Features

Does Rouhani Plan to Declare a State of Emergency?

May 23, 2019
Faramarz Davar
6 min read
President Rouhani has pointed out that, during the war with Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini granted special powers to Ali Khamenei, who was the president at the time
President Rouhani has pointed out that, during the war with Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini granted special powers to Ali Khamenei, who was the president at the time
Rouhani has demanded special powers to deal with the consequences of US sanctions, but for the last year a special council has already had the power to pass ordinances and repeal existing laws
Rouhani has demanded special powers to deal with the consequences of US sanctions, but for the last year a special council has already had the power to pass ordinances and repeal existing laws

With US sanctions making life more and more difficult for Iran, President Hassan Rouhani has asked for “special powers” to run the country — a move reminiscent of a request by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when he was president during the war with Iraq. “We were able to manage the war and even to achieve many successes; today we also need such powers,” said Rouhani in a speech on Monday, May 20 [Persian link].

In the legal sense of the phrase, “special powers” means declaring a state of emergency. Such a declaration would allow the government to suspend the normal, everyday activities of some institutions, as well as the branches of government — executive, legislative and the judiciary — for a limited time, as well as make changes to their functions and powers. Also, crucially, in a state of emergency, parts of the guaranteed rights of citizens and certain fundamental laws might be suspended temporarily so that the government can have more extensive powers to run the country.

Governments assume special powers in situations such as war or natural disasters to speed up decision-making and take actions under such unusual circumstances. The constitution of the Islamic Republic does not provide for any “special powers” for the president of the republic, but does so for a “state of emergency” — allowing the government to temporarily impose necessary restrictions. These restrictions must be approved by the parliament and are valid for 30 days, a period that can be extended with the approval of the parliament. This provision of the constitution has never been invoked, but there is a precedence for extralegal executive actions being put in place to deal with emergency situations.

 

The First Extralegal Council

The creation of the Supreme Council to Support War — which the current president, Hassan Rouhani, sat on — was the first example of Iran granting special powers to the president of the Islamic Republic. This council was created five years into the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, at a time when the situation was deteriorating day by day. It was established without the approval of the parliament and without invoking the constitution, and the council was in a position to rapidly expand its own powers.

“The Supreme Defense Council was not able to solve the problem of supporting the war,” Rouhani wrote in his memoirs. So, he wrote, “another council by the name of the Supreme Council to Support War was created. The council’s president was the president of the republic and had extensive powers.”

A few months after the council was created, Ali Khamenei, the president at the time, wrote a letter to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, outlining that the council had the power to pass ordinances that violated existing laws. Khamenei asked the leader of the Islamic Republic to declare these powers in writing [Persian link].

In a one-sentence reply, Ayatollah Khomeini decreed:  “Ordinances passed by the Supreme Council to Support War will be in force until the war ends.” In other words, the council was allowed to pass laws and ignore legislation passed by the parliament.

Now President Rouhani is requesting similar special powers that, if granted, would at the very least give him the authority to suspend the duties and powers of fundamental institutions — including the parliament.

But the fact is that a new council has already been created that can grant the president special powers.

As when Ayatollah Khomeini granted extralegal powers to the Supreme Council to Support War, after the United States left the nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the creation of a new council, the Inter-Branch Supreme Council for Economic Coordination. This council is headed by the president of the republic, and the heads of the legislative and judiciary branches are members, meaning that the heads of the other two branches of government will be involved in economic affairs, which are traditionally mostly the domain of the executive branch.

 

Iran’s Reply to the American “War Room”

Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a member of the parliament and of the parliament’s governing committee, reported that this council would “both pass legislation instead of the parliament and repeal some existing laws” [Persian link]. In his statements laying the grounds for the creation of the new council, Ayatollah Khamenei said: “The Americans have turned the Treasury Department into a war room against Iran” and, therefore, Iran must “create a headquarters to counter this mischief by the enemy.”

The first meeting of the new council was held in May 2018 in the presence of Ayatollah Khamenei who, according to his website, told President Rouhani: “Whenever the council passes an ordinance, it should not wait for his approval and must start work as soon as possible” [Persian link]. A few months later, the interior minister announced that ordinances passed by the council would be reported to the Supreme Leader within 48 hours.

So even though Rouhani is asking for special powers now, for the last year a body outside the parliament has had the power to pass legislation on its own and to repeal legislation passed by the parliament. Parliament has not approved the creation of this council, and its continued existence does not depend on 30-day extensions by the parliament. In other words, the council is not based on the constitutional provision for a state of emergency.

But it would appear that conditions have become so difficult that President Rouhani finds this council inadequate and wants “special powers” for himself. Such special powers would mean that the government would be able to take extralegal measures and would avoid prosecution by the judiciary for doing so.

In a state of emergency, the executive would be permitted powers that the heads of the legislative and the judiciary do not have. President Rouhani has said that he had suggested Khamenei be the “commander of the economic war but the Supreme Leader did not accept it and gave the responsibility to the president.”

A spokesman for the Guardian Council, bestowed with the power to interpret the constitution of the Islamic Republic, has said that, even up to now, Rouhani has enjoyed more “special powers” than any other president before him. If this is true then Rouhani’s statements mean that these special powers are not enough for him. In this case, the only option left is to declare a state of emergency, a constitutional provision that has not been invoked in the last 40 years.

So does Rouhani really want to invoke a state of emergency to ensure he can run the country for the remaining two years of his presidency?

 

Related Coverage:

Decoding Iran’s Politics: Iranians’ Concerns Over War, May 21, 2019

Decoding Iran’s Politics: The JCPOA Ultimatum, May 16, 2019

How Will Sanctions on Metal Affect the Iranian Economy?, May 10, 2019

Iran's Partial Withdrawal from the Nuclear Agreement: What are the Consequences?, May 8, 2019

A Bleak Future for Iran's Job Market, May 3, 2019

Decline in Investment Across Iran After US Exit from the Nuclear Deal, April 27, 2019

Can Iran Survive Record Inflation?, February 25, 2019

Khamenei Calls for Immediate Action on Nuclear Enrichment, June 6, 2018

The Nuclear Deal: Will Khamenei Get What he Wants?, May 29, 2018

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