Monday, February 16, 2009


The Iranian Revolution at 30: Elections as a Tool to a Sustain Theological Power Structure

The Iranian Revolution at 30
January 29, 2009

Elections as a Tool to a Sustain Theological Power Structure

Kazem Alamdari
California State University, Northridge

In the 30–year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), a total of 30 elections have been held. In spite of losing popular ground, and despite uninterrupted elections, the clerics in Iran still firmly hold the reins of power because elections are designed to serve the status quo rather than to change it.

Elections in the IRI’s style have aimed to: (1) legitimize the system while discriminating against the majority of the people by declaring them ineligible to run for office; (2) prevent unwanted people (outsiders) from entering the power structure; (3) determine the share of rival groups (insiders) within the ruling circle, which reduces internal tension; (4) manipulate and orchestrate religious people because their participation in elections is a means of supporting Islam, and (5) make the system seem as though it is democratically endorsed by the people.

The ruling circle in the IRI includes appointed and elected persons. Those appointed, mainly clergymen, enjoy higher power with less—or even no—responsibility because it is asserted that they have been divinely chosen for their positions through serving Islam.

The major elective offices in the IRI include the president, the legislature, and the Assembly of Experts (AE). Election of the city and town councils is less political and therefore less controlled. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appoints crucial power holders such as the six clerical members of the Guardian Council (GC); the thirty members of the Expediency Council; the head of the judiciary branch; the commanders of the Army, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Militia (Basij); the Chief of Police; the head of the National Security Council; and the head of the radio and television broadcasting, among others.

Local and regional governors appointed by the president are publicly controlled by clergymen who are appointed to represent the Supreme Leader in cities and towns, where they perform Friday Congregational Sermons. They are not accountable, but they enjoy great local power through their social and religious status. Also, both the processes and the outcomes of elections for positions in the legislative and executive branches are restricted by non-elective clerics. Even the president cannot select his cabinet members without consulting with the Supreme Leader. In some cases, Majlis (parliament) deputies travel to the holy city of Qom to consult with religious leaders before introducing a bill in the legislature because they know that the clerical members of the GC have authority to reject their bills if they find them un-Islamic.
According to the Constitution, the political structure of the IRI is composed of two opposite poles: Sharia (Islamic law = fiqh) and the Republic (people’s will). While elections symbolize the republic, the rule of the people, Sharia represents the religious pole of the structure, which guarantees the rule of clerics and undermines the role of the people. According to Article 4 of the Constitution, “All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. This principle applies absolutely and generally to all articles of the Constitution as well as to all other laws and regulations, and the fuqaha' of the Guardian Council are judges in this matter.”

Clerics legally manipulate elections through two mechanisms. First, the GC is authorized to screen the candidates before allowing them into a race.[1] For example, opponents of the Velayat-e Faqih (clerical rule) are banned from elections as being unfit to hold office in the Islamic system. Second, all elected officials, including the president, are in a subordinate position to the Supreme Leader (the walayat al-'amr and the leader of the Ummah), who enjoys absolute power in the system. The Supreme Leader also can remove an unfit president from office, if he desires to do so.

The role of the six clerical members of the GC in elections and law making is extremely decisive in the IRI. According to Article 99 of the Constitution, the GC has the responsibility of supervising the elections and the direct recourse to popular opinion and referenda. However, referring to Article 98 and part 9 of Article 110, which give the right of interpreting the laws to the GC, they have been developed into an unquestionable political tool for keeping the entire electoral system under the control of the conservative clerics.

The legislative assembly is deliberately named the “Consultative Assembly” because, in the IRI, this organ “does not hold any legal status if there is no GC in existence” (Article 93), and cannot make laws without the GC’s approval. The GC can declare any law passed by the legislative branch as being unconstitutional or un-Islamic (Article 94). Therefore, the legislative branch cannot pass a law to limit the role of the GC in elections. Such an order is articulated based on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih, or Islamic Government.

Khomeini, the founder of the IRI, believed that elections should not undermine clerical rule. He wrote that the people must accept the rule of the clerics and follow their decisions as religious duties.[2] In his book, Islamic Government, Khomeini asserted that

...the ulema [clerics] were appointed by the imam for government and for judgment
among people, and their position is still preserved for them" (p. 73). ... Ulema (plural of
'alim) are the heirs to the prophets (p. 74).…If a knowledgeable and just jurisprudent
undertakes the task of forming the government, then he will run the social affairs that
the prophet used to run, and it is the duty of the people to listen to him and obey him.[3]

The third elective body of the IRI is the AE. All candidates are carefully screened, and they must be clergymen. The AE is responsible for selecting, evaluating, and dismissing the Supreme Leader. However, because the members are carefully screened by the GC, whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, the AE members never challenge the Supreme Leader’s performance or his decisions. AE elections are mainly competitions among conservative senior clergymen. Since 1982, when it was established, the main activity of the AE has been the selection of Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. They have continuously and annually praised him.

After Khatami’s surprise landslide victory as a reformist candidate in1997 with 79.93% of the eligible voters—the highest turnout in the history of the IRI—and the takeover of the 6th Majlis by reformist representatives, the GC has rigidly firmed up its control to prevent known reformists from entering political races. The GC, in addition to using its influence among religious people and masques, has hired thirty thousand new local employees to carefully watch and screen all candidates who want to run for any office. The tight control over the candidates leaves the votes with fewer choices and less motivation to participate in the elections. Therefore, conservative candidates find that they have a better chance to be elected.

Another major institution that plays a significant role in elections is the charity organization “Imam Khomeini Committee.” The Supreme Leader appoints the head of this organization, which has a several-billion-dollar budget to help poor people. In response, these people tend to support the conservative candidates in elections.

Therefore, elections under the current political, legal, and religious structure are at an impasse and move in a vicious circle under the firm control of the clerics. This process only serves the status quo, which is characterized by absolute domination by conservative clerics. In other words, elections in IRI do not have the capacity to bring about any structural change, but only to sustain the theological power structure.
[1] Guardian Council is composed of 6 clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, and 6 lawyers proposed by the judiciary chief and approved by the Majlis. However, only the clerics have authority to judge and interpret whether a law is un-Islamic.

[2] More precisely, the notion of Velayat-e Faqih originated in the writings of several shii jurists such as Mulla Ahmad Naraqi, who used the idea to legitimize the absolute rule of Fatali Shah Qajar, and Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, who strongly opposed constitutional rule (1906) as an anti-religious measure in Iran. Other predecessors of Khomeini include Mirza Hasan Shirazi, Mirza Muhammad Taqi Shriazi, and Kashif al-Ghita

[3] Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah, Islamic Government, translated by the Joint Publishers Reset Service, Arlington, VA, 1979, p. 37.

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