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Reformist power in Iran at last?

Reformist power in Iran at last?

By Karan Kochhar

Iran this week witnessed the swearing-in of Hassan Rouhani, a reformist, as the President of Iran. This would be the second time that Rouhani has been elected as Iran’s leader. In the Presidential elections held in May 2017, Rouhani won a resounding 57% majority, compared to the current Supreme Leader’s favoured Ebrahim Raisi, who won 38.5% of the total votes cast. Rouhani winning a majority indicates a society, deeply frustrated by the hardliners, who have ruled Iran for far too long. However, Raisi, consolidating a 38.5% vote bank underscores the deeply ingrained powerful clergy in the political structure of the country.

While a multitude of people in Iran came out to the streets in support of Hassan Rouhani, the question that instilled doubts in many critics is the efficacy of ‘electing a moderate’ in a system that is structurally biased towards an orthodox. The political structure drafted after the 1979 Islamic revolution and consolidated over the next decade by Khomeini ensures Islamic Jurisprudence. Rouhani’s propaganda of a free economy with larger individual rights runs in contradiction to this. The difference in ideology was evident when Rouhani accused the Revolutionary Guard Corps of trying to sabotage Iran’s proposed nuclear deal with the P5+1.

Khomeini’s vision: An Islamic Republic

The growing disenchantment with the Shah’s policy of secularisation and modernisation in the 1960s lost him the support of the clergy as well as the ‘bazaaris,’ with vociferous opposition coming from Ruhollah Khomeini. The Shah, diagnosed with a terminal disease eventually relinquished power, paving the way for Khomeini, who in a series of compromises and referendums formed the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The result, which Khomeini desperately vied for was a country governed by Sharia law: the dominance of clergy over that which existed in the society. Khomeini, the then Supreme Leader of the country—a position he reserved for himself—along with the support of the clergy and nationalists, drafted the constitution in a way that the final arbiter would become the clergy. Although he strongly emphasized that religious leaders refrain from participating in day-to-day politics, the constitution that Khomeini drafted ensured that the real power lay in the hands of clergy.

The Supreme leader of the country consolidated power & dispersed with the other political factions, especially during the seven-year war in Iraq, where he used the inspire young people to fight for the country and the religion, terming Saddam Hussein as an apostate.

The Guardian Council and the Majlis

To give an idea of how strong the clergy is to look at the electoral system of the country. Everyone in the country possessing the necessary identity documents is eligible to register for the elections. However, to run in an election, the person should be vetted by the Guardian Council, the most powerful governing body of six clergymen and six jurists.

Religious devotion, among others, serves as the most basic criteria for selection. In 2004, the current supreme leader Khamenei consolidated power for himself, barring hundreds of reformists from taking part in the Presidential race. This year, about 1,600 Iranian citizens registered for the election, however, only six were approved by the Guardian Council. All 137 female candidates were disqualified.  The free will of the people is strongly curtailed by the Guardian Council, who might already be biased for a single candidate, like Raisi this year.

Even in the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, an elected body of 290 members from 207 districts, the situation is seen to favour the democratic choice, but this is not the case. Though, the divisional members of Majlis are elected by popular vote, the legislations passed by the Majlis must be endorsed by the Guardian Council, who has the power to veto any piece of legislation that it deems un-Islamic. The power to veto any bill severely retains the power of the Majlis to pass any reformist measure. Rouhani, in his Presidential campaign, had promised to enlarge individual and political rights. However, considering the political structure of Iran, Rouhani will face a tough time delivering on these promises.

The (Pseudo) President of Iran

The President of Iran is officially the highest post that a candidate can be elected for in Iran. However, the President always acts as a subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who is the final arbiter of the issues of critical importance such as foreign policy, nuclear deals, declaration of war, etc. He is also the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the head of military intelligence. However, the most influential of all is the power to elect six out of the twelve members of the Guardian Council, implicitly influencing the decision to elect Presidential candidates.

However, the President, as stated in the Constitution is the executive, performing duties that range from appointing heads of cabinets, Vice-Presidents, ambassadors to the planning of the national budget. Although elected by a popular vote, the responsibilities of the President are not only curtailed by the Supreme leader but also don’t have any significant responsibilities to begin with.

Is it worth it?

Riding on a reformist agenda, Rouhani had made many promises to the Iranian society espousing broader fundamental rights to citizens and advocating women’s rights. He passionately campaigned to reduce gender discrimination and defended participation in public spheres. The women and family chapter for his next administration includes several steps to increase women’s participation in high level management positions. In doing so, he directly attacked the pillars of what Khomeini had constructed.  The reforms Rouhani plans to institute in Iran are radical for the Iranian clergy and he is already facing pressure from the hardliners to not include females in his cabinet.

Such disparities in ideology have not served well for the Iranian growth. When Iran elected a reformist Khatami as a President in 1997, he replaced the heads of security with the reformist, a department usually a traditionalist. Supreme leader Khamenei responded by shutting down critical institutions of democracy such as the radio and the newspaper. The in-fighting resulted in a leadership that was not conducive to growth, even though a moderate President was in power.


Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt

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