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Special Features

Khamenei.com: Disenfranchising the Parliament, Part One

October 18, 2020
Pezhman Tahavori
8 min read
Khamenei is the final arbiter for membership in the Guardian Council, which oversees parliamentary elections and approves or disqualifies candidates
Khamenei is the final arbiter for membership in the Guardian Council, which oversees parliamentary elections and approves or disqualifies candidates
The current Supreme Leader does not tolerate any criticism of the Guardian Council and treats any such criticism as a serious transgression against the Islamic Republic
The current Supreme Leader does not tolerate any criticism of the Guardian Council and treats any such criticism as a serious transgression against the Islamic Republic

How much power does the parliament wield within the Islamic Republic of Iran? Are the MPs true representatives of the people and their wishes, or they owe their seats to the endorsement of the Supreme Leader and his acolytes? In this series of articles on the relationship between parliament and Ali Khamenei, we explore the answers to these questions.

“Under the previous regime [the Pahlavi dynasty], all the power in the country was concentrated in one place and ‘legislature’ was an empty word. Under that regime, the national parliament did nothing. Was it independent? Did it pass any legislation out of wisdom or good intent? Did it do anything worthwhile? No! They were a bunch of people who got into parliament on the the whim of the government and the [royal] court. They did whatever the court wanted and it wanted absolute power. We went through this and paid the cost.”

This is how Ali Khamenei described the parliament under the Shah, during one his Friday sermons in Tehran some years ago. But it’s also a most accurate description of parliament under the Islamic Republic. The institution today is directed and molded by approbative supervision and rigged elections, under the leadership of none other than Ali Khamenei himself.

In this system, parliamentary elections have been reduced to a mere formality. Ever since the Guardian Council began to follow Khamenei’s recommendations in qualifying candidates, the Iranian legislature has in practice been nothing more than an obedient subject of the Supreme Leader.

In democratic societies, the prestige of parliament flows from the fact that its members are elected by direct vote in free and fair elections. In the Islamic Republic, members of parliament represent not the people but the Guardian Council, which approves or vetoes them as candidates.

The two diagrams below helpfully illustrate the 40-year journey of the Islamic Republic’ parliament toward complete irrelevance. In the first parliamentary elections in 1980, all parties and political movements were still allowed to compete, with the exception of monarchists and the Tudeh (Communist) Party. During the mid-term elections, the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) was also banned from fielding candidates.

Khamenei.com: Disenfranchising the Parliament, Part One

Forty years on in February 2020, in the elections for the eleventh parliament of the Islamic Republic, only two groups were allowed to compete – and even then, it was preordained which would win the majority.

Khamenei.com: Disenfranchising the Parliament, Part One

This exclusion of a constellation of alternative parties did not happen overnight. Policies set by for the Guardian Council gradually made its supervisory role so stringent that nobody but a majority comprising the regime’s right wing, known as hardliners or principalists, and a minority of leftists, now known as the “reformists”, were able to stand for election. Even these two wings are restricted in which candidates they can field.

Khamenei was the main architect of this slow transformation. The first parliamentary elections under his leadership were for the 4th parliament, in 1992. In those elections the Guardian Council used its powers of disqualification to cut off the leftist wing of the regime which, under Ayatollah Khomeini, had enjoyed the bigger share of the parliamentary seats.

In his memoirs, then-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani writes that he tried to convince Khamenei to return some of the disqualified candidate to the 1992 ballot. “Mr. [Abdollah] Nouri, the interior minister, came and said that he was worried that radical figures had been eliminated by the Guardian Council,” he writes. “I told him to talk with the leaders of the Association of Combatant Clerics [a center-left, reformist clerical party] and ask them to suggest a number of more moderate people so that we can ask the Supreme Leader to approve them [as candidates]. They sent me a list of 29 people and I read the list, over the phone, to the Leader… Today, I had many calls from individuals who had been disqualified and were asking for redress. Close to midday I called Ayatollah Khamenei on the phone. He does not want to take the list as a whole but is willing to accept some of them. I told this to the interior minister.”

Khamenei’s Prescription for Qualifying Candidates

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Guardian Council is composed of twelve members. Six are faqihs, experts in Islamic law, who are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, while the other six are jurists formally elected by the parliament, but who are nominated by the head of the judiciary, who himself is appointed by the Supreme Leader. In other words, Khamenei is the final arbiter for membership in the Guardian Council, which is entrusted with overseeing parliamentary elections and qualifying or disqualifying candidates.

In many of his speeches over the years, Khamenei has explained to the Guardian Council what he expects from parliamentary candidates:

1. They must be “righteous”

“The representative who enters parliament must be righteous. God forbid, you, as guarantors, must not allow this rule to be breached.” (Stated in a meeting with the members of Central Council to Oversee Parliamentary Elections on February 23, 1992)

2. They must not be “corrupt” or “seditious”

“If somebody is corrupt – financially, morally, ideologically or politically – or if somebody is seditious, weakens the system and undermines the effectiveness of the institutions – or, as people aptly say, he throws a spanner in the works – he really cannot stand on that glorious podium and must not enter the parliament.” (Stated in a meeting with members of Central Council to Oversee Parliamentary Elections on February 23, 1992)

3. They must not oppose the regime

“Those whose words, behavior and acts show that that they oppose the system for whatever reason, political or personal, or because of their character, must not enter the parliament.” (Stated in a meeting with members of Central Council to Oversee Parliamentary Elections on February 23, 1992)

4. They must believe in Islam, in the Islamic Revolution and in the regime

“The most important thing in a representative is belief in this regime, in Islam and in the revolution, and his striving to meet his responsibilities and his commitment. If a person has this quality the rest can be tolerated unless there is something that violates the law.” (Stated in a meeting with members of the Guardian Council’s supervisory committees on February 3, 1996)

5. They must not be “grafters”

“We must be careful that grafters and those who do not believe in the mission of the revolution and who only want to get into parliament for gain through graft and, God forbid, sabotage cannot enter.” (Stated in a meeting with members of the Guardian Council’s supervisory committees on February 3, 1996)

6. They must not have ill will toward the people or the Imam

“It is the right of the people not to want those with ill will toward this nation to get into parliament. The Guardian Council must recognize people’s desires and prevent those with ill will towards this nation and toward the Imam from entering the legislative branch.” (Stated in a meeting with various representatives of the people on February 2, 2000)

7. They must be devoted to the regime and the Constitution

“Those who step into this arena must be people who can carry the weight… They must really be devoted to the regime, and must want to carry out the Constitution.” (Stated in a meeting with people of Qom on January 8, 2013).

The end result of the Supreme Leader’s advice to the Guardian Council is that in every parliamentary election, hundreds if not thousands of candidates are disqualified and pushed out from the field of competition, resulting in unfair, unjust and distorted elections.

Why this state of affairs continues can be summarized in few words: the Supreme Leader’s control of the Guardian Council, and his thus-unconditional support of its decisions.

Ali Khamenei does not tolerate any criticism of the Guardian Council. He treats any such criticism as a serious transgression. “Elections in Iran are among the healthiest in the world,” he said in February 2020, shortly before the most recent parliamentary election. “When you lie and say that these elections have been vetted, or that they are not elections but appointments, you dishearten the people. Those who have a platform, or who because of their position can say things in the media or in cyberspace, must not talk in such a way that the enemy could magnify their words or use them as a means to discourage people.”

A candidate who qualifies for the parliament, Khamenei went on, “must be devout, revolutionary, brave, efficient and be on the side of justice in the true sense of the word.” In reality, what Khamenei’s leadership has brought about is a compliant and submissive, and simultaneously corrupt and ready-for-graft parliament.

Parting Words

In the summer of 2001, Ayatollah Jalal Al-Din Taheri Isfahani, the Friday Imam of Isfahan, announced his resignation from a post he had held for more than three decades. In his letter of resignation he condemned the Islamic Republic regime in no uncertain terms, writing: “The great catastrophe of the flight from religion, disillusionment, unemployment, inflation, poverty, the deepening of the disparities between the classes, [economic] stagnation, the drop in state revenue, the sick economy, administrative corruption… the embezzlement and bribery, and the absence of an effective solution [to these problems]… have tragic consequences, and each moment they threaten the state and the life of the nation.

“We have failed to solve the state’s many problems through boasting, lies, violating human rights, chasing after factional interests and spreading empty slogans. Our main failures are neglect of the rule of law, the activity of irresponsible non-civilian institutions, the presence of mafiosi groups in the [political] arena, the restrictions placed on the parliament, and more.”

These words came from a devout scholar and a respected Islamic theologian and philosopher. More than two decades later, they still provide a succinct summary of the situation under the leadership of Khamenei.

Related coverage:

Khamenei.com: Disenfranchising the Parliament, Part Two

Khamenei.com: Disenfranchising the Parliament, Part Three

Khamenei.com: Disenfranchising the Parliament, Part Four

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