Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has built a unique democratic-theocratic system with ample room for debate and consultation over key decisions. Still, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains the cornerstone of the system, at the apex of a top-down theocratic structure. To attain office, Iran's elected officials must be approved by government bodies appointed by the supreme leader, a process that takes many candidates out of the running. The revelation of Russia's use of Iran's Hamedan air base, in addition to sparking an intense debate over the base's legality, intent and purpose, has raised concerns among Iranian politicians about the reasoning behind the decision. Twenty members of Iran's legislature — many from President Hassan Rouhani's more moderate conservative faction — have formally requested a closed-door session on the issue to ask questions about how it came to pass.
All components of Iran's unique government respect the tradition of parliamentary debate, even if it sometimes verges on a mere formality. Iran's Majlis, one of the first parliaments established in the region, has functioned as a forum for vivid debate since it first convened in 1906, and it has been influential in some of the most important transitions that Iran has undergone. After much discussion, the Majlis unanimously passed Iran's Oil Nationalization Bill in 1951, in accordance with the will of most Iranians. The decision set in motion the chain of events that led to Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh's ouster and the subsequent dramatic restructuring of Iran's government under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Since the Islamic Revolution, the Majlis' power as a decision-making body has waned. Nonetheless, it still provides a gauge for popular opinion and a venue for the less powerful elements of Iran's government to vie for greater influence. Just this week, the Majlis approved a proposal to limit the power of the appointed 12-member Guardian Council to veto a parliamentary candidate who won the popular vote, a controversial issue in February's parliamentary elections. (Ironically, regardless of the vote, the measure will still need Guardian Council approval to become law.) Majlis debate also played an important role in hammering out the details of Iran's nuclear deal with the West and in developing the new framework for investing in the oil sector. After the country's petroleum minister met with the Majlis speaker to discuss the new contract model this week, the oil ministry is amending it once again — even though it does not need formal legislative approval.
But for all its volume and vigor in debates, the Majlis does not have much power.
Though it can deny certain budgetary decisions made by the president, it cannot override the supreme leader. Even in matters of foreign policy, the traditional purview of Iran's presidency and foreign ministry, Khamenei has final say. Defense decisions and national security directives emanate from the Supreme National Security Council and the General Staff of the Armed Forces, of which Khamenei is the official commander in chief.
In the case of the Russian sorties from Hamedan base, it seems that a decision preceded the rich debate surrounding the issue. Khamenei likely made the call (through the Supreme National Security Council) to allow Russian planes on the base after deliberation and consultation with close military advisers, such as the new chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. Whether or not Majlis members — or, for that matter, the president, who has so far refrained from comment — agree with the decision, the debate over it will likely not be enough to challenge the established norm. Once the supreme leader has steered Iran in a given direction, the rest of the government follows, even as it continues to hash it out. Iran's hard-liners, for example, have challenged the nuclear deal on and off the floor of the Majlis, but they have not tried to torpedo it.
Iran's political system has its own way of balancing power, and the closed-door meeting could move the debate over Russia's use of the air base in a more coordinated, consultative direction. Even if Khamenei made the decision independent of the Majlis, he will likely follow the ensuing debate from his perch atop Iran's political paradigm. The Iranian political system may be a paradoxical one, but its ability to adapt has enabled it to endure. And over time, the paradox will evolve, as it always has.