Iran debates shift to parliamentary system By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
TEHRAN - Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's hint last week that
the "presidential system" might give way to a parliamentary system has sparked
an intensive debate about the merits of such a shift. Though couched in the
language of a future possibility, the statement provides new ammunition in the
country's factional politics.
"In the future, the parliamentary system can be possibly revived," Khamenei
said at a lecture during his week-long trip to the
province of Kermanshah, where he scolded the government officials for not doing
enough to tackle rising unemployment in the province.
Replacement of the presidential system with a more European-style parliamentary
system would mean scrapping the office of president and a resurrection of the
role of prime minister in a revised system based on parliamentary consensus.
Defenders of the proposal point to often tense relations between the Majlis
(parliament) and the executive branch headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
and say the change would bring about closer parliamentary scrutiny of the
Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of the Majlis, and other Majlis deputies
have embraced the idea, with Larijani claiming that this would result in a more
smooth and efficient form of government. Former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani,
who heads the Expediency Council, has opposed this idea, as well as the related
notion that the council, which serves as a quasi-parliamentary group, should
also be scrapped. Defending the role and legitimacy of the Expediency Council,
Rafsanjani this week vigorously defended the "republican" nature of the system,
and in so many words expressed his opposition at any attempt to weaken it.
The idea of replacing the present system with a parliamentary system "has been
under study in Majlis for sometime," according to Hamid Reza Katouzian, a
The end of the presidential system may prove to a boon for party politics by
encouraging the development of coalitions - a feature of political life that is
dreadfully weak if not absent in Iran today.
A number of Tehran pundits, such as the reformist and vocal Tehran University
political science professor Sadegh Ziba Kalam, have fully endorsed the leader's
suggestion and penned in its favor, with Ziba Kalam putting the emphasis on
Public support for a more robust parliamentary role in the governmental affairs
is growing in light of the recent impeachment of the finance minister in a
scandal which has also put some key bank executives, including the head of the
central bank, in the firing line. In the immediate future that may well
culminate in a constitutional revision.
There is no particular rush to reach a final resolution on this matter. Hassan
Ghafoorifard, another Tehran deputy, told the media that "the leader's point in
raising this issue has been to generate discussion and debate on this and I am
certain it will not materialize for another 10 years".
Meanwhile, Khamenei's suggestion has been vastly misinterpreted outside Iran,
with a number of commentators seizing on the issue as yet another expression of
conflict and hostility from the supreme leader toward Ahmadinejad. This is
clearly not the case. The leader's passing remark clearly shows that he was
speaking of a long-term prospect, ie nothing that would stop Ahmadinejad from
staying in office for the one-and-a-half years that remains of his term.
In a clue to the systematic efforts to patch up differences between and inside
the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government, Mahdavi
Kani, the current chairman of the Assembly of Experts, was appointed to
mediate, and there are on-going "unity meetings" between the heads and key
members of the three branches. As an overture to the president, Larijani and
his supporters in the Majlis have backed the resignation of a fierce critic of
Ahmadinejad, Ali Mottahari, who in the opinion of many experts "went too far in
attacking the president and his chief of staff Rahim Mashaee".
On the whole, the mood in today's Majlis is toward reconciliation and working
relations with the president rather than constantly challenging him. This is
partly due to the plethora of foreign policy challenges confronting the regime,
given the recent US allegations of Iran terror plot in Washington; allegations
which the Tehran leaders have adamantly denied.
Regarding the claims that Tehran was involved in a plot to kill the Saudi
ambassador to the US, since Iran is a signatory to the international
conventions dictating cooperation in the investigation of such matters, Iran is
likely to tag this to its previous complaints of US complicity in both the
assassination of its nuclear scientists as well as US support for the terrorist
group Jundallah, whose leader Abdulmalek Riggi, was apprehended last spring en
route to a US base in Central Asia.
Tehran may be able to turn tables on the US and prove a case to the
international community that it is "victim of Western-sponsored terrorism". A
number of Tehran foreign policy experts have told the author that in their
opinion Iran is willing to engage in earnest dialogue on Afghanistan, in light
of the upcoming Afghan summit in Bonn in December. The big question is whether
such needed dialogue becomes a collateral casualty in the US-Iran cold war now
raging in full force.