Can Iranians Change Their Political System?
January 16, 2004
The International Herald Tribune
A. William Samii
PRAGUE -- There has been an uproar in Iran over the hard-line Guardian Council's rejection of 3,533 out of 8,144 prospective candidates for the parliamentary election in February. Reformist legislators walked out of Parliament and mounted a sit-in. Some legislators and cabinet members, and all 27 provincial governors, threatened to resign. Regardless of how this crisis is resolved, it demonstrates all the problems with Iran's political system.
The Guardian Council comprises six clerics appointed by Iran's supreme leader, the unelected Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and six lawyers selected by the judiciary chief, who is appointed by the supreme leader. Its role in vetting electoral candidates is based on its interpretation of the constitutional article calling for it to "supervise elections."
This vetting process has upset many people for many years. Not only did the council reject hundreds of candidates before the February 2000 parliamentary polls, but it overturned the results in some constituencies where reformist candidates won. In response to past criticism, Khamenei has remarked that the council was the most important institution protecting the Islamic nature of the Iranian system and was duty-bound to "prevent infiltration of impure elements into pillars of the system."
Iran's popularly elected yet relatively powerless president, Mohammad Khatami, introduced legislation in 2002 that would limit the Guardian Council's role in elections, but the council also vets all legislation for its compatibility with Islam and the constitution; not surprisingly, it rejected Khatami's legislation several times.
The council's rejection of so many prospective candidates is striking, but what is truly unusual is its decision that 80 incumbent parliamentarians are ineligible.
The current crisis is likely to end in one of three ways. Rejected candidates have the opportunity to appeal to the Guardian Council, and there is the possibility, not unprecedented, that some of the rejections will be rescinded. This could be a face-saving outcome for all concerned, but there are unlikely to be thousands of successful appeals.
There also could be an election boycott, which has been threatened by several of the country's main reformist political parties, and which would probably lead to low voter turnout. The conservatives would not mind this - low turnout in the February 2003 municipal council elections allowed them to dominate the polls. On the other hand, the Iranian regime bases much of its legitimacy and credibility on holding regular elections with high participation. Indeed, it keeps the polling places open late, buses in voters and encourages public employees' participation.
The promise by President Khatami and the speaker of the Parliament, Mehdi Karrubi, to appeal to Khamenei reveals the third and most likely possibility. Khamenei said in a speech Monday to provincial governors, broadcast by state radio, that he saw elections as "ephemeral" events that nevertheless "generate enthusiasm" and "draw the people's attention." He urged Iran's governors to avoid tension and said the issue must be resolved through "legal channels." In the past this has meant that Khamenei would refer to another unelected body, the Expediency Council.
In the last few years the 35-member Expediency Council has sided with the Guardian Council on several important issues, possibly because six members are the clerics on the Guardian Council, another one is the judiciary chief, and most of the rest are conservative appointees of the supreme leader. In March 2003, for example, it decided to increase significantly the Guardian Council's budget for electoral activities, despite the protestations of the president and speaker.
The third possible outcome summarizes Iran's democratic dilemma - an unelected body has control over elections, and only an unelected official can overrule that body. For all the elections Iran holds, and for all the talk of reformists and religious democracy, the real decisions are made by a handful of conservative clerics operating behind closed doors.
In the presidential elections of 1997 and 2001, as well as the parliamentary election of 2000, Iranians voted in overwhelming numbers for reformist candidates who promised to change things. But the promises came to naught and Iranians came to see that their efforts are futile in the face of opposition from entrenched forces who can manipulate the system to maintain their grip on power.
Recognition of this situation is likely to keep voters at home on election day, and that is bad news for those who would like to see regime change without external intervention.
The writer is the senior regional analyst for Southwest Asia at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and prepares the weekly RFE/RL Iran Report (www.rferl.org/reports/iran-report). The views in this article are his own. http://www.iht.com/articles/125196.html
Bam Quake Death Toll Hits 41,000 - Iran Official
Jan. 16 TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) - The earthquake that flattened the ancient Silk Road city of Bam killed 41,000 people and the death toll could rise, a senior political aide told the official IRNA news agency Friday.
"Up to this point, 41,000 have been killed and the toll could reach 45,000," Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted as saying. http://abcnews.go.com/wire/World/reuters20040116_211.html