Editor's Note: Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation. Reza Akbari is the research associate for the project. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Abdo and Akbari.
By Reza Akbari and Geneive Abdo – Special to CNN
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, one of the greatest failures of the country’s leadership has been the inability to make a promised transition from a monarchy to republican rule. In fact, since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei began his tenure as Supreme Leader twenty-two years ago, he has centralized power further in his own hands, creating what can be called a clerical monarchy.
Now, Khamenei may be completing the circle and entirely eliminating any notion of a “republic” by turning Iran into a fully blown theocratic and authoritarian state.
Last month, Khamenei made a short statement, which has sparked an intense debate. The 72-year-old Iranian leader hinted at the possibility of dissolving the post of president, one of only two institutions in which the populace has a say.
During a visit to Kermanshah, a western Iranian province, Khamenei announced, “In the country’s current political system, there is a president who is directly elected by the people. This is a good and an effective method. However, if someday in the distant future, it is decided that the parliamentary system is a better way to elect the head of the executive branch, there is nothing wrong with changing the current mechanism.”
So why has the Supreme Leader decided to suggest eliminating the position of the presidency in Iran? What does he have to gain from this dramatic political shift? The most obvious explanation is his determination not to repeat the disputed 2009 election and its aftermath. Elections in Iran historically have offered the population rare opportunities to express their grievances with the regime. The protests in 2009 and 2010, which drew millions of Iranians to the streets, not only seriously threatened Khamenei’s ability to govern, but exposed his unpopularity.
In recent years, beginning with the victorious election in 1997 of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency – an outcome conservatives and hardliners did not expect or want – the regime has faced a dilemma over whether the benefits of elections outweigh the costs. The presidential and parliamentary elections – the two polls in which a sizeable number of the electorate are allowed to participate – provide a façade that the country is somewhat of a republic, even though a body called the Guardian Council vets candidates long before voters ever get to the polls.
But the 2009 election and its aftermath inspired a poplar rebellion unprecedented in Iran’s post-revolutionary history. And now that uprisings have swept the Arab world, it is not surprising that Khamenei is so worried about public reaction to Iran’s scheduled 2013 presidential poll that he prefers to eliminate it entirely.
In addition, electoral seasons in Iran inspire some degree of euphoria within society. It is often a time of lively public debate over politics, women’s limited rights in Iran, the economy and Iran’s place in the world, which generally produces widespread criticism of the regime. Khamenei might believe now that the regime is too weak to withstand such intense public scrutiny.
Should Khamenei eliminate the post of president and instead create a parliamentary system, the power to govern would be even more concentrated in the office of the Supreme Leader and this has been Khamenei’s long-term objective.
In recent years, he has moved to acquire influence over three central branches of government. He effectively controls the judicial branch of the government by personally choosing its head. He maintains control over the legislative branch through the supervisory power given to the Guardian Council. This council consists of 12 jurists who determine the compatibility with the Shari’a (Islamic law) with the laws passed by the Parliament. If the laws do not pass the necessary requirements, the Council refers them back to the Parliament for revision. This effective veto power gives the council the de facto role of a parliamentary upper chamber. Six individuals on this 12-member body are directly elected by the Supreme Leader and the other half by the parliament from the jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary.
Khamenei will further control the legislative branch with the recent approval of the “Parliamentary Supervision over Members of Parliament” bill. On Tuesday, September 27, the Iranian Parliament approved Article 4 of the “Parliamentary Supervision over Members of Parliament” bill, which specifies a method for Parliament to expel certain MPs from the body. Based on one of the provisions in this bill, if the Council of Supervision votes to expel a certain member, he or she is not able to file a legal objection through the judicial system. The bill completely removes the legal immunity of members of the parliament in fulfilling their role as representatives.
This provides Khamenei or his aides with the ability to eliminate any parliamentary member deemed to be a trouble maker. By eliminating the position of the presidency, the Supreme Leader effectively dissolves a semi-independent branch of the government whose head is directly chosen by the people, after the Guardian Council vets the candidates seeking to run in the election.
It appears that discussion about eliminating the position of the president has been underway for a few months. According to Fars News, a semi-official news agency, a powerful deputy in the parliament, Mohammad Dehghan, revealed that the office of the Supreme Leader had assigned a group of legal experts to study the feasibility of a shift in the political structure of the country.
According to Dehghan, “This team has studied tens of articles in the constitution and they have identified some issues.” Dehghan reiterated that this team has been functioning under the supervision of the Office of the Supreme Leader and their findings have been sent to that office. Dehghan is referring to the constitutional articles related to the executive branch of the government.
There are many regime insiders who are worried about the future identity of the Islamic Republic. According to Aftab News, on October 25, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Head of the Expediency Council, protested the possibility of eliminating the presidency in Iran. He warned that the decision will further restrict the political environment and cautioned that this decision would “be contrary to the Constitution and would weaken the people’s power of choice.”
According to Rafsanjani’s official website, “Republicanism and Islamism are the two unalterable elements of the Islamic Republic,” and changing these pillars will ultimately alter the nature of the regime.
Grand Ayatollah Mousavi Ardabili, an important marja' (source of emulation for Shiite Muslims) who is close to Iran’s opposition movement, also criticized such a possible move. In a meeting with a group of journalists, the Grand Ayatollah said, "Changing the political system and selecting the president [or prime minister] by the parliament will decrease people's participation [in the national affairs of the state].”
Whether or not Khamenei decides to eliminate the presidency, there is little doubt he will continue to consolidate more power in his office. These days, the words of the late Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri ring more true than ever. Following the regime’s intense crackdown on political opposition in 2009, Montazeri declared that “The Islamic Republic is neither Islamic nor a Republic.”
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Abdo and Akbari.