Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

In Iran, democracy wrestles with clerical authority

With a vibrant and often polarised political culture, Iran is arguably more tolerant of debate than many countries in the region. But there are also limits.

23 August 2006
The Hindu

In Iran, democracy wrestles with clerical authority

Siddharth Varadarajan

NEARLY THREE decades after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the Islamic Republic has managed to create a political system and society that defy easy description.

Direct popular elections are held regularly for the post of President, the Majlis, or Parliament, as well as for the all-important Majlis-e-Khobregan, or Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for selecting, overseeing and even dismissing Iran’s powerful Supreme Leader, or Vali-e-Faqih. Yet, no candidate can contest any election unless his or her name is cleared by the Guardian Council, half of whose members are chosen by the Supreme Leader and half by Parliament. On paper, this complicated system of interlocking supervision is meant to create checks and balances but in reality, it is the Supreme Leader — earlier Ayatollah Khomeini, and now Ayatollah Khamenei — who has virtually unlimited authority.

The end result is an Islamic Republic that is more `Islamic’ than republic, in which democracy flourishes but squarely within the limits established by the Supreme Leader’s ultimate oversight.

There is contestation in political life and the print media too reflects this diversity. Mehdi Karroubi, a former Majlis Speaker and the leading reformist contender for President in the 2005 elections, publicly accused the authorities of rigging the first round in order to push him to third place and out of the run-off. In an interview to The Hindu at his Tehran office earlier this month, he repeated his accusation. But with an eye to the future, he has started a new party and newspaper, both called `Ettemad-e-Milli’, and is busy preparing for the next round of elections, including to the Guardian Council. Ettemad-e-Milli editor Javed Haghshenas regularly takes on the Ahmadinejad government on a range of issues, including economic mismanagement. Newspapers which are too critical are sometimes shut down, only to resume publication the next morning under a new name. “The government got upset when our cartoonist did a caricature of the President,” he said. “But as you can see, we continue to come out.”

Society, too, has moved on. There is greater freedom than in the early revolutionary years and despite the hold of the clerics, some slackening of the hold of religion, especially on the youth, has also occurred. One university administrator who had been a student before the revolution said there is far greater discussion of politics on campus today than during the Shah’s time when students and academics feared the control of Savak, the secret service. “Back then, the prayer room at the university used to be full. Now, kids go there to rest or sleep.”

Conservatives ascendant

Throughout much of the past two decades, `pragmatists’ and `reformists’ favouring greater openness had the upper hand within the elected sphere. But since the 2004 Majlis elections, in which hundreds of reformists were summarily disqualified by the Guardian Council, and the 2005 presidential election which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won handily, it is the “conservatives” and “radicals” who are increasingly setting the agenda.

But even here, the system is capable of surprises. When Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected, most urban women braced themselves for stricter enforcement of the public dress code which requires female hair to be covered at all times and the body to be cloaked in a loose-fitting coat or robe known as a manteau. Not only has that not happened yet — as can be seen from the stylistic licence many middle class women take with their manteaux — the President went a step forward and announced, to the consternation of conservative clerics, that he favoured women entering stadiums to see men play football.

At the same time, the recent conservative ascendancy is no ordinary swing of the political pendulum. Said one analyst on condition of anonymity: “There has never been a time when all branches of government have been so united. In Khatami’s time, and even Rafsanjani’s, officials and leaders in government, the majlis and the various councils, tended to have different ideas. But in the set-up today, the ideas are uniform. And I think this is what is leading to a certain sense of alienation and disenchantment among the youth.”

For the past two decades, the primary function of the Supreme Leader has been to balance the pushes and pulls from different factions in government. Today, with virtually everybody in government pushing in the same direction and with high oil prices providing unprecedented fiscal power to President Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei is seen as looking for ways to temper this concentration of power. Among the steps he has taken is accommodating prominent non-conservatives like Mr. Rafsanjani, who lost the presidential elections to Mr. Ahmadinejad last year, and former foreign ministers Kamal Kharazzi and Ali Akbar Velayati in the power structure.

“The leader has veto power when major decision-makers are at an impasse but I don’t think he involves himself in the nitty-gritty of the nuclear issue, for example,” one prominent academic said. And yet, the fact that one individual can enjoy powers which place him above the constitution is a source of profound discomfort for many, even if public criticism of the system is relatively rare. One exception is Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, a philosopher and religious scholar who has been arguing for nearly a decade that the Vali-e-Faqih system is incompatible with both Islam and democracy.

In an interview to The Hindu, Dr. Kadivar, a professor at the Tarbiat Modarres University, said that the case for a Supreme Leader standing above the Constitution could not be made by recourse to the Quran, the teachings of the Prophet, Shia doctrine, or reason. “Even in practice, Iran’s constitution 100 years ago did not grant the monarch as much power as the Supreme Leader enjoys in legal terms today,” he said.

In his book, Hukumat-e-Velayi, Dr. Kadivar criticised the Supreme Leader theory in terms of jurisprudence. He argued that the system was a mixture of Plato’s theory of the philosopher-king, Ibn-e-Arabi’s mystic idea of the “perfect individual” and the ancient concept of Iranian kingship as propounded in the Shahnama of Firdousi and elsewhere.

“The mixture of these concepts is Velayat-e-Faqih and they wrote this into the Constitution,” says the soft-spoken cleric who is widely regarded as one of Iran’s most prominent reformist intellectuals. “[In jurisprudence], velayat refers to authority that is akin to that which a father exerts over minor children… This is a very dangerous concept.” Soon after his book came out about eight years ago, Dr. Kadivar was sent to prison. “Officially, I was not jailed because of the book but for some speeches and interviews… I had called the regime here an `Islamic Kingdom’ and they said this was a crime and imprisoned me for 18 months.”

Later, the head of the special court for the clergy sent word that he had made a mistake. “Before, no one knew you and now everyone does. But if you go to prison again, it will be for a long time,” Dr. Kadivar was told.

Though he has not been imprisoned since then, Dr. Kadivar says he is subject to other limitations. “For example, no newspaper wants to publish my political articles. And publishing books nowadays is also very difficult because it needs permission from the ministry.” The rule for books was always there but it was rarely enforced during the Rafsanjani or Khatami presidencies. “Three months ago, I wanted to speak at a seminar on the first decade of the Iranian constitution at Sorbonne and the School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London. Forty-eight hours before I was to leave, I was told by the president of my university that I was not allowed to go as my leave had been cancelled!”

Dr. Kadivar also says that his lectures on philosophy are recorded without his permission and that two months ago, the university authorities told him he could not meet any foreigner in his office without permission a week in advance.

Right to democracy

Asked how his views on current affairs differed from those of the establishment, Dr. Kadivar said the most important differences were on domestic issues. “But even in foreign policy, nuclear energy is not the most important point for the reformists. We have many other rights too, including the right to be free. But for conservatives, the nuclear right is the first right of Iranians, more important than other rights… The regime sees nuclear energy as a currency of power but our problem is we need democracy.”

On his part, Dr. Karroubi doesn’t minimise the importance of the nuclear issue for Iran. But asked how he might have handled things had he been elected president, he says confidence building is the key. “Iran should not do anything which will lead to sanctions… We should negotiate according to our principles… but this issue should be solved peacefully.” The U.S., he said, is sticking to its positions out of pride so there are difficulties. “But if there is dialogue on a fair basis, a just basis, a solution can be found.”

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This entry was posted on August 23, 2006 by in Iran.

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