus, the final decision lies in the hands of the Supreme Leader and his supporters, which consequently undermines not only the Reformist camp, but also the people and the elections as stated in the constitution.

While in power, however, Reformists made more effort to strengthen their position vis-à-vis Conservatives than to try to keep their electoral promises of improving the economic and social conditions of the Iranian people, which explains their poor performance in the 2004 elections.

In 2008, international developments have improved the Conservatives' position considerably by embedding the public conviction that Conservatives are the ones capable of confronting Western pressures and threats, especially after the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq in accordance with the plans of a Conservative-led US administration.

Given the high turnout, the Iranian elections' outcome is one way or another a popular mandate for President Ahmadenejad, and his firm stances on the nuclear program and other foreign policy issues.

Thus, Iranian voters prioritized foreign policy issues, namely the Iranian nuclear program and foreign threats, over domestic and economic affairs, an area in which Ahmadinejad has failed to fulfill his promises; therefore, Ahmadinejad's supporters consider parliamentary elections a popular approval to give him more time to implement his social and economic programs.

One of the weaknesses of the Reformist camp is that it is not a unified front; rather, it is a coalition of many factions and parties that emerged after Khatami's victory in 1997 elections. Reformists and conservatives hold opposing views regarding some key issues, particularly the Supreme Leader's status.

Some Reformists believe that it is necessary to reduce the Supreme Leader's prerogatives, and to empower the president. For this group, supremacy is for the people. But other Reformists, such as Abdel-Karim Saroush, Mujtahid Shabtari, and Mohamed Reza Khatami, went as far as calling for the separation of politics and religion, rejecting the government being a guardian of society.

Reza Khatami, ex-president Khatami's brother, thinks that the Supreme Leaders's unaccountability means dictatorship, and that his status in the current political system has nothing to with Islam.

The two camps also disagree on the state's cultural identity and the issue of civil liberties. Ex-president Khatami believed that authority should be derived from the people, and that people should be allowed more freedom. He also thought that only the law and the Shura Council should have the right to determine the limits of those liberties.

In addition, reformists call for the renunciation of the revolutionary discourse and its traditional slogans, such as "the Great Satan," "Down with the US" "Death for the Imam's enemies," and emphasize the importance of improving the socioeconomic conditions.

Such views appealed to young voters in the 1997 presidential elections, and in the legislative elections of 2000. However, the Reformists' radical views concerned Conservatives, who deemed Khatami's calls a threat to the Islamic culture and identity of the country. In the words of Ayatollah Yazdi, former head of the judiciary, those calls constituted a cultural revolution that was far more dangerous than military coups.

Conservatives and Foreign Threats

With its Islamic regime and nuclear program, Iran is also a target of the neo-conservatives in the United States.

Conservatives consist of a number of groups as well, but — unlike their Reformist counterparts — those groups are controlled by prominent clerics and revolutionary leaders, such as Hashimi Rafsanjani, Mahdavi Kunni, Ali Akbar Nouri, Muhammed Yazdi, Hassan Ruhani and others.

The second generation of revolutionary leaders, however, ascended to power through the polls, carrying out a silent revolution not only within the system, but also within the conservative camp.

The dynamic nature of Iranian society enabled Ahmadenejad in 2005 to defeat Rafsanjani, who remained president for eight years and parliament speaker for nine years, in a landslide victory that was considered a protest from within the system.

Indeed, foreign threats have served Ahmadinejad a lot. After the overthrow of Iran's two stiff enemies — Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran has become surrounded by the US troops stationed in Iraq to the west, Afghanistan to the east, the Persian Gulf to the south and the Central Asia republics to the north.

Also, with its Islamic regime and nuclear program, Iran is also a target of the neo-conservatives in the United States. In light of the abovementioned threats, most voters chose Ahmadinejad in 2005, and his conservative allies in 2008.

All in all, the Iranian model is an autocracy, where a single person or a small group of people control the country and undermine the people's authority and the elections' results. The legitimacy of the regime described by its Conservative supporters as Islamic is rooted essentially in the Guardianship of the Jurist theory, and the anti-US discourse.

Therefore, capitalizing on constitutional mechanisms as well as regional and international developments, supporters of the regime attempt vigilantly to undermine their Reformist opponents whenever they seem to be jeopardizing the regime's legitimacy or encouraging dialogue with the West, in general, and the United States, in particular.

This is what happened in the latest parliamentary elections, and this is certainly what is going to happen as long as the constitution and the balance of power remain unchanged. Iran incessantly witnesses internal change, and a renewal of its leaderships and MPs. However, renewal often occurs from within the system with the purpose of preserving it.

IsmalOnline, 24 April 2008.

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