IRAN'S HOPE FOR NORMALCY
By AMIR TAHERI
November 2, 2003 --
IN Iran's fractious politics there is one word on which almost everyone agrees. And it isn't even a Persian word, but the Latin word "referendum" (pronounced by Persians as "refrandoom"). These days almost everyone is talking about the need for holding a referendum - not always for the same reasons.
The argument is that the Constitution, hastily put together in 1979 in the heated aftermath of the revolution, is not working. The various mechanisms it envisaged for the exercise of power have produced a gridlock that prevents effective decision-making by a divided government. The only way out: Hold a constitutional referendum to approve amendments that would break the gridlock.
The current Constitution is a rough translation of the constitution of the French Fifth Republic introduced by Gen. Charles de Gaulle. It envisages a strong executive and a weak legislature, with the status of the judiciary left murky.
The problem is that the Iranians added a number of articles that break the inner logic of the French original. The most important of these express the doctrine of the "Walayat Faqih" (Custodianship of the Jurisconsult). They give a single mullah, referred to as "The Supreme Guide," virtually unlimited powers, thus rendering the Constitution superfluous.
The Supreme Guide is elected for life by the so-called Assembly of Experts, a body of 90 mullahs that also has the authority to remove him under highly unlikely circumstances. Once elected, the Supreme Guide becomes the center of power in the system. He is the head of state and must approve the heads of all three branches - the legislative, the judicial and the executive.
Some confusion is created because the head of the executive, known as president, is elected by direct universal suffrage. Yet the elected president cannot take office until an edict from the Supreme Guide approves his election.
At the same time, the Supreme Guide can always trigger constitutional mechanisms to dismiss the elected president. The Supreme Guide can also dissolve the elected Majlis or parliament. He can even suspend the basic rules of Islam, if and when he deems fit. No ruler in history has been given so much power as the Iranian "Supreme Guide" today.
The Constitution contains other anomalies. Its Council of The Guardians of Constitution is the equivalent of France's Constitutional Council - but Iran's council has a right of veto on all laws passed by the parliament. The French version has no such right, intervening only if asked to determine whether a piece of legislation violates the Constitution.
Iran's constitutional problems do not end there. Yet another body, the Council for the Discernment of the Interests of the System, can also intervene to cancel laws passed by the Majlis. In the past two years, the council has even claimed to have the right to pass laws on its own, without even referring to the Majlis.
The founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, initially opposed any constitution. Under the system of "Walayat Faqih" that he offered, there would be no elections, no parliament no president; the Supreme Guide would rule in the name of Divine Power. He would appoint a prime minister and a council of ministers to act as advisers and executors of his orders.
But Khomeini still needed the support of democrats, liberals and leftists to consolidate his hold on power. As a concession, he accepted the idea of a constitution. But at no point did he have the slightest intention of creating a constitutional system. And, for as long as he was alive, he acted as an absolute ruler, with no regard for any constitutional constraints.
His successor, Ali Khamenei, lacks the stature to continue that tradition. And the revolution is now but a faint memory for most Iranians. Some two-thirds of the populace were either not born or were too young to vote in the constitutional referendum that Khomeini organized almost a quarter of a century ago.
"A referendum would allow our people to decide what form of government they desire," says Mrs. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. The idea has also support from Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah who now leads the monarchist opposition, and the National Front, a dissident group built on the memory of Dr. Muhammad Mussadeq, the nationalist prime minister of the 1950s.
Some senior clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, call for a referendum as a way out of a political impasse that could lead to violence. "A referendum is better than a civil war," says Mohsen Kadivar, a pro-democracy mullah.
The referendum idea is also finding echoes within the ruling establishment. The Participation Front, a group that supported President Muhammad Khatami, has already called for constitutional amendment. And efforts are under way to form a new bloc of candidates for March's general election under the banner of a referendum. The idea has also received support from the remnants of half a dozen leftist parties.
Despite wide agreement that a referendum is necessary, when it comes to what questions should be put to the people's vote, views diverge. The monarchists and the leftists want a referendum that would abolish the Islamic Republic altogether, replacing it with a "constitutional monarchy" or a "People's Republic" in which religion has no place.
Others, however, want a revision of the existing Constitution. They want the position of the Supreme Guide abolished so that the Iranian system comes closer to that of its original model: the French Fifth Republic. The directly-elected president would be head of state, with large powers, including that of naming the prime minister. But he would not have the power to suspend the Constitution, let alone interfere with the rules of Islam.
The most minimalist position on referendum is that of those who simply want the "Council of the Guardians of the Constitution" and the "Council for the Discernment of the Interest of the System" to be abolished. Such an amendment would leave the powers of the Supreme Guide intact while enhancing the powers of the elected president and parliament.
The referendum issue is likely to emerge as the key theme of next March's general election. Right now, however, prospects for a referendum appear rather dim. On the contrary, some hard-line theorists around Khamenei are publicly calling for a suspension of the Constitution and a period of direct rule by "The Supreme Guide."
It may take some time before Iran makes a final choice between a peaceful referendum and violent regime change.
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