Politics

Fears of Low Referendum Turnout Could Scupper Fresh Proposals for an Iranian Senate

February 7, 2022
Ehsan Mehrabi
5 min read
Veteran principlist former MP Mohammad Reza Bahonar has again proposed the Iranian Constitution be changed to form a Senate
Veteran principlist former MP Mohammad Reza Bahonar has again proposed the Iranian Constitution be changed to form a Senate
The idea of a bicameral system for the Iranian parliament has attracted support from disparate political groups
The idea of a bicameral system for the Iranian parliament has attracted support from disparate political groups
Hassan Rouhani is understood to have recently met with Bahonar as well as other long-time political figures such as Ali-Akbar Nategh Nouri
Hassan Rouhani is understood to have recently met with Bahonar as well as other long-time political figures such as Ali-Akbar Nategh Nouri

Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a long-serving former MP and principlist member of the Expediency Council, has once again proposed Iran form a senate or upper house of the Iranian parliament. The argument is that the Iranian MPs are focusing more on local issues than national direction and senators could fill that legislative void.

Bahonar first called for this major potential change to the Constitution in 2018, by which point he had served as MP for Tehran and Rey for seven terms. The Islamic Consultative Assembly was “inefficient” he said, and one set of lawmakers was not enough to address all the country’s problems. MPs, he went on, were pursuing “regional, ethnic and sectarian demands” over and above the national interest.

Bahonar believes that in the absence of pragmatic, experienced representatives, new MPs are entering parliament without guidance or preparation. He has also called for reforms to be made to the Iranian party-political system so that veteran and new MPs be grouped together according to political-ideological leaning: extreme fundamentalist, moderate fundamentalist, reformist and “extreme reformist”. The former deputy speaker of parliament did not elaborate further on this idea, though. Nor has he laid out how he believes the two houses of parliament should divide up their work.

Why Not the Expediency Council?

Before Bahonar proposed a senate be formed for the Islamic Republic, the Expediency Council was generally regarded as Iran’s upper house. At one point members of the council also petitioned for their chamber to be located in the former building of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which was the Senate building before the Islamic Revolution.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani once wrote of his talks with Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, then-chairman of parliament, on the subject: “He has insisted not too much pressure be put on them. I hear some people say that if the Assembly goes there [to the old building], the gradual assumption will be that a Senate is being formed in Iran. They’re worried that this idea will take root in public opinion. Behind the scenes, the atmosphere is polluted.”

Some officials even explicitly state that the Expediency Council is the Senate. Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, new chairman of the council, has remarked: "It’s been said that on reviewing our Constitution, two parliaments should be set up. But arguably the Expediency Council performs a significant number of the functions of the Senate in bicameral systems."

Even Rafsanjani privately acknowledged the same. “This council has the right to pass a bill even when MPs have decided against it,” he writes. “This is a deadlock-breaking entity, like others that exist all over the world.” Technically the Expediency Council does not have a legislating function but has waded into and shaped the course of legislation in Iran countless times over the years.

Bahonar, however, has other ideas and evidently does not consider the Expediency Council a sufficient or effective body. He may not be alone in this. According to Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabadi, a member of the Central Council of the Kargozaran (Executives of Construction) Party, former president Hassan Rouhani recently met with Bahonar as well as  Mohammad Khatami, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, Eshagh Jahangiri, Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Ali Larijani. The meetings, Tabatabai claimed, were aimed at “reviving the republican aspect of the system”, examining the causes of shrinking political participation in Iran, and “rebuilding reformist parties.

Bahonar himself has presented his idea under the working title of “Second Republic". Etemad newspaper writes that Bahonar's remarks “probably” enjoy broad support among reformists and supposed moderates, as well as his own allies in the conservative camp. The problem, however, is one of implementation: the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic must give permission for any review or referendum on the content of the Iranian Constitution.

Khamenei’s Ambiguous Stance on a Bicameral System

In 2011, two years after Iran was rocked by the widespread pro-democracy Green Movement protests, Ali Khamenei acknowledged there had been some calls for the office of President of Iran to be altered. “If,” he said, “one day in the future, it is felt that MPs’ electing the head of the executive branch is a better solution, there would be nothing wrong with changing the mechanism." In November that year, however, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told a number of journalists he was utterly opposed to the idea, and no such a vote was held.

In 2017, Ezatullah Yousefian Molah, head of the parliament’s Internal Regulations Committee, said that a number of MPs planned to ask Ayatollah Khamenei to order a review of the Constitution. But this, too, came to nothing, with many speculating at the time it was because of fears of embarrassing low turnout in any associated referendum.

Article 177 of the Iranian Constitution, which deals with how it can be amended, stipulates that a council on constitutional change must be formed by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Its resolutions must then be approved and signed by the Supreme Leader, then approved by an absolute majority of Iranians.

There is, however, no quorum for participation. Many ordinary Iranian citizens regard constitutional change with suspicion because the last major reforms, in 1989, concentrated more decision-making power in the hands of unelected bodies. The widespread boycott of the June 2021 election has given rise to fears that the same could happen in the event of a constitutional referendum – or even put the position of the incumbent government in jeopardy, a risk known as the "constitutional trap" in Iranian media slang.

Bahonar has said of the issue: "National voter participation rates are always of concern to us. But the new election saw us reach a record low. Evidence shows that social capital is declining. This development should be investigated by the research centers, and its root causes should be identified and clarified."

Related coverage:

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A Lesson in Persian Politeness: Why Khamenei's Leadership Didn't End in 1999

Khamenei.com: Disenfranchising the Parliament, Part Three

9 Things that Could Change in Post-Rafsanjani Iran

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