In mid-October, Supreme leader Ali Khamenei said in a speech that Iran’s executive presidency could be replaced by a parliamentary government if the interests of the state required it. The president, he implied, could be replaced by a prime minister. The remark, out of the blue, initially seemed off-hand, but now appears to have been quite deliberate and premeditated.
Ten days later, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, who is close to the Supreme Leader, endorsed and elaborated on the idea. He described Khamenei’s remarks as “instructions” and said the leader was not speaking of replacing the president with a prime minister but electing him by parliament rather than in a popular vote. The Assembly of Experts, Larijani said, select the leader in their role as representatives of the people; the same principle could be applied to the selection of the president.
The Majlis would work better with the president if the deputies elected him, Larijani said. Changing the system would also eliminate the difficulties and differences between president and parliament that Iran has recently experienced, he remarked. Larijani described the current stand-off between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Majlis as a “structural problem” and an “ailment” in the system that needs to be addressed.
Larijani’s remarks suggest that Khamenei is more serious about the idea of a change in the current system than first assumed, even though both Khamenei and Larijani have been careful to say that any change might be made in the future, even “the far distant future.” Others in the political class seem to sense that something is afoot as well. A week later, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who rarely disagrees with Khamenei in public, strongly opposed the election of the president by any means other than a popular vote. Such a change, he said on his website, would weaken the republican character of Iran’s governmental system and “limit the power of the people.”
Other key institutions are now taking sides, indicating that Khamenei's initiative is picking up steam. On Oct. 29, Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhoda’i said that a change from a presidential to a parliamentary system "would not in any way undermine the republican character" of the Islamic Republic. The same day, Mohammad Dehqan, a member of parliament’s governing council, speculated that the Supreme Leader may summon a constituent assembly to change the rules before the 2013 presidential election--and that the scheduled popular election of the president may not even take place.
Khamenei’s unexpected proposal may be explained partly by recent tensions between parliament and President Ahmadinejad over several issues. Ahmadinejad’s style has annoyed the Majlis. He has ignored parliament’s directives, acted on budget matters without parliamentary approval, and treated the Majlis with contempt. Yet issues with a single president cannot explain why Khamenei would suggest a fundamental change in the whole system of government, a change that is bound to prove highly controversial. And Ahmadinejad’s second and last term in office is due to end in mid-2013—less than two years.
The deeper reason may lie in Khamenei’s experience with all three presidents since he became Supreme Leader in 1989. Ironically, Khamenei is a former president too. He was elevated to the leadership after the sudden death of Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini—the same time that the system of government was changed from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency. The change was orchestrated by Rafsanjani, Khamenei’s arch political rival. Rafsanjani became the first executive president, a move designed to centralize authority, divided then between president and prime minister.
More than two decades later, the Supreme Leader still has final authority, but the president has remained a rival centre of power. Each of the three past presidents--Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami--put his own distinct stamp on policy and the country’s direction. Khamenei succeeded in checking Rafsanjani’s authority. But Khatami’s reformist agenda posed a serious risk to the ruling system; even today, the appeal of Khatami’s idea of an Islamic Republic based on the rule of law, political pluralism, freedom of press and association and limited government has wide appeal. Khamenei initially and strongly backed Ahmadinejad as president in 2005. But the prickly and independent Ahmadinejad then brought in his own team of political favorites and pushed his own agenda on domestic and foreign policy.
The timing may be related to election season, with the parliament poll due in March 2012 and presidential elections in 2013. Khamenei may have concluded that a president selected by parliament rather than the people will prove more pliant as well as work better with the parliamentary majority.
Eliminating the presidential system would still require convening a constituent assembly to write a constitutional amendment. Its formal name is the “Council for the Revision of the Constitution.” This council is composed almost entirely of members of government institutions: heads of the three elected branches, members of the Council of Guardians, members of the Expediency Council, representatives of parliament and the judiciary as well as direct appointees of the Leader)—men who are likely to do as they are bid.
The leader must consult with the Expediency Council, notably now headed by Rafsanjani, before summoning the constituent assembly. Rafsanjani has already expressed doubts over letting Majlis handle the president’s selection, but it seems doubtful the other members this council would oppose the Leader’s wishes. Whatever the pressures, Khamenei is not bound by their advice.
As Rafsanjani indicated, empowering the Majlis to select the president will inevitably be seen by the public and some politicians as an attack on popular sovereignty and the popular will. Khamenei’s unexpected move has opened a Pandora’s Box—and potentially many problems. But his initiative is only in the opening phase; numerous hurdles must be overcome before it becomes a political reality.
Read Shaul Bakhash's chapter on the Six Presidents in "The Iran Primer"
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.
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