Monday, October 10, 2005

The Struggle Over Rafsanjani’s Future Role

Omid Memarian, Rooz Online:
While the purpose of last week’s announcement of the increase in the authority of Iran’s Expediency Council, a body that was initially mandated only to intervene and resolve differences between the Parliament and the elected Guardian’s Council comprised of conservative clerics, was to curtail the excesses of the new hardline government lead by Mahmud Ahmadinejad, it has also put Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current head of the Expediency Council who lost a presidential bid last June in addition to a loss in the elections to get into the Parliament six years ago, into the number 2 spot in Iran’s power hierarchy.

After the June 2005 presidential elections in Iran which brought hardliner Mahmud Ahmadinejad into the presidential palace, whose victory Rafsanjani attributed to “organized manipulation”, since Rafsanjani had lost yet another bid into elected office, political observers began to see this long-time politician who had survived the major crises of the regime getting ready for retirement. But with the approval of the internal procedures for the Expediency Council by the leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which provide it with fresh authority to supervise and monitor all three branches of government, a realignment of the main political players in the Islamic Republic has taken place. READ MORE

During the sixth Majlis (Parliament) elections last year, Rafsanjani disappointingly emerged as the last person to get into the legislature from Tehran. That was a warning and a wake up call for his diminishing popularity. But the June 2005 presidential elections where he again ran but lost to an unknown politician, demonstrated that he had not chance against an organized opposition and current public opinion. While in the sixth Parliamentary elections that swept in the moderates, it was the moderates who tried to keep Rafsanjani at bay, this time at the presidential elections, it was the hardliners who attempted the same, and succeeded at the polls.

So with these two defeats, it was natural to expect that Rafsanjani would vacate his position to the second revolutionary generation. But the excesses of the newly arrived young chief executive who wished to remove the first generation of revolutionaries by wining over the votes and hearts of the disgruntled masses, provoked the ruling elite of the regime to find a solution and thus came the announcement and empowerment of the Expediency Council to oversee the life of all three branches of the government and report these to the leader. This in practice puts the body above the three other institutions.

According to the new rules, the findings of the Expediency Council and the views of the leader will be together sent to the relevant branch and department of government so that the issues that are identified as “deviations” will be corrected. In this way, even the leader who exercised his powers under article 110 of the constitution through adhoc advice now can officially participate in the affairs of the country.

Some opponents of the Islamic Republic interpret this change which brings the Expediency Council and the Leader closer together, to provide executive powers to yet another appointed body, through which the decisions of the Parliament and the Executive branch will from now on be under the shadow of the Expediency Council.

Other observers note that the event demonstrates the deepening divisions within the conservatives, i.e. between the traditional conservatists and the neo-conservatists, which became more apparent with the recent presidential elections and changes in the military. It had been expected earlier that with the departure of pro Rafsanjani managers and directors who had been in place for the last 16 years this split would become apparent through critiques and performance reviews of these decision-makers.

This new authority has already brought about opposition from other political quarters. Akbar Elmi, a parliament deputy from the northern city of Tabriz who is affiliated to no political factions, was the first to speak out against the new rules. Representative Bahonar who chaired the session quickly silenced him, while the Speaker of Parliament Haddad Adel was the first to warn the Expediency Council not to overstep its authority. “The supervision of the Expediency should not entail all the laws of the Majlis,” he said at a seminar on Majlis and Supervision. “If the Council decides to interpret its authority as such then it will be in trouble.” In Adel’s view, the Expediency Council should restrict its work to monitoring the progress of the 20-year Vision document that has been prepared for the Islamic Republic and the general “grand” policies of the regime.

Akbar Elmi sees the new rules as reducing the effectiveness of the Parliament. “It should not be allowed to elevate the authority of the Council to that of the other branches of government and allow it to intervene in the inherent and exclusive jurisdictions of other branches, especially the Parliament,” he says. “If the Council’s authority is extended, then the Parliament will be reduced to an ineffective, unreliable, and a secondary institution.” Political observers on the other hand believe this change has come about because of the closeness of the Majlis, the executive branch and the Guardians Council, which a troublesome development in the eyes of some of the leaders of the regime who belong to the traditional conservative camp.

But what interprets this measure as a step towards calming the current political climate are the excesses of the new government which had already produced serious crises for the whole regime. President Ahmadinejad’s words to a group of clergy that “some decision-makers of the country were looking outside Iran,” apparently was the last shot. Previously, some of Qom’s prominent clerics had expressed their concerns about Ahmadinejad’s closeness to ultra-conservative cleric ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi to high offices in the country. Had this change been announced at any other time, it would have had many opponents across the span of Iran’s groupings, while today it has no opponents in the traditional right-wing political circles.

According to another political observer, the work of the Majlis and the government during the last few months has brought this change about. The weak image that the new president presented at the international level and the weaknesses that the Majlis has demonstrated in making grand decisions, have lead to a supervision of the two by an outside body.

The small minority faction in the Majlis has broken its months-long silence and spoken against the new procedures and powers of the Expediency Council. In a letter that was distributed to the press, some of its members write that the new powers for the Council, are a threat to the constitutional authority of the three branches of government and in effect “preempt the branches from carrying out their constitutional responsibilities.” This is one of those rare moments when the reformists in the Majlis join hands with some of the hardliners such as Elias Naderian. Naderian is a member of the majority faction of parliament and has said that “these measures cannot have a decisive impact.”

The opponents and supporters of the new Expediency authority come from both factions of the regime. Criticism from both is very diplomatic in language. Even Kayhan newspaper which is the spokemedia for the extreme right has remained silent on the issue.

Mohsen Rezai, the current secretary of the Expediency Council who broke the news to the media, takes this issue back to 1998 when the senior members of the Council were concerned about the management of the country. In that year, according to Rezai, the leader had expressed the need to make the country’s policies more predictable and stable. Two years later, the leader again expressly stated that the supervision of the agreed policies should be the work of the Expediency Council which would report its findings and proposals to the leader. In 2004, the leader specifically tasked the Council to supervise the implementation of country’s policies and in particular the fourth development plan. The Council prepared a new committee for this task in 1999 and presented its procedural rules to the leader in 2001. Representatives of the Judiciary and the Executive branches presented amendments to the rules because they felt their interests had not been completely provided for, which slowed the implementation of the new rules. Last year, after two reviews, the final procedures were presented for approval to the leader. About two months ago, the leader approved the draft and tasked the Expediency Council to implement the new rules.

The new procedures comprise 10 articles and many paragraphs. According to article 3, the highest authority within the three branches of government, the armed forces, and the national radio and television network is responsible for the execution of the grand policies of the state in his jurisdiction. Article 2 states that all policies and regulations, including development projects, must be developed within the framework of the grand policies of the state, and be in harmony with them. The Council’s supervision shall include a supervisory committee that comprises the head of the Expediency Council, its secretary, 2 members from amongst the 5 Council committees, the heads of the three branches of government with voting rights, and the Minister or Director of the relevant Ministry or Organization, who will jointly decide on the received performance reports.

Following up and doing professional specialized work is the second line of activity of the Council, which will take place at its Secretariat. According to the rules, the Secretariat, after the head of the Council, submits the reports to the appropriate committee for finalization and then submits the final report to the Expediency Council Assembly. The decisions of the Council are then sent to Guardians Council for implementation or the Council designates representatives in the Parliament and the Government to discuss and resolve the issues prepared by the Council. All of these reports go to the leader so that he stays abreast of the developments in the work of the three branches.

Rezai also said that he expects the Parliament and the Government to participate in the changes that have to be made to the existing laws to provide for the work of the Council.

Some political observers have noted that the increase in the authority of the Expediency Council is a political measure of the neo-conservatists to balance the powers of the Majlis, the Guardians Council and the Government. What remains to be done to complete this balance is the departure of Rafsanjani from the scene. These observers believe the current increase in the authority of the Council is not intended for Rafsanjani, but for a post-Rafsanjani Council. They say this parallel’s the change that was made to the constitution during the life of ayatollah Khomeini, while the purpose was to provide a new mechanism for his absence. In that case, those who wanted more powers to be given to the leader were under the impression that their candidate would succeed Khomeini. A mistake they soon realized after Khamenei became leader.

What is clear is that while Rafsanjani has lost his public charisma to get into any high elected office, the appointed channel may be the only route left for him to exercise power and stay a high-level player in the country. About the office of the presidency, former president Mohammad Khatami once called the presidency to be merely a “procurement office”. The way things have turned out for president Ahmadinejad, he too may be in the same office as that of Khatami, with the only difference being that while the former enjoyed wide charisma and international respect, the latter even with his military organization, lacks enough support in the Parliament to even get all his cabinet nominees through and searches to win the support of different factions even within the right to back him up not to lose his constitutional powers.

Someone once said that Rafsanjani was Iran’s Teng Hsiao-Ping (Deng Xiaoping). With the recent events some now call him the Chinese Elevator whose fate takes him up or down the political ladder as the winds of change require.