Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, claimed in many interviews and speeches before and after the Revolution that: “We want a government that is ruled by nothing but the law."
Khomeini wrote, in his book Islamic Rule (Valy-e Faqih) that: ”Islamic rule is the rule of law. Islam has an ‘organic’ view of law: it considers law as an instrument and means for achieving justice in society. It is the means to reform beliefs and morals and for human refinement. The law is there to implement and establish a just social order to nurture human beings."
He also stated, in a speech on October 22, 1979, that: "In Islam, the rule is exerted by law. The Holy Prophet was also subject to ... the divine law. He could not violate the law.” And on November 8, 1978, Khomeini said to Iranians living abroad: "We want to have a government that observes the law ... We oppose a government that violates all human laws, all international laws, and treats the nation however it pleases. We want a government of Islam that is ruled by nothing but the law. The law alone governs. This is what we want ... the law of justice ... the law that is for human growth, for the good of mankind."
Was the "rule of law" established in the Islamic Republic? And has the law been the basis of governance in Iran?
What is the Rule of Law?
The rule of law is a key principle in democratic societies – it means that everyone is equal before the law and no one is above the law.
The philosophical underpinning of the rule of law is a distrust in unlimited or autocratic power. Preventing rulers from violating the rights of the people, or taking control of every aspect of the state and society, requires the law to be the basis of governance. A closely-related concept is the separation of powers; the principle that a government is split into executive, legislative and judicial branches, rather than the same officials holding all these levers of power.
But the rule of law goes beyond restraining those in power. It also promote “equality” and “freedom” in a democratic society. When a government tries to interfere in the affairs of the people, the response of a law-abiding democratic society is to take the government to court where an independent judiciary will oblige the government to respect individual and communal rights. Respecting human rights in a society is unlikely or impossible without the rule of law because it is the law that compels governments to respect the rights of the people.
Khomeini always used Islamic law as the basis for his own rulings – in addition to emphasizing that in his view “God’s law” was the same as civil law. But the question still arises as to whether even the "rule of Islamic law" was established in the Islamic Republic. Is Iran today governed by Islamic law? The laws passed by Iran’s parliament and approved by its Assembly of Experts are, because of Iran’s constitution, under the umbrella of Sharia law. Modern Iranian laws can be considered as the "law of Islam.” Do Iran’s rulers respect these laws?
The Islamic Republic and the Rule of Law
Ad hoc governance were prevalent in the early years of the Islamic Republic. Many decisions were made not on legal grounds but on the basis of Khomeini’s decrees. The suppression of the opposition, execution squads and the widespread involvement of the Supreme Leader's agents in all aspects of government, were all sanctioned by Khomeini's orders.
The Supreme Leader wrote to members of parliament on November 28, 1988, in response to a letter of protest from a group of MPs regarding the extrajudicial conduct of the newly formed Expediency Discernment Council. He wrote: "What you have written is absolutely true. God willing, I am determined that the situation in all areas will be such that we all move according to the constitution. What has been done [recently] has been because of the [Iran-Iraq] war. The expediency of the system and Islam required that the blind knots of the law be quickly unknotted to the benefit of the people and Islam. I thank all of you for your reminders and I pray for all of you."
This letter was an explicit acknowledgment of the lack of the rule of law in the country during the early years of the Revolution, and during the tenure of Ayatollah Khomeini; in this case, Khomeini said that it was an expediency made necessary by the war.
Violations of the law and disregard for the rule of law by Khomeini, in the name of "the interests of Islam and the people,” and later in the name of "the interest of the system," referring to the Islamic Republic form of government, has also happened many times under Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Numerous statements by political observers, as well as draft laws introduced by governments and members of parliament in recent years, with the common purpose of “enforcing” neglected constitutional principles, suggest that the edicts of the Supreme Leader have been the basis of government in Iran rather than the rule of law. Instances of these violations of constitutional principles and Iran’s laws are numerous.
- Prohibition of depriving people of freedoms in the name of preserving the territorial integrity and independence of the country (Article 9);
- Prohibition of inquisition (Article 23);
- Prohibition of eavesdropping and espionage in public affairs (Article 25);
- Freedom of the press and media (Article 24);
- Freedom of unarmed assemblies and demonstrations (Article 27);
- Prohibition of torture and forced confession (Article 38);
- Principle of innocence (Principle 37);
- Principle of human sovereignty over self-determination (Article 56);
- Monopoly of legislation by the Islamic Consultative Assembly [parliament] (Article 58);
- Putting major economic, political, social and cultural decisions to the people through a referendum (Article 59).
But the Islamic Republic, in its 42-year history, has seen a range of pretexts for its officials to violate the rule of law. These have included:
- Issuance of a decree by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic and restriction of members of parliament in legislating or circumventing parliament to pass laws;
- The domination by institutions such as the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution over parliament, and the delegation of legislative rights to these institutions;
- Depriving parliament of the right to legislate due to inconsistencies between its bills and the policies of the Expediency Council;
- Restricting parliament from overseeing institutions under the office of the Supreme Leader;
- Depriving large numbers of Iranians from standing for election through candidate vetting disqualifications by the Guardian Council;
- Holding uncompetitive elections for the Assembly of Experts elections by suppressing candidates;
- Interference beyond by the Supreme Leader, in any and all matters, including determining the types of vaccines or cars imported into the country;
- Interference of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in political affairs;
- Interference of the Supreme Leader in administering provincial affairs;
- Granting control over election monitoring to affiliates of a political faction and violating the principle of neutrality in elections;
- Depriving women and followers of religious minorities from holding some senior government positions, including membership in the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, senior parliamentary positions, cabinet posts and others.
Contrary to Khomeini's promises, the Islamic Republic has never relied on the rule of law to govern the country. Widespread violations of freedoms and the disregard of the principle of equality in the Islamic Republic, as well as the violation of human rights, which have been repeatedly challenged and protested by domestic critics and the international community, show that the rule of law has been abandoned in the Islamic Republic. Tyranny has become the dominant form of governance and has become so pervasive that even pro-government media do not conceal the system’s "lawlessness."