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.
Iran’s current parliament “is one of the strongest and most revolutionary parliaments in the post-revolutionary era,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei told the country’s elected officials in an online meeting on July 12.
This statement only makes sense if one understands what Khamenei means by “strong.” Because for him, a strong lion is one that has been defanged. In other words, parliament is solid because it is under his control and obeys his orders, endorsing his views without questioning them.
Elections for the 11th parliament of the Islamic Republic took place in February 2020, and were inaugurated in May. But run-off elections were required in 10 constituencies, and because of the coronavirus pandemic, these elections were postponed until September.
How can a parliament that has barely convened and has yet to even form committees, let alone pass laws and start its supervision of government institutions, be “one of the strongest” in the last 40 years? This seems impossible, apart from when applied to Khamenei’s concept of success and strength. So how is the Iranian parliament disenfranchised under his rule?
When it comes to the legislative branch, the constitution of the Islamic Republic is a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, it designates the parliament as the only legislative body in the system but, on the other hand, Article 110 grants the Supreme Leader the power to set “the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” to supervise “over the proper execution of the general policies of the system” and to resolve “the problems that cannot be solved by conventional methods.”
The constitution has tried to strike a balance between the “divine rights” of the Supreme Leader and the rights of the people by recognizing both Velayat-e Faqih, or the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist,” which gives the clergy overarching authority, and democratic principles and the people’s vote. In practice, however, this duality has proved impossible to maintain. As a result, the one who has the most power (the Supreme Leader) has persistently sought and acted to undermine the power of the other side (the people’s vote) by subjugating the parliament to unelected institutions whose members are appointed by him.
Giving Power to Appointed Bodies over the Elected Parliament
From the very beginning, the constitution of the Islamic Republic imposed the power of an appointed body over the legislative branch. The parliament can approve any bill it likes, but this bill will not become the law of the land unless it is approved by the Guardian Council, and it is the Supreme Leader that directly appoints half of the council’s members (the faqihs or the Islamic jurists) and indirectly appoints the other half (the lawyers).
Regardless of the obvious control the leader had, up to this point, the procedure was at least constitutional. But for Khamenei this appeared not be enough, and it remains so. So he set out to give other appointed bodies power over the parliament, including the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council. Some of these bodies are not even mentioned in the constitution and their very existence is unconstitutional.
Creating these so-called “supreme councils” and giving them power over parliament has become a regular feature of the regime’s conduct. First, decisions by the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council and the Supreme National Security Council were given preference over bills passed by the parliament. Then, other supreme councils were added to this list. But what completed the disfranchisement of parliament was the formation of the Expediency Discernment Council and the Supreme Economic Coordination Council that completely undermined parliament and its exclusive authority to pass laws.
Expediency Discernment Council
Officially, the Expediency Discernment Council (or Expediency Council for short) is an advisory council to the Supreme Leader and, according to Article 112 of the constitution, is responsible for resolving disagreements between the parliament and the Guardian Council. But in 2000 Khamenei invested it with the power to supervise how the macro-policies of the regime are carried out and this is clearly stated in the statute for the council, which was issued by Ayatollah Khamenei.
From October 1989 until his death in January 2017, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani served as the chairman of the council. With his death and after the election of the 10th parliament in 2016, Khamenei grabbed the chance to use the Expediency Council to further limit the authority of parliament. He gave the council the authority to form a “Supreme Board of Supervision” to review bills passed by parliament and then approve or reject them if they were not compatible with the regime’s macro-policies. The creation of this authority, which neither appears in the constitution nor in the council’s statute, was announced in 2017 by Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of the Expediency Council, at a press conference.
What this means is that, today, Iran’s parliament cannot simply pass laws that the majority of the representatives votes for, it must follow the guidelines set by the expediency council.
Supreme Economic Coordination Council
The long, full name of this body is the “Supreme Economic Coordination among Chiefs of the Three Branches of Government” — the executive, the judiciary and the legislative. Heads of the three branches have always met to coordinate their actions and exchange views. The heads are also members of all the “supreme” councils, but the meetings of these councils has never had a legal framework. However, after the Iranian economy went into a nosedive and nationwide protests broke out in late 2017 and early 2018 following the return of devastating United States sanctions, President Rouhani announced that an “economic war” had been declared against Iran, so in April 2018 Khamenei ordered the formation of this council with the president as its chairman. According to Khamenei’s decree, decisions by the council are to be submitted to him for his approval, after which they will become the law.
Early on it did not seem as though this council would further erode parliament’s legislative power and it appeared to only be concerned with solving those economic problems that needed immediate action. But, as time passed, it became clear the council is also engaged in legislation, usurping the power invested in the parliament by the constitution.
But, if parliament is obedient and submissive to the Supreme Leader, it followed that Khamenei’s need for bodies such as the Expediency Discernment Council and the Supreme Economic Coordination Council to advance his policies would become greatly diminished. With the 11th parliament that was elected in February 2020, this is exactly what has happened. The process of eliminating disagreeable voices started with the 6th parliament (2000-2004) and has by now reached a point where Khamenei might not need to rely much on appointed bodies. So, with this in mind, and given Khamenei’s idea of what makes a “good” parliament, it is not surprising he declared the new parliament to be “one of the strongest and most revolutionary parliaments in the post-revolutionary era.” For him, this is is the parliament he has always wanted.