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IRAN: Ahmadinejad Aims to Provoke Constitutional Overhaul

Analysis by Farideh Farhi*

HONOLULU, Hawaii, U.S., Sep 14 2010 (IPS) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confrontational approach towards the Iranian parliament could turn into a wider systemic crisis and is provoking appeals for a much more resolute intervention by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But Khamenei’s attempts to defuse the conflict by asking both sides to set aside differences and show unity in the face of external pressure and enemies have so far proven ineffective.

As a result, the conflicts between the parliament, or Majles, and Ahmadinejad’s government are much deeper than ever, challenging other major institutions of the Islamic Republic, as well as the constitutionally approved processes for resolving conflicts among them.

Ahmadinejad’s challenge to parliament has taken several forms, beginning with his refusal to implement recent legislation on the grounds that the process by which it was passed violated the constitution.

Iran’s legislative process is indeed byzantine, but Ahmadinejad’s constitutional objection appears to be unfounded. As amended in 1989, the Islamic Republic’s constitution is clear that the Majles is the source of all legislation. The Guardian Council, in turn, decides whether all elements of the legislation passed are both constitutional and Islamic.

When the Guardian Council rejects bills, parliament generally goes along. But the body can also refer the rejected legislation to the Council for the Discernment of the Interest of the Islamic Order, often referred to as the Expediency Council. As the name implies, this institution can decide in favour of parliament it if finds the legislation serves the general interest of the country.

Indeed, the Expediency Council has upheld legislation in the past regarding issues as varied as increasing the minimum age of marriage for women to creating a more favourable environment for foreign investment.

This complicated procedure emerged when the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, established the Expediency Council in 1988 in response to the political deadlock between a left-wing parliament and a conservative Guardian Council in the mid-1980s. A 1989 constitutional revision codified the change.

Ahmadinejad is now challenging this process by refusing to disburse funds appropriated by the Majles and eventually approved by the Expediency Council. His argument is that the Expediency Council exceeded its constitutional authority by approving legislation requiring the government to disburse the funds.

Political motives are also involved. Although a member of the Expediency Council, Ahmadinejad has refused to attend its meetings in the past 17 months because of his open conflict with its chairman, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The latter, in turn, has made a point of holding regular meetings and inviting photographers to take pictures of the president’s empty seat.

The centre of the controversy is a 2009 bill to appropriate two billion dollars for the metro lines throughout Iran. After the bill was rejected by the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council sided with parliament in March 2010. The issue is politically fraught because Mohsen Hashemi, Rafsanjani’s son, heads the organisation that runs the metro.

The Tehran metro, Iran’s largest urban rail system, is also operated by the city of Tehran, whose mayor is a political rival of Ahmadinejad, and who has said he believes the system should be run by the central government.

Constitutional and political motives aside, Ahmadinejad’s refusal to implement the law prompted Ali Larijani, the Majles Speaker and another Ahmadinejad foe, to officially relay the enactment of the legislation to the appropriate ministries in July.

But, despite statements by both Khamenei and the Guardian Council upholding the legislation as constitutional, Ahmadinejad has refused to disburse the funds. As for the Guardian Council, its spokesperson has stated it has no “legal instruments” for taking up the issue once the Expediency Council has ruled.

As a result, Ahmadinejad has challenged the role and effectiveness of an institution that was specifically created by Khomeini himself to overcome such deadlocks.

Ahmadinejad has also challenged parliament itself. He has, for example, defied the requirement that the executive branch notify parliament of all regulations and guidelines implemented by the various ministries to enable lawmakers to assess their compatibility with the intent of their legislation.

His refusal is based on the argument that some parliamentary requirements are too onerous and make the execution of laws difficult.

According to a recent study by the Majles Research Center of a 15-month period ending in March 2010, the government complied with reporting requirements in only 59 percent of 195 laws. Moreover, most of the reports were filed late.

To solve this problem, Khamenei created a Working Group for Resolving the Differences between Parliament and the Government whose members were drawn from the government, parliament and the Guardian Council.

Despite 14 meetings so date, however, no progress has been made, according to Farhad Tajari, a frustrated conservative member from the Majles, who blamed intransigence on both sides.

Ahmadinejad further challenged parliament by contesting the body’s prerogative to amend government proposals. Last year, after parliament spent many months working on his subsidy reform plan, Ahmadinejad threatened to withdraw the whole legislation. With Khamenei’s intervention, parliament eventually agreed to give the president substantial leeway in implementing the subsidy reform, which is scheduled to take effect at the end of this month.

Now, however, the conflict centres around the Fifth Five- Year Economic Plan whose consideration is already one year late. Again, after months of parliamentary work on the plan, Ahmadinejad suddenly asked to withdraw the legislation, a manoeuvre apparently designed to force parliament to delete changes – some of them in consultation with the Expediency Council – it has made to the original bill. Khamenei’s intervention prevented the withdrawal but there is no agreement yet.

Left to its own powers, parliament seems unable or unwilling to enforce its will on the president. In principle, the body can summon him for questioning, and, if necessary, launch impeachment proceedings against him for failing to execute duly enacted laws.

But, in practice, such a process will never begin without a green light from Khamenei.

The Leader himself, however, appears unwilling to end the impasse by intervening more forcefully.

In his meetings with various groups of officials, Khamenei has, on the one hand, called on parliament to avoid hindering the president in implementing laws, and, on the other, criticised the government’s deviations from long-term economic plans approved by both parliament and the Expediency Council.

His apparent ambivalence has resulted in growing frustration, particularly in the Majles. Given the Leader’s constitutional role as “the coordinator of relations among branches”, said Mohammad-reza Tabesh recently, the leader of the reformist caucus in parliament, “he has to intervene so that it becomes clear where the government is right and where parliament [is right].”

Khamenei’s reticence, however, may be calculated. The more people call upon him to intervene, the more elevated and essential he appears. This is probably something he cherishes in the wake of the post-2009 election challenge to the legitimacy of his office by the opposition Green Movement.

But the legislative impasse may also prove politically costly. Already charged by the opposition with being a repressive autocrat, his failure to resolve key institutional questions fundamental to the functioning of the Islamic Republic makes him appear weak and ineffective, even to a growing number of his loyalists.

*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate of the Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

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