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Jul 28, 2011 | 16:33 GMT

7 mins read

In Iran, New Board Suggests Weakened Political System

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani have both welcomed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's move to create a new arbitration body to mediate disputes between the three branches of the state. The move to create this new institution, and the choice of its composition and leadership, underscores the extent to which Iran's political system has weakened. Institutional add-ons such as this new body are unlikely to have the intended effect; rather, they are more likely to contribute to the complexity of decision-making and exacerbate the power struggle.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on July 27 welcomed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's move to designate a new body — the Supreme Board of Arbitration and Adjustment of Relations Among the Three Branches of the Government — to mediate conflicts between various power centers. A day earlier, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani also issued a statement welcoming the move. Both men expressed their readiness to cooperate with the board in order to resolve differences over policy decision-making. The creation of the arbitration board illustrates the severity of Iran's political gridlock, caused in no small part by the government's structural complexity, hyper-factionalization, the emergence of multiple power centers and critical levels of infighting. While the powers of the new council and the rules by which it will operate remain unclear, the council is unlikely to achieve its intended goals. In fact, it will contribute to the complexity of Iran's decision-making process and exacerbate the power struggle within the government.

Formation and Composition

The council will be headed by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a former judiciary chief and current member of the Guardians Council, a 12-member clerical body with legislative oversight and the power to vet candidates for public office. The other four members of the body are Mohammad Hassan Abutorabi, a prominent and pragmatic former lawmaker; Morteza Nabavi, a right-wing conservative at the Expediency Council; Abbas Kadkhodai, a hard-liner and one of the six jurist members of the Guardians Council; and Samad Mousavi Khoshdel, another rightist cleric. (The new entity needs to be free of partisan politics. Thus, Shahroudi, who has been considered as a potential successor to Khamenei, was picked to lead the new board.) Shahroudi was born in Iraq and was a longtime Iraqi citizen, but he became an Iranian national and was among the founders of Iraq's most pro-Iranian Shiite political group, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. A pragmatic but well-respected conservative, Shahroudi was brought in because all sides would accept him as an impartial arbitrator. The supreme leader also believes Shahroudi's years of judicial experience will prove instrumental in resolving quarrels between the three branches of government and in allowing Khamenei to contain Ahmadinejad's ambitions. (Shahroudi's decadelong stint as judiciary chief ended after the controversial 2009 presidential election, when he was replaced by current judiciary chief Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohammad-Saddegh Larijani, a younger brother of the parliamentary speaker.) Khamenei's moves, however, only partially explain the problems plaguing the Islamic republic. The Persian Islamist state, which blends Western parliamentary democracy with the Shiite political notion of velayat-e-faqih (state ruled by a jurisprudent), developed as a concept in the 18th century and was popularized in 1970 by the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Within a decade of its founding, the republic encountered problems between the Majlis (parliament) and the Guardians Council. Even though an elaborate judiciary with a separate head was created, the Guardians Council was tasked with ensuring that all lawmakers and the laws they crafted were in keeping with the ideals of the Islamic republic. However, the Majlis soon began quarreling with the Guardians Council and the council became more a partisan body than a watchdog. As a result, in early 1988 Khomeini ordered the creation of the Expediency Council, a body of some two dozen clerics, politicians, serving and retired military commanders, and technocrats, to arbitrate disputes between the Majlis and Guardians Council. Since its founding, the Expediency Council has been led by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the most influential cleric within the Iranian political establishment after Khamenei. In 2005, a few months after Rafsanjani lost a presidential election to Ahmadinejad, Khamenei enhanced the powers of Rafsanjani and his council by granting it oversight over the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government. The stated purpose was to ensure that they were working in synch toward the realization of the long-term strategic development plan crafted by the Expediency Council, but the supreme leader wanted to balance the rising radical faction of Ahmadinejad with the moderate one led by Rafsanjani. The ongoing rivalry between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani has prevented the Expediency Council from playing even a basic arbitration role. The Ahmadinejad-Rafsanjani rivalry was emblematic of a growing trend in Iranian politics in which a larger struggle — one that pits the clerics against the non-clerics — began to grow in significance. But it did not take long for this clash to transform into a competition between the president and the supreme leader himself. The power struggle between the president and the supreme leader has elevated the trend to a level where it represents a threat to the clergy's pivotal role within the Islamic republic and has exacerbated the factional contention on how best to remain true to the ideals of the revolution in 1979. Now the the strain has led the supreme leader to form yet another institutional add-on in hopes of achieving a balance of power within the fractured state.

Weakened System

Indeed, Khamenei's decision to form a new institution to resolve differences among the government's elite — while maintaining his primacy in the political system — shows that Iran's existing mechanisms are unable to resolve the growing tensions within the country. Specifically, those tensions are between the president and the branches of government more allied with the supreme leader. The problem, however, is that these tensions do not simply derive from an imbalance between the executive, legislature and judiciary branches. Instead, they involve the security forces, dominated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the various clerical institutions, including the office of supreme leader himself. In fact, the supreme leader is at the heart of the power struggle that has weakened the Islamic republic's cleric-dominated political system. His moves playing the various stakeholders of the clerical regime off one another as a means to maintain his pre-eminent position have contributed to tensions. And while the mandate of the arbitration council appears to be limited to the three formal branches of the government, the problems are spread across the entire system. In the meantime, creating additional bureaucracy will likely only make matters worse, and it is only a matter of time before this new body falls prey to partisan politics. The Shahroudi-led arbitration body will likely step into the domains of other institutions — like the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council — and will become a party to the conflict. The new body is, at best, a stopgap measure. This is not to say Iran is about to fall; it is unlikely to collapse, but the weakening of the clerical establishment could beget a military-dominated state. Since its founding, the Islamic Republic of Iran has struggled to balance power between its theocratic and republican structures. Clerical oversight of the Iranian political process was deliberate, but the resultant tensions have yet to be resolved. Managing this issue has led to periodic adjustments to the system through an increase in bureaucratic structures. Such an approach, designed to ensure the primacy of the clerical elite, however, is undermining the intended goal.

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