By Hussain H Zaidi
July 15, 2013
The landslide victory of a moderate Hassan Rouhani in the recent presidential election in Iran has sprung up a pleasant surprise both nationally and internationally. While the Iranian nation is pinning high hopes on the president-elect for much needed economic recovery and opening up of the socio-political order, the international community is expecting that he will be easier to do business with than his predecessor.
To appreciate the significance of Rouhani’s victory, it is important to look at the political system of Iran and relevant developments over last few years. The three fundamental principles of the Iranian political system are Islam, republicanism and separation of powers. Islam is the state religion and the Shariah the fundamental law of the land. As for republicanism, the greatest contribution of the Islamic revolution was the abolition of monarchy. Under the Iranian constitution, both the president and parliament (called the Majlis) are popularly elected.
The third principle is the separation of powers, which makes the Iranian system more like the American system than the British model. The president is the chief executive, while the Majlis is the lawmaking body. The Majlis cannot vote out the president, though it can impeach him. Nor can the president dissolve the Majlis. The ministers appointed by the president have to be approved, and all international agreements and treaties ratified by the Majlis.
The separation of powers principle, however, breaks down in the office of the Rahbar (the supreme leader), who holds a unique position in the political system. The Rahbar is the guardian of the revolution, the custodian of the constitution and the overall supervisor of the system. He has the power to appoint and dismiss the head of the judiciary, the armed forces, and the religious members of a powerful guardian council. He delineates the general policies of the republic and is the ultimate arbiter in cases that cannot be sorted out by other means.
Another important component of the system is the guardian council, which interprets the constitution and determines the constitutionality of laws passed by the Majlis (power of judicial review). The council comprises 12 members half of which are appointed by the Rahbar and half elected by the Majlis. It also supervises the elections for the office of the president, the Majlis and the council of experts, which includes determining suitability of the candidates.
The power of judicial review exists in a number of countries. It is thus not the guardian council's power that is criticised. Rather it is the way the power is exercised that has generated much criticism. The council, by virtue of its conservative composition, is not well-disposed towards progressive legislation or those with a reformist agenda. The council has struck down several laws passed by the Majlis. It has also been accused of disqualifying reformist candidates. A case is point is the disqualification of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani from the 2013 presidential race.
There are two power poles in Iran: One comprises the president and the Majlis representing the popular will. The other is the clergy-dominated establishment that believes in 'controlled' democracy.
Post-revolution Iran has witnessed the relentless struggle of reformists against hardliners for more openness and democracy. However, hardliners – because of greater power and influence – have remained tough to negotiate with. The reformists secured their first major win in the landslide victory of Khatami as president in 1997. Then in 2000, the conservatives were defeated in parliamentary elections by reformists.
Khatami's re-election in 2001 by an overwhelming majority again underlined the need for reforms. However, that did not curtail the influence of the conservatives who continued to assert themselves through powerful institutions like the guardian council and the judiciary.
The tension between the conservatives and the reformists, the hardliners and the liberals assumed heightened significance after the 2009 disputed presidential polls. Though the state put down the widespread protests against the 'rigged' election, it only highlighted the enormity of the tension.
Iran has also earned the ire of the west, particularly of the US, for its nuclear programme that the former claims to be peaceful and which the latter sees as potentially dangerous to international peace and security and, therefore, insists that the same either be brought to an immediate halt or be placed under stringent international safeguards.
As a penalty for going ahead with its nuclear programme, Iran has been placed under multilateral (UN) and bilateral (US and European Union) economic sanctions, which are impacting the economy. Mineral, particularly oil, exports are the mainstay of Tehran's economy and they have been severely hit by the sanctions. According to the London-based weekly The Economist, Iran is facing shrinking output and hyperinflation (stagflation), with 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
The president-elect, himself a former nuclear chief negotiator, knows well that the economy can't be put back on track unless international sanctions are softened; he, therefore, advocates dialogue with the west. The question is: what sort of concessions will his government be able to make? While Rouhani has ruled out putting an end to his country's nuclear programme, a middle way – such as accepting international inspection of the nuclear facilities – may be struck. But would the west be content with that?
The call for change in Iran is at present moderate, and there are few voices demanding changes to the basic character of the constitution or for counter-revolution. All notable forces agree that Iran should continue to be an Islamic republic. There is also no demand of note for abolishing any of the existing institutions including the controversial guardian council. Only reform of the existing institutions is being sought to make them less authoritarian, more democratic and open, more accountable to the people and their elected representatives, and more progressive. That's why the electorate voted so heavily for a reformist.
The real force behind the call for reforms is the youth who make up nearly two-thirds of the Iranian population. Since they do not belong to the generation that brought about the revolution, their commitment to revolutionary ideals is not as extensive as that of the earlier generation. Though at present moderate, their discontent may assume dangerous proportions if their demands continue to be brushed aside.
Iran has immense geostrategic significance, especially at a time when the region is in turmoil. It has the among the world's largest gas and oil reserves. Apart from improving relations with the west, the country needs to overcome internal contradictions and conflicts to realise its enormous economic potential.
Can Rouhani lead a successful compromise both within the country – between the forces of change and the establishment – and between Iran and the west?
Hussain H Zaidi is a freelance contributor.