October 17, 2011

The Conservative Rise and the Potential Fall of the Presidency

Iran’s Supreme Leader gave a wide-ranging speech on Sunday in the western province of Kermanshah. As is common for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his opposition to the ambitions of the United States was a central theme, this time focused on the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, and Washington’s assumed counter-escalation. On domestic policy, the Supreme Leader’s remarks addressed another of his favorite themes: favoring Iranian conservatives over pragmatists and reformists. Khamenei’s most recent comments, however, included a new twist: an assertion that the Islamic Republic may do away with the post of a directly elected president.

“Presently, the country’s ruling political system is a presidential one in which the president is directly elected by the people, making this a good and effective method,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, himself a former president, told an audience in the city of Gilan Gharb. “However, if one day, probably in the distant future, it is deemed that the parliamentary system is more appropriate for the election of officials with executive power, there would be no problem in altering the current structure.”

Regardless of if and when such a change were to take place, Khamenei’s comments reflect the consistent progression of a nearly decade-long conservative, undemocratic trend in Iranian politics where political change has been engineered and managed.

The year 2003 was a turning point for Khamenei and Iranian conservatives. They began their reemergence and ascent in the local council elections that February, sweeping reformists away in most major cities. It was also an election that traditional conservative groups had boycotted, thus aiding the rise of Iran’s next generation of conservatives — nonclerical, war-veteran technocrats that are today embodied by the likes of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and others. Factional tensions have often been high between Iran’s various conservative camps, but they were loosely grouped together because of their allegiance to Supreme Leader Khamenei.

The conservative takeover of Iran’s elected institutions continued with the Majles elections in 2004, and culminated in the 2005 presidential election. Steadily building tensions within and between factions of all stripes were exacerbated by the disputed 2009 presidential election and subsequent political fratricide. Which brings us to the present: Why is Khamenei hinting at abolishing the presidency?

To answer such questions, pundits and policymakers have long concentrated on the multiplicity of factions and candidates in Iran’s reformist and conservative camps. While this is important, it is more useful to examine the running debate — since at least 2003 — over the two central theses of Iran’s power structure development.

One thesis has favored reducing the powers of the Supreme Leader and empowering the presidency. This current is dominated by the pragmatists and reformists who composed much of the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. The opposing thesis has favored turning the president into a quasi-prime minister with the Supreme Leader at the helm of policymaking. This current is dominated by the various conservative factions that have increasingly gained prominence since the 2003 local council elections. Indeed, this latter current has emerged as the status quo. And given the power balance in Iran for nearly the past decade, Khamenei’s remarks in Gilan Gharb are less groundbreaking than calculated.

To that end, steps to eliminate the presidency and reestablish the position of prime minister are well within the realm of possibility. Indeed, this sort of development would resemble the Islamic Republic’s 1989 constitutional amendment that eliminated the premiership and empowered the presidency. Ironically, it was Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi’s position that was abolished nearly 24 years ago at the end of his term, and President Ali Khamenei’s position that was greatly enhanced — shortly before he was anointed Supreme Leader and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani shifted to the role of president from his previous post as Majles speaker. In Iranian politics, history does have a tendency to repeat itself.

Should Iran decide to eliminate the post of a directly elected president, the primary role of a reinstated premiership would be to execute the Supreme Leader’s directives. This was — and continues to be — what is expected from Ahmadinejad. His increasing intransigence has only sped up an otherwise steady moving process toward the domestic vision for Iran that many unelected officials hold: more Islamic than republican. Factional tensions in the Islamic Republic remain high, but key conservative factions have accepted the central role of Supreme Leader Khamenei. In the short to medium term, this is likely to remain Iran’s domestic political status quo.

This article first appeared in Tehran Bureau.




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