How much power does parliament wield within the Islamic Republic of Iran? Are MPs true representatives of the people and their wishes, or do 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.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s interventions in Iran’s legislative processes are not limited to issuing decrees or sending written and oral messages to parliament. He systematically monitors all bills passed by the legislative branch through the Guardian Council, and orders this body to either approve or reject them. Along with so-called “government decrees” and the Expediency Discernment Council, the Guardian Council is one of the Supreme Leader’s three principal tools to ensure only the laws that he wants are enacted.
What is the Guardian Council, and how was it transformed into a tool with which the Supreme Leader could veto legislation?
A Tool of the Supreme Leader
Article 94 of the Iranian constitution states that all legislation passed by the parliament must be sent to the Guardian Council, which should review it within a maximum of 10 days to ensure its compatibility with Islamic law and the constitution. If the council finds the legislation incompatible, it returns it to parliament for review. Otherwise the legislation is passed.
Two key instances clearly illustrate how the Guardian Council has followed the views of Khamenei in approving or rejecting bills passed by parliament: the bill to amend the Press Law, and the rejection of parliament’s demand to investigate the vast military, economic and social empire under the supervision of the Supreme Leader.
On August 6, 2000, when parliament was close to finalizing a revision to Iran’s Press Law, Khamenei sent a letter to parliament and ordered that the amended law be discarded. Since then the Guardian Council has cited this “government decree” to block any attempt in parliament to reform the law.
The Guardian Council has 12 members: six faqihs, experts in Islamic law who are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists chosen by parliament from among those nominated by the head of the judiciary, who himself is appointed by the Supreme Leader.
Shia Islam, however, does not have a central authority like the Vatican, and neither Article 94 of the constitution nor any other article in it makes it clear whose interpretation of Islamic law is to be the basis of a judgement by the faqihs in the Guardian Council.
Nevertheless, Article 96 says the “determination that the legislation passed by parliament is not incompatible with the laws of Islam rests with a majority vote of the faqihs on the Guardian Council, and the determination that it is not incompatible with the constitution rests with the majority of all members of the Guardian Council.” We would assume that the “the majority of the faqihs” on the council would take the consensus of Shia religious authorities as their benchmark for making decisions, as is the Shia tradition.
“Compatible” or “Not Incompatible”?
In an article entitled “The Guardian Council’s Sharia vs. Parliament’s Law,” Mohsen Kadivar, a philosopher and professor of Islamic studies, writes about the inconsistencies in these two articles and others in the constitution.
Kadivar points out that according to Article 94, the duty of the Guardian Council is to determine whether legislation passed by parliament is “compatible with Islamic criteria,” while in Article 96 the requirement is that the legislation must “not be incompatible with the laws of Islam.”
“Not incompatible” with what, asks Kadivar, because if parliament passes a law and the law is endorsed by even one faqih, no other faqih would dare to call it incompatible with Sharia, even if they have a different interpretation.
Kadivar writes that a number of faqihs have issued fatwas concerning the validity of women’s evidence in court, and in support of joining UN’s Convention against Torture, but, startlingly, the Guardian Council declared them to be incompatible with the laws of Islam even though they same from recognized religious authorities. In other words, “recognized religious authorities do not get it, but the six faqihs of the Guardian Council do, even though these religious authorities have been teaching for twice as long as some of these gentlemen have been alive.”
Also, Kadivar notes, Article 96 uses the term “determination,” which in a legal context is not the same as “issuing fatwas” or “deduction” or “expressing opinions,” and consequently the faqihs’ duty, according to the constitution, is not to express their own opinions. However, the performance of the Guardian Council shows that the faqihs who are members of the council have not followed the letter or the intent of the law and, instead, have only acted according to the wishes of Ayatollah Khamenei and his interpretation of Sharia.
Khamenei has spoken several times about the ban on investigating entities under the supervision of the Supreme Leader. One of the most famous cases was recounted about six years ago in a speech by the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president and chairman of the Expediency Council, which legally is the final arbiter in disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council. According to him, the Assembly of Experts once invited officials of the entities under the Supreme Leader’s supervision to testify before the assembly and they accepted, but then they said they could not come because Khamenei’s office refused to allow them to.
When Rafsanjani personally asked Khamenei about it he confirmed that he had ordered them not to report to the assembly. “’This is the law of the Assembly of Experts,’ I told him,” Rafsanjani later wrote. “He said ‘I was against the passage of this law but I didn’t want to say it then. But now that it is about to be carried out I am expressing my opinion.’”
In recent years the Guardian Council has consistently rejected any legislation to investigate entities under the supervision of the Supreme Leader as “contrary to Sharia”.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who has been secretary of the Guardian Council for more than 30 years, has confirmed this conclusion himself. He said in an interview: “I always carried out the views of the Supreme Leader and if I didn’t know his views I asked for them... In other words, I followed the Imam [the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and the Supreme Leader.”
His statements leave no doubt that the Guardian Council acts according to the wishes of the Supreme Leader and pays no attention to the views of other religious authorities. In any case, since the faqihs in the Guardian Council are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, there is no chance that any faqih with different views would find his way onto the council in the first place.
The constitution’s requirement that the Guardian Council ensures legislation passed by parliament conforms to Islamic laws has been transformed into a requirement that such legislation conforms to the Supreme Leader’s views. In other words, parliament cannot pass any law that Khamenei opposes. This, perhaps, has been the most effective tool used by Khamenei to disenfranchise the Iranian parliament.