Iran: Constitutional debate highlights Islamic system’s lack of agility

Published in GSN, 13 December 2018

A debate within the Islamic Republic’s halls of power over the positions of the rahbar (supreme leader) and president (head of government) is occupying a growing number of leaders and representatives in the Vilayat-e Faqih system. According to local sources, at stake is a possible shake-up of the constitutional order, most probably when current Rahbar Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei dies. While the timing of 79-year-old Khamenei’s departure is impossible to know, he is widely believed to suffer from ill health, accelerating preparations by various (conservative/principalist, centrist and reformist/moderate) factions for life after the Islamic Republic’s second only rahbar.

The debate is said to go “very deep” and the two main camps of conservatives/principalists and reformists/moderates are gearing up for the possibility of change. However, it is unclear that either side could push through their agenda, leaving open the question about whether the Islamic Republic has the ability to adapt and meet the needs and desires of its population.

Hardline principalists want to strengthen the rahbar’s hand: they would replace the president with a more pliable prime minister, who would act in a more administrative function than the current head of government. Under one suggested model, the prime minister could be elected by the Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami (parliament). This would give regime stalwarts another powerful lever of influence as the Shura-ye Negahban-e Qanun-e Asasi (Guardian Council of the Constitution) filters all prospective parliamentary candidates at election time and removes those deemed hostile to the Islamic Republic.

Reformists would rather see a strengthened presidency and some brakes on the rahbar’s power, possibly through the introduction of term limits for the supreme leader. Khamenei has been in office since replacing the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in June 1989.

Many of these ideas are not new. Iran had a prime minister until 1989, when the job was abolished in a constitutional referendum. The Islamic Republic’s last premier was Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest for leading protests in 2009 against the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The idea of reviving the role of prime minister has been aired on occasion since then.

Influence between the two main political groups is finely balanced at present, on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. While conservatives have the upper hand in regional policy terms – as is apparent in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon – reformists are more influential when it comes to handling Europe. On the domestic front, conservatives have been pushing hard against President Hassan Rouhani and his administration’s economic policy failings since the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. They have enjoyed some success, forcing a number of changes to his economics team during the summer for example (GSN 1,065/9). However, more recent efforts within the Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami to remove foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani ultimately failed (GSN 1,070/9).

The constitutional reforms of 1989 are to date the only time the Islamic Republic has made significant changes to its system. If the regime proves unable to adapt further it may find itself on a path to becoming weaker. The widespread protests that have broken out on several occasions in recent years – following the 2009 election and the wave of demonstrations in late 2017 and early 2018 (GSN 1,051/1) – are an indication that the political system, as currently constructed, struggles to accommodate a range of views. While both of those waves of protests were successfully suppressed by the security forces, strikes have continued around the country this year that point to the weakness of the economic system too.