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February 17, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 800

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Iranian Regime vs. President Ahmadinejad – Part III: Restructuring the Regime and Abolishing the Presidency as an Institutional Means to Eliminate Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani

February 17, 2012 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 800

Introduction

The present article, the last in the series on the schism within the Iranian leadership, focuses on the move by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to abolish the presidential regime in Iran and replace it with a parliamentary regime, as an institutional means of eliminating his rivals, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The lead-up to the upcoming Majlis elections, scheduled for early March 2012, saw an intense public debate over the issue of changing the political system. The debate was sparked by a speech Khamenei gave in Kermanshah on October 16, 2011, in which he hinted at the possibility of eliminating the post of president and instating a parliamentary system in which the head of the executive branch of government is elected by the Majlis.[1] Khamenei noted that this idea will only be implemented in the distant future, and only if necessary, yet his speech was perceived as ground breaking and as heralding a significant, and perhaps imminent, change in the structure of the regime.[2] Some even assessed that the next presidential elections, slated for 2013, would be canceled.[3] As part of the initiative, some also suggested to abolish the Expediency Council, headed by Rafsanjani, and to transform it into a second house of parliament. However, in the course of the ensuing public debate, many pointed out that the shift to parliamentary rule might be difficult, because Iran lacks a tradition of party politics.

It seems that the initiative to replace the directly elected president with a Majlis-elected prime minister (or president) is meant to help Khamenei achieve two goals; first, the goal of removing the ideological, political and personal threat that Ahmadinejad and his associates pose to his rule and to the current character of the Iranian regime;[4] second, the goal of politically eliminating his rival and former ally Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has already been removed from the centers of power and today serves only as the head of the Expediency Council. Even if there is no intention to implement the change in the near future, merely raising the possibility of abolishing the presidency and instating a parliamentary regime, especially so soon before the Majlis elections, is a clear signal to Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani that their place in the Iranian leadership is shaky.

It should be mentioned that, until 1989, Iran had both a dual system, with a president and a prime minister whom were both subordinate to then-supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. From 1981, the role of president was discharged by Khamenei himself (who, following Khomeini's death was elevated to the status of Ayatollah and appointed Supreme Leader), and the prime minister was Mir Hossein Mousavi.[5] After Khomeini's death, the role of prime minister was abolished, and Iran adopted the present system, in which the Supreme Leader, the jurisprudent ruler, is appointed by the Assembly of Experts (since 1989, this role has been discharged by Khamenei), whereas the president, subordinate to the Supreme Leader, is elected by the people and can serve a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms. It should be mentioned that changes to the character of the presidency have been suggested from time to time: for instance in 1997, just before the end of Rafsanjani's presidency, with an eye to allowing him a third term in office, and also during the presidency of Khatami, who wished to expand his presidential powers (the status of the presidency has always been fluid in Iran, and considerably influenced by the president's relationship with Supreme Leader Khamenei).[6]

Khamenei: The Shift from a Presidential Regime to a Parliamentary One Does Not Present a Problem

In his October 16, 2011 speech in Kermanshah, before an audience of academics, Khamenei said: "The country's current political system is a presidential one, [in which] the president is elected directly by the people. This is a good and effective system. However, if in the future – probably in the distant future – it is deemed that a parliamentary regime, [in which the parliament] appoints the heads of the executive branch, is preferable, changing the current structure [of the regime] will present no problem." Khamenei noted that changes to the structure of the regime had already been made during the 1980s, when the position of prime minister was abolished on the instructions of the regime founder, Ayatollah Khomeini.[7]

Pro-Khamenei Majlis Member Dehghan Calls to Abolish Presidency and Establish Two-House Parliamentary System

In an October 24, 2011 interview with the Mehr news agency, Majlis Presiding Board member Mohammad Dehghan developed Khamenei's ideas by proposing to dissolve the Expediency Council (chaired by Rafsanjani) and turn it into a second house of parliament. "The political structure [of the regime] is not an immutable principle," he said. "The only immutable principle of the regime is 'the rule of the jurisprudent,' because changing this principle entails the collapse of the Islamic regime, and that is why the constitution precludes this option." Dehghan noted that it is possible to make changes to the "second tier" of the regime (i.e., all institutions other than that of the jurisprudent ruler): "Our regime is a combination of a parliamentary system and a presidential system, subordinate to the rule of the jurisprudent, [so] there is always intense conflict between [the two].

"In the early period of the Islamic Revolution [regime], the constitution granted the parliament a wide scope [of operations], and the state officials acted under its supervision. But in 1989, the position of prime minister was abolished, and the president was granted extensive powers that clash with those of the parliament. In many instances, the solidarity and internal cohesion of the regime were undermined and put to the test. The Supreme Leader, who is supposed to deal with general issues that concern the regime and to shape its general orientation, is often forced to intervene in conflicts between the parliament and the president, which reflects the flaws in the current state [of the regime].

"Today our country has a single parliament, but someday we may decide that it is preferable to have two [houses of] parliament. Changing and reorganizing the political structure of the second tier of the Islamic regime is not a reprehensible act. In fact, it may be an inevitable necessity. Khamenei's statements point clearly to the fact... that, owing to the lack of coordination between the Majlis and the government during [Ahmadinejad's] two terms, much of the energy [of the Majlis] and the government has been wasted on settling disputes [this refers to the conflicts between the Majlis and President Ahmadinejad]... and on neutralizing one another's efforts..."

Dehghan added that the advantage of a parliamentary regime is that "the prime minister will be accountable to the jurisprudent ruler and to the parliament... If the door is opened to reassessing the constitution, and a committee for redrafting [the constitution] is formed, we can change the [regime] mechanisms. We must not establish mechanisms that neutralize one another [like those we have today]... but mechanisms that assist one another." He stated further that "[Khamenei's] suggestions are very important in themselves, but what is more important is opening the door to a dialogue on the political structure of the regime... The rule of the jurisprudent is more suitable to parliamentary rule, [which] could be sufficient for maintaining an Islamic regime... [However,] without a party system, we will not be able to advance towards a parliamentary regime."

Regarding the Expediency Council, Dehghan said: "If we plan [to instate] a two-house parliamentary regime, while also improving the organizational [aspect] and the party [system] and abolishing the presidency, we can also dissolve the Expediency Council and replace it with a second [house of] parliament. The constitution redrafting committee should consider this plan, because it could lead to an improvement in the functioning [of the regime]."[8]

Feeble Response from Ahmadinejad's Circle

Ahmadinejad's supporters largely refrained from responding to the initiative, which they understood is aimed against them. Commenting on this issue on Al-Jazeera's English channel, Ahmadinejad dismissed the issue, saying: "The Leader [Khamenei] spoke at a conference of students and academics, so [his statements] were an academic response to an academic question. There is nothing noteworthy here. The constitution is very clear in setting out the authorities of the [regime's] top officials."[9]

Ahmadinejad's advisor on parliamentary affairs, Mohammad Reza Mir Taj Al-Dini, said in an interview with Fars that the shift to parliamentary rule, though proposed by Khamenei, would have to be inspected by professional academic circles independently of political considerations. There is need to examine the implications of having the prime minister elected by the Majlis, rather than the people, he said, and to "avoid any steps that would weaken the role of the people [in the regime]."[10]

Earlier, the government mouthpiece Iran, which is associated with the president's circles, expressed reservations about the notion of letting the Majlis appoint the president, and explained that the advocates of this initiative – namely the pro-Khamenei conservatives – wished to position themselves as the "political elite."[11]

Khamenei Supporters: A Parliamentary System Will Keep the President in Check and Improve Coordination among Government Branches

Advocates of the initiative were mostly individuals who, after the schism between the supreme leader and the president became public, identified themselves squarely as supporters of the former. Most of them stressed that the initiative was not a personal attack on Ahmadinejad, but at the same time stated that the severe disagreements between the president and the Majlis were the main motivation for proposing it.[12] They explained that the new system would eliminate the quarrels and disputes between the Majlis and the president that have characterized Ahmadinejad's presidency, because the president would be accountable to the Majlis that elected him.[13]

Conservative cleric Mohsen Gharavian, a pupil of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi, spoke in a similar vein in an October 24 interview with the website Asr-e Iran: "The advantage of the [new] system is that the Majlis will be able to make demands of the president, because [the Majlis] itself will appoint him. Today there are conflicts between the government and the Majlis, both of whom say, 'we enjoy the support and backing of the voters.' Today the Majlis is limited in its ability to make demands of the president... In my opinion, these conflicts are the main reason that prompted [Supreme] Leader [Khamenei] to propose this idea..." Gharavian assessed that the change will be effected before the next presidential elections (slated for 2013), and added that Khamenei's speech on this matter had been positively received in religious circles and seminars. [14]

In an October 25 interview with Mehr, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani likewise praised the efficiency of the proposed parliamentary system: "[This] system will make the regime more disciplined, so that less time will be wasted on coordinating the three branches of government. It's a step forward... that will simplify the decision making process and minimize disagreement."

Larijani: The Root of the Problem Is the President's Personality

However, being a bitter opponent of Ahmadinejad on the personal and ideological level, Larijani stressed that the problem was rooted more in the personality of the president than in the system of government: "The present situation has many advantages too, and there is no problem," he said. "The regime, as it is [currently defined] by the constitution, is good and allows [the country] to function properly. Some of the problems [we are experiencing] have to do with the character and experience [of specific officials]... It is necessary to be careful and select the right kind of people to roles like the presidency, which is a very sensitive role. In a parliamentary system, the people's elected [representatives] carefully examine the experience, executive record, and political and diplomatic acumen of the presidential candidates."

Despite being an associate of Khamenei, Larijani did express some reservations about the shift to parliamentary rule, albeit very cautiously. He said that such systems "succeed in countries that have large [political] parties, because these parties serve as screening mechanisms, giving prominence to individuals with sufficient tenure and experience." Iran, he said, lacked solid ideological parties and a strong tradition of party politics, which would make it difficult to effect the [proposed] change in the political system.[15] Asked about the notion of restoring the role of prime minister, which was abolished in 1989, Larijani said that, as far as he could tell from Khamenei's speech, the Supreme Leader did not intend to do this, "but only to instate a [system whereby] the president is appointed by the people's representatives [i.e., the Majlis]."

Larijani rejected claims in the Western media that Khamenei's initiative was a bid to instate a dictatorship in Iran and hobble the president, saying: "The [Supreme] Leader's proposals are the opposite of dictatorship. [Allowing] the people's representatives [i.e., the Majlis] to elect the president means that that the Majlis will tightly supervise the president and rebuke him [when necessary]... The president will have to be accountable to the Majlis in all matters... [He] will have the same powers he has under the [current] presidential system, but he will have to be accountable to the nation... The claims of Western analysts, that a parliamentary regime in Iran would lead to dictatorship, are nothing but slander. If this is so, then England is undoubtedly a dictatorship, because its prime minister is elected by parliament."[16]

Rafsanjani: Switching to Parliamentary Rule Will Harm the Republican Character of the Regime

Hashemi Rafsanjani was Khamenei's partner in leadership since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. His status was even upgraded on the eve of Ahmadinejad's first election to president in 2005, when Khamenei made him number two in the regime.[17] However, since the June 2009 unrest, his political status has deteriorated. In March 2011 Khamenei gave the order to remove him as chairman of the Assembly of Experts,[18] apparently in response to his involvement, albeit behind the scenes, in the "Green Movement" and his criticism of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad during and after the social unrest following the 2009 presidential elections. Today he serves only as the head of the Expediency Council. Moreover, in July 2011 Khamenei established the Supreme Board for Arbitration and Coordination of Relations between the Three Branches of Government, thus removing one of the roles of Rafsanjani's Expediency Council, namely the role of mediating between the Majlis and the Guardian Council.[19]

In a meeting with journalists on October 24, 2011, Rafsanjani expressed his objection to parliamentary rule, and to dissolving the Expediency Council, which he heads, claiming that it would harm the republican nature of the regime and the people's participation in governance: "According to the constitution, [the principles] of republicanism and Islamism are the two foundations of the Islamic Republic regime, and they cannot be changed. [Supreme] Leader [Khamenei] postponed the issue [of switching to parliamentary rule] to the distant future, explaining that it requires examination. [Indeed,] implementing such a goal requires changing the constitution and the mechanisms of the regime, as well as the republican [basis] of the regime. If the regime's republicanism becomes weaker – which contravenes the constitution – and the people's voting power is diminished, then undoubtedly, this was not the intention of the Leader [Khamenei]."

Rafsanjani stressed that the council he chairs is vital to the functioning of the regime since it is "one of the centers where the experience and ideas of regime veterans are used [to good advantage]. In fact, the members of the council constitute the regime's think tank and most experienced cadre, and they properly oversee issues and problems."[20]


Rafsanjani, furious with Khamenei, who is taking a match to the "republicanism" of the regime, says: "Damn me for making you leader!"
[21]

Kayhan Against Rafsanjani: The Move Will Not Harm the Republican Character of the Regime

The daily Kayhan, which is close to Khamenei, rejected Rafsanjani's objection to the move and his warning that it would undermine the regime's republican character. The daily explained that Rafsanjani's statements reflected "miscomprehension of the issue... A presidential regime is not the only tenet of republicanism, and a parliamentary rule does not contradict republicanism. The world already has republics that are partly presidential and partly parliamentary. In the parliamentary system, the voice of the people [in elections] still plays a prominent role."[22]

Mohsen Gharavian likewise stated that the regime "would remain republican, in that [the people] would [still] elect delegates [to parliament]... We can maintain an Islamic regime while preserving republicanism... We can use the indirect democratic model, whereby the people elect delegates to parliament and [these delegates] elect the head of the executive branch, who [serves] as president or prime minister. This system is more professional [than the presidential one]. The delegates elected by the people are experts in various fields and possess greater knowledge of political and social issues. They elect the president. This too is a type of democracy, since the people elect the parliament that elects the president. In this system, we will pay a lesser price [than under the current system]."[23]

IRGC deputy commander for cultural affairs Hamid-Reza Moqadam-Far said that Rafsanjani had failed to understand Khamenei's proposal – a proposal which proves that the regime is dynamic and flexible. He added: "The issue of parliamentary rule has been discussed for a long time, and has been under consideration since the drafting of the constitution. During the [2009 presidential] elections, when we faced problems, several [people] raised this issue [again]."[24]

Estimation: Khamenei Is Trying to Get Rid of Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad

The website Parsine, which is close to Khamenei supporters, mentioned that the current term of the Expediency Council (whose members are personally appointed by Khamenei) is about to end, and estimated that Khamenei would replace Rafsanjani as council chairman – which would spell "the end of Rafsanjani's political life in the regime." The website implied that this move is required, since, during its next term, the council is expected to discuss redrafting the constitution as part of switching to parliamentary rule.[25]

The website Digarban, which opposes the regime and operates from outside Iran, also estimated that this move was aimed against Rafsanjani. According to the website, "conservative, pro-Khamenei [circles] are angry at Rafsanjani and a group of [other] Expediency Council members due to their positions during the [2009] election crisis. [Therefore] they welcome his ouster or the dissolution of this council, which will bring about the 'political death' of Rafsanjani."[26]

Khamenei's associate Jafar Shojouni, a member of the Combatant Cleric Association, downplayed the importance of the Expediency Council, saying that it had acted contrary to the regime's interests during the election crisis. He claimed sarcastically that "those who cannot identify their own interests cannot make decisions regarding the interests of the regime."[27]

In an interview with Bultan News, Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar [bin Yasser] Headquarters (a think tank of Khamenei supporters in the regime) expressed the dissatisfaction of the regime – meaning Leader Khamenei – with Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad: "Mr. Hashemi and his ilk should be concerned for themselves, [since the] people no longer need his clarifications or declarations... In my opinion, the usefulness of people like Hashemi [for the regime]... has expired, since he is no longer an authority for the people. We had expectations from Hashemi... and we had [even higher] expectations from Ahmadinejad."[28]

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] The notion of replacing the presidential system with a parliamentary one was raised in September 2011 by Hamid Reza Katouzian, head of the Majlis Energy Committee. He said that several Majlis members were discussing the idea of instating a parliamentary system, which would mean that the regime's top executive authority would be a prime minister elected by the Majlis, (rather than the president, who is elected directly by the people). He added that this change would lead to greater accountability of the government to the parliament, and that it was "being considered in many circles." ILNA (Iran), September 21, 2011.

[2] For example, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai described Khamenei's speech as an "opening" for changes in the regime, and expressed his support for the notion. Mehr (Iran), October 30, 2011.

[3] This was stated, for example, by Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei in an October 29 interview with Fars. He described Khamenei's speech as "a very important turning point for [Iranian] society," adding that "the recommendations of Leader [Khamenei] are valid and to the point... The structure of the regime and the constitution is open to change, just like any other man-made [mechanism], as long as the [regime's] principles and values are preserved."

[4] On this threat, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.773, "Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Iranian Regime vs. President Ahmadinejad – Part I: Messianic Group Threatens the Regime," December 14, 2011, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Iranian Regime vs. President Ahmadinejad – Part I: Messianic Group Threatens the Regime.

[5] About the murky relations between Khamenei and Moussavi at the time, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.522, "Elections in Iran – Part II," June 9, 2009, http://www.memri.org/legacy/report/3346#_ednref10.

[6] On the Iranian presidency, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.221, "The Upcoming Presidential Elections in Iran (Part I): The Candidates," May 10, 2005, The Upcoming Presidential Elections in Iran (Part I): The Candidates. Assembly of Experts member Jafar Sobhani, who was a member of the committee that drafted the Iranian constitution, said that this committee did not mean to grant the presidency the extensive powers it has since gained. Kayhan (Iran), February 5, 2012.

[7] Leader.ir, October 16, 2011. On October 29, Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei revealed that a joint work team of Majlis, government, and Guardian Council representatives is discussing the proposed change in the political system, and that the change would be effected by activating Article 177 of the constitution "at Khamenei's discretion and whenever necessary." Fars (Iran), October 29, 2011. Article 177 deals with amending the constitution, and states that proposed amendments must be assessed by a committee comprising representatives of the Supreme Leader, the Expediency Council, the Assembly of Experts, the Majlis, the judiciary, and academics, whose recommendations are submitted to the Supreme Leader for approval and subsequently ratified by public referendum.

[8] Mehr (Iran), October 24, 2011.

[9] Asremrooz.ir (Iran), October 18, 2011; leziran.com, November 7, 2011.

[10] Fars (Iran), October 26, 2011.

[11] Iran (Iran), October 16, 2011.

[12] This line was taken, for example, by the daily Kayhan and by Mohammad Hossein Safar-Harandi, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Kayhan (Iran), October 26, 2011; Fars (Iran), October 23, 2011.

[13] Expediency Council member Morteza Nabavi clarified that a parliamentary system did not mean that the populace would no longer have any role in decision making, and would not undermine the republican character of the regime, but would only prevent the executive branch from going against the decisions of the Majlis. ISNA (Iran), October 31, 2011. Similar claims were made by Hossein Mir Mohammad Sadeghi, a former spokesman of the judiciary, and in an article in the daily Resalat. Resalat (Iran), January 1, 2012; Khabaronline.ir (Iran), December 14, 2011.

[14] Asriran.com (Iran), October 24, 2011. IRGC Deputy-Commander Safar-Harandi stressed that Khamenei had presented his initiative as no more than a future option in order to avoid raising harmful doubts about "the effectiveness of the present government or the [validity of the procedure] by which the next government will come into power." Fars (Iran), Oct 23, 2011.

[15] Majlis Presiding Board member Hossein Sobhani-Nia said in this context: "In the present circumstances, we will not be able to promote a [parliamentary] regime... Unfortunately, [Iran] has a few parties, but no party that [truly] functions as a proper political party... unlike other countries that have a strong parliament. We must determine which political system is best for the country, taking into consideration the long-term interests of the regime [as well as] Khamenei's speech, and avoid [taking] radical [steps]." ISNA (Iran), October 24, 2011. An article in the reformist Arman Daily explained, "Unfortunately, our Majlis has no parties, [though] there are two blocs [the Conservatives and Radicals]. So, in the present circumstances, we must consider [the advisability] of talking about a parliamentary system. Arman Daily (Iran), November 13, 2011.

[16] Mehr (Iran), October 25, 2011.

[17] Regarding the possibility that Rafsanjani's appointment to number two in the regime was forced on Khamenei by leading Ayatollahs and Rafsanjani's associates, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 253, "The 'Second Islamic Revolution' in Iran: Struggle at the Top", November 17, 2005, http://www.memri.org/legacy/report/1526#_ednref7

[18] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 673, "In Iran, End of an Era: Assembly of Experts Chairman Rafsanjani Is Removed", March 8, 2011, In Iran, End of an Era: Assembly of Experts Chairman Rafsanjani Is Removed

[19] See http://thememriblog.org/blog_personal/en/39652.htm; Gholam Hossein Elham, Ahmadinejad's legal advisor, said that, since Ahmadinejad's rise to power, the Expdiency Council had deviated from its role by involving considerations of political rivalry in its work. ISNA (Iran), October 31, 2011. Kayhan stated that Rafsanjani's positions in the 2009 presidential elections had intensified the tension during the elections, and that his two children, Mehdi and Faezeh, had played an important role in the unrest. Kayhan (Iran), October 26, 2011. In January 2012, Faezeh Hashemi was sentenced to six months in prison for her involvement in the anti-regime Green Movement.

[20] Ayendenews.com (Iran), October 24, 2011. Rafsanjani associates also objected to Khamenei's initiative. His brother and head of his office, Mohammad Hashemi, said: "The Expediency Council is the regime's 'obstacle breaker.' Sharq (Iran), October 25, 2011.

[21] Roozonline.com, October 26, 2011.

[22] Kayhan (Iran), October 26, 2011.

[23] Asriran.com (Iran), October 24, 2011.

[24] Snn.ir, October 27, 2011.

[25] Parasine.com (Iran), October 24, 2011.

[26] Digarban.com, October 25, 2011.

[27] Yjc.ir, October 25, 2011. For excerpts from Rafsanjani's 2009 Friday prayer that angered Khamenei, see MEMRI-TV Clip No. 2205, "Chairman of Iranian Assembly of Experts, Former President Rafsanjani, in a Friday Sermon: People's Confidence in Us Was Harmed," July 17, 2009, http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/2205.

[28] Bultannews.com (Iran), December 28, 2011.

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