TCS Daily


Reforming Iran From the Top

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - June 23, 2005 12:00 AM

The race for the Iranian presidency is going into a runoff round with former President and speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani facing hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current mayor of Tehran. Questions exist concerning whether the initial polling was free of fraud and those questions clearly have to be resolved via some form of impartial and trustworthy inquiry. Questions also exist as to whether Iran will see any progress in social and economic reforms under a new president and whether Iran will be able to integrate itself anew into the international community. But the first issue for resolution is whether the Iranian political system -- which reformists wish to use in order to help enact their policies -- will itself be impartial and open to new ideas. Indeed, if the Iranian political class is serious about reforms, it should take constructive action to ensure that the political environment is amenable to reform and change. Such constructive action is a sine qua non to the success of the reform movement in general.

Currently, of course, the political environment is hostile to reform. Consider the office of the presidency -- which reformists have hoped to use to implement their agenda. Any potential president of Iran is limited even before he might have the chance to occupy the office. Under the rules of the Iranian constitution, the hardline Council of Guardians is given the right to vet presidential candidates and to decide whether or not they will be allowed to stand for election. Among the criteria used by the Council to decide whether a particular candidate will be allowed to stand is whether the candidate has "a good past record" and whether the candidate possesses "trustworthiness and piety" according to Article 115 of the Iranian constitution. It goes without saying that these qualifications give the Council of Guardians a great deal of leeway to eliminate candidates with whose political ideologies the Council may disagree.

And the Council has not been shy about doing so. In the 1997 presidential elections, the Council of Guardians only allowed 4 out of 238 presidential aspirants to stand for election and has never allowed a woman to run. This year, the Council tried again to limit the pro-reform field and though its decision was partially reversed, future reformist presidential candidates can hardly be confident in the belief that they will be given a fair and equitable chance by the Islamic regime to present their views to the Iranian populace and compete for the presidency. With this veto power over candidates, the Council of Guardians hampers the chances of a strong and effective reformist politician to attain the presidency and effect fundamental change in the country, while allowing hardliners to flood the race with favorite candidates and thus maintain a stranglehold on Iranian politics.

The Council of Guardians is similarly able to limit the number of reformists that may be elected to the Majles (the Iranian parliament) and did so last year when Majles elections were held. Of course, these efforts to curtail the reform movement only serve to disillusion the movement as a whole and cause reformist voters to believe that their votes and voices do not matter. Thus, hardliners find it easier to win elections because they have less reason to worry about a reformist backlash among the populace while ensuring that hardline voters will have all the reason in the world to show up at the polls. After all, their movement is favored by the Iranian political system and their votes -- unlike the votes of the reformists -- actually count.

Even assuming that a reformist is able to capture the Presidency -- as Mohammad Khatami, the outgoing Iranian president did in 1997 -- the Council of Guardians is able to continue to hamper reforms. Any legislation passed by the Majles (the Iranian parliament) is subject to review by the Council of Guardians under Article 94 of the constitution "with a view to ensuring [the legislation's] compatibility with the criteria of Islam and the Constitution." Once again, we have language with enough holes to drive a truck through. If a the president and Majles pushes for reformist legislation that would liberalize Iranian politics and society, the Council of Guardians could exercise a veto in order to either scuttle the legislation or to strip it of its reformist elements. At every step, the hardline segments of the Iranian political class prevent and hamper the implementation of a reformist agenda.

In addition to the roadblocks thrown up by the Council of Guardians, the Supreme Religious Guide -- currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- works to undermine any effort at reforms. Under the Iranian constitution, Khamenei has -- among other powers -- supreme command of the armed forces (allowing him to use the armed forces to put down any popular movement) and the power to regulate who may stand for elections. Khamenei has used the latter power to occasionally reverse sweeping prohibitions on reformist candidates for the Majles and the presidency, but these reversals are sparse and ultimately do little to allow reformists to make themselves into a political force. The Supreme Religious Guide is by far the most powerful single individual in the Iranian political environment and Khamenei uses that power to advance the hardline agenda without apology. Even if a reformist is president of Iran, reformists are simply incapable of contending with the kind of power Khamenei wields because of the institutional advantages he has under the Iranian constitution. And if anyone believes that under the current system, a reformist has a chance of being selected as the Supreme Religious Guide should anything happen to Khamenei, well, there is that bridge in Brooklyn that is always for sale.

Iranian reformists pay a lot of attention on social and economic liberalization and removing Iran from the list of international outcast nations. These are all worthy goals. But we should all remember that none of these goals will be accomplished until the political system is itself reformed. It is the political system in its current incarnation that prevents reforms from taking place and until it is changed, no one should be surprised to see the reformists continuing to flail helplessly against a regime that has stacked the deck against them. In order to fully and accurately measure the state of reform in Iran, we would do well to pay less attention to whether women are able to go out in public without headscarves or whether couples who are unmarried are able to hold hands in public. Rather, we should look to see if there are any fundamental structural changes being made in the Iranian constitution and in the makeup of the Iranian political system. Without the latter other types of reforms will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to achieve.

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