Iranian Laws & Government

Civil Society and the Rule of Law in the Constitutional Politics of Iran
Under Khatami –Iranian president Mohammad Khatami

By: Said Amir Arjomand, 2000

The promotion of civil society and the rule of law are the key elements in Khatami's reform program. I will examine these goals of the reform movement in the context of Iran's constitutional politics. Let me first define my terms. If routine politics is about who gets what in everyday horse-trading or by other means, "constitutional politics" is about the struggle for the definition of social and political order. The political struggle for the constitution of order takes place among groups and organizations whose interests align them behind different principles of order. Furthermore, these principles of order are heterogeneous and potentially contradictory. The contending organized groups in constitutional politics are forced to reconcile the respective logic of these heterogeneous principles of order through compromise, concession and reinterpretation in order to translate them, more or less adequately, into an institutional order sustained by effective force (Arjomand, 1992).

The dominant trend in the current politics of Iran is undoubtedly constitutional. The revolutionary power struggle, the politics of war mobilization, nationalization and privatization, regionalism, clerical control and factionalism have receded to the background since Khatami's landslide victory in the presidential elections of May 1997. Constitutional politics have come to the foreground, as they were in 1979, the first year of the Islamic revolution and the making of the new constitution.

Khatami's New Political Discourse and Challenge to Theocratic Government

After his candidacy was approved by the Council of Guardians at the eleventh hour, Said Mohammad Khatami became the "accidental President" (the fifth) of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Bakhash, 1998, p. 90), with over two thirds of the popular vote in an election with a very heavy turnout. His advocacy of the rule of law and civil society has set in motion a constitutional crisis that marks a new phase in the history of post-revolution Iran. By far the most important and repeated slogan of Khatami's election campaign was hokumat-e qanun' (the rule of law). The implicit contrast to hokumat-e eslami (Islamic government), the slogan of the Islamic Revolution, stands out clearly in hindsight. A novel and consistent political discourse has grown around Khatami's theory of political development under the rule of law, a discourse which stands in sharp contrast to the Islamic revolutionary discourse and rhetoric.

In the new political discourse, popular election has replaced revolutionary charisma and divine mandate as the basis of legitimacy of government. Ever since the presidential elections, the pro-Khatami press and supporters have incessantly appealed to his landslide victory--"the over twenty million votes," the (nearly) "70% popular vote"--as the grounds of his legitimacy. They have referred to his election as a great, historically unprecedented event and described it as "the epic of 2 Khordad (May 23)," the historic "national event of 2 Khordad," and the like. Although Khatami never disputed the principle of clerical supremacy as inscribed in the Constitution,[1] the invidious contrast between the popular mandate of the President and the Mandate of the Jurist (velayat-e faqih) was barely beneath the surface at the beginning, and is now completely in the open.

The draft constitution published by the provisional government of Bazargan in June 1979 was modeled on the 1958 constitution of the French Fifth Republic. Although the draft was altered beyond recognition by the clerically dominated Assembly of Experts, the offices of the President and the Prime Minister were retained for the executive branch of government from the French model. Tension between the President and the Prime Minister immediately became acute, and has never abated. In fact, it was one of the reasons for the amendment of the Constitution and the abolition of the office of Prime Minister in 1989. This solution, however, created another problem, or rather shifted the same problem upward. The problem soon resurfaced as tension between the popularly-elected President and the clerically-selected Leader (rahbar) of the Islamic Republic, also referred to as the supreme jurist (faqih). The Amendment of 1989 also recognized the Expediency Council (majma'-e tashkhis-e maslahat) as an advisory board to the Leader, and empowered it to determine, among other things, the general policies of the Islamic Republic. The Expediency Council had been set up in the previous year by Khomeini to break the deadlock between the Majles (Iranian parliament) and the Council of Guardians, whose clerical jurists had veto power over all legislation. After Khomeini's death, his successor was chosen by the exclusively clerical Assembly of Leadership Experts without losing a single day. The succession was remarkably smooth for a revolutionary regime. Early in 1997, following the advice of the influential supervisory committee of the Assembly of Leadership Experts,[2] the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reconstituted the Expediency Council with the mandate to assume its function of offering advice on major policies of the regime, appointing as its chairman the outgoing President Hashemi-Rasfanjani. The clear intention was to demote the elected President by appropriating the function of the determination of state policy--to the Expediency Council as the advisory arm of Leadership. The election of Khatami to Presidency suddenly pulled this quiet trend to further institutionalization of clerical authority into the arena of contested constitutional politics. Tension between the President and the Leader, which had hitherto been managed well, became increasingly intensified.

Khatami's inaugural speech at the Majles on August 4, 1997, contained his new political ideas in a program he considered to be the basis of "the covenant between the President and the nation"(Khatami, 1997, p. 78) He stated,
Protecting the freedom of individuals and the rights of the nation, which constitute a fundamental obligation of the President upon taking the oath,[3] is a necessity deriving from the dignity of man in the divine religion ... [It requires] provision of the necessary conditions for the realization of the constitutional liberties, strengthening and expanding the institutions of civil society (jame'eh-ye madani) ... and preventing any violation of personal integrity, rights and legal liberties. The growth of legality (qanun-mandi, and the strengthening and consolidation of a society based on a legal framework for conduct, interactions and rights, will provide a favorable framework for the realization of social needs and demands.... In a society well acquainted with its rights and ruled by law, the rights and limits of the citizens (shahrvandan) are recognized (Ettela'at, 8/5/97:3; translation in Khatami, 1997, pp. 81-82 modified).
The foremost objective of government, according to Khatami, is "the realization of the people's most fundamental right, the right to determine their own destiny." To attain this objective, "the overall policies of the Executive branch will be based on: Institutionalizing the rule of law; vigorous pursuit of justice ...; promoting and consolidating the principle of accountability ...; empowering the people in order to achieve and ensure an ever-increasing level of their discerning participation" (Khatami, 1997, pp. 76-77).

Khatami's election did not result in any new legislation, as he did not control the Majles elected a year earlier, and his Administration embarked on no major initiative since he needed months to quietly replace the higher echelons of the state bureaucracy. The immediate result of his election, however, was the reopening of constitutional politics and the reexamination of the fundamental principles of order in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This reopening was signaled by the vigorous spread of the new, post-revolutionary political discourse, to which Khatami himself contributed a number of key neologisms. His Government Spokesman and Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, removed many of the restrictions on the press, the media and the arts, and a popular pro Khatami press notably Hamshahri (Fellow-Citizen) (the newspaper founded by the former mayor of Tehran, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi), and the Jame'eh (Society) which were closed down by the conservative clerics who controlled the courts in June 1998, followed by Tus by the same editorial staff (closed down in September 1998) and Khordad (the newspaper published by Abdollah Nouri, Khatami's first Interior Minister, after his dismissal through a vote of no-confidence by the Majles in June 1998), and Said Hajjarian's Sobh-e Emrouz, which spread Khatami's new political discourse and his neologisms, which included such ideas "pluralism" (pluralizm, takkathurgara'i, chand-arzeshi) as opposed to "monopolism" and "single-voiced (tak-seda'i societies," "law-orientedness" (qanun-gara'i) and "law-abidingness" (qanun- mandi) . Khatami's political vocabulary is constantly growing and being advertised in such publications.

With the reopening of constitutional politics, the contrast between Khatami's popular mandate and the Mandate of the Jurist as a theory of theocratic government did not take long to surface. In November 1997, disgruntled senior Ayatollahs, who had been pushed aside by the present Leadership after a long association with the regime, spoke out against the Leader. Khomeini's successor-designate Ayatollah Montazeri and the late Ayatollah Azari-Qomi, who died in 1999, openly challenged the Leader and the principle of Leadership on the basis of the Mandate of the Jurist. Montazeri had always had a tendency toward orthodox reformism, and had in the 1980s developed his own interpretation of the theory of the Mandate of the Jurist, which made the Supreme Jurist into an indirectly elective office (Montazeri, 1988). Azari-Qomi was a staunch conservative who now came to Montazeri's aid with an open letter. When the clerical ruling elite organized noisy demonstrations against Montazeri and Azari-Qomi on November 19, their offices and homes in Qom were ransacked. Ayatollah Meshkini, President of the Assembly of Leadership Experts, reaffirmed the sanctity of the office of the Supreme Jurist and the qualification of its present occupant, while Ayatollah Yazdi, Head of the Judiciary, threatened Montazeri with trial for treason. Meanwhile, the former Majles Speaker, Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Karrubi, complained of clerical abuse of judiciary power against the ousted radical clerics who had become newspaper editors and against the technocrats who had long served the regime (Ettela'at, 11/24/97). Two other influential members formerly of the clerical ruling elite, `Abdolrahim Musavi Ardabili and Yusof Sane'i, assumed the rank of Grand Ayatollah, retreated to Qom to teach and became ensconced in consistently reformist positions.

This open expression of dissent within the regime's clerical elite broke the ice, and enabled various groups opposed to the principle of clerical rule to voice their opposition. A'zam Taleqani, Secretary General of the Association of the Women of the Islamic Revolution, issued a proclamation in support of Ayatollah Montazeri (Ettela'at, 11/24/97). Heshmat Tabarzadi, the leader of a loose association of Islamic societies of university students, suggested that the office of the Leader be made elective and for a limited term. During the student demonstrations in the spring of 1998, this opposition to theocratic government was expressed quite bluntly. Most important of all, the taboo on the discussion and questioning of the principle of theocratic government in the press was broken for good.

Khatami and the Rule of Law
One of the few features of the French model of the preliminary draft constitution, which had been retained by the Assembly of Experts and was not altered in the revision of 1989, makes the implementation of the Constitution the responsibility of the President (Hashemi, 1996, 2, pp. 344-45). Khatami has made this surviving presidential prerogative an instrument of his promotion of the rule of law. Exercising this authority according to Article 113 of the Constitution, President Khatami appointed a Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution and constitutional supervision in December 1997. Its work was to be divided among five subcommittees, and its spokesman invited anyone aware of violation of public rights to inform the Commission (Ettela'at, 2/10/98). The Commission has, however, been relatively inactive. When it met with President Khatami to submit its report on November 30, 1999, its Chairman pointed out that the Commission had received some four hundred complaints, many of which it did not consider appropriate (Ettela'at, 12/1/99). The President nevertheless took the occasion to emphasize that the rule of law was the most fundamental principle of the Islamic revolution, and that only through "its main manifestation, the Constitution, can many of the principles of the revolution such as piety, justice, national reconciliation, national security and freedom find real meaning" (Ettela'at, 12/3/99).

"I expect the honorable Judiciary," Khatami (1997, p. 76) said in his inaugural speech, "to assist the Executive branch in the management of a safe, secure and just society based on the rule of law." However, the central paradox of Khatami's program of the rule of law is that the Judiciary is, to use his words, in the hands of "regressive and dogmatic clerics." Until recently, it was under the control of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, Khatami's chief opponent, who retired in July 1999 and had shown no hesitation in using the courts for the political purpose of embarrassing the President and the reformists. In April 1998, after the trial and imprisonment of the municipal officials of some Tehran districts, clerical judges arrested the mayor of Tehran himself. He was fined and sentenced to five years in prison. The conservative clerics who were in firm control of the courts closed down Jame'eh in June 1998, after it had leaked the remark made by the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, General Rahim Safavi, that his forces were ready to "cut the throats and tongues" of the journalists. In September 1998, heeding an "ultimatum" by Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to halt the undermining of Islam by the press, the same clerical judges closed down the reformist newspaper, Tus, and the weekly Rah-e Naw for publishing a refutation of the idea of the Mandate of the Jurist by the late Grand Ayatollah Kho'i (and a highly critical interview on the same topic with the reformist Abdollah Nouri). Zan (Women), published by Fa'ezeh Hashemi, the daughter of the former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, was also closed down. The judiciary's intervention in the politics of contestation reached a new level in the following year with the trials of the reformist clerics Kadivar and Nouri, who questioned the principle of theocratic government, the very foundation of the Islamic Republic. (We shall revisit this important point later.) Meanwhile, clerical judiciary activism against the press continued. The rebaptized reformist newspaper, Neshat, was closed down, and its editor arrested in October 1999 for printing disrespectful material on "the Koranic sacred beliefs and certainties" (Ettela'at, 10/19/99). When his trial opened in the following month, political abuse of judiciary power was evident in the clerical judge's refusal to summon the press jury (Ettela'at, 11/10/99 and 11/16/99).

Political murders that were committed by the secret services of the Islamic Republic constitute a blatant breach of the rule of law. In January 1999, Khatami insisted on the arrest of a number of officials in the Ministry of Information (read Intelligence), including the powerful Deputy Minister, Said Emami (alias Eslami) for the chain of murders of a number of writers and liberal politicians. Some of the conservative Ayatollahs were reliably said to have issued fatwas (injunctions) justifying the killings. The reformist Ayatollah Musavi Arbadili declared any such fatwas invalid. Hojjatol-Islam Mohsen Kadivar, a younger but prominent reformist cleric who had written a direct and detailed refutation of Khomeini's theory of theocratic government, delivered a speech in Isfahan in which he declared terrorism forbidden by the Sacred Law (shari'at). Kadivar was arrested at the end of February 1999, and his trial by the Special Court for Clerics became a cause celebre. The national press and student associations protested that the Court was unconstitutional, and that it was in violation of the International Human Rights Instruments signed by the Government of Iran which disallows special courts for special classes of persons. The Commission for Islamic Human Rights sought to intervene on behalf of the accused, while the Head of the Judiciary defended the legitimacy of the Special Court for Clerics on grounds of its approval by the late Imam Khomeini as the Supreme Jurist, and its jurisdiction with reference to Articles 110 and 112 of the Constitution pertaining to Leadership (Ettela'at, 3/4/99). Disregarding the widespread public protest and Kadivar's elaborate defense, which was soon published as a book in paperback, the Special Court for Clerics sentenced him to 18 months in prison on April 19, 1999.

Toward the end of June 1999, Emami or Eslami was said to have committed suicide in prison while under investigation. On July 5, the reformist newspaper, Salam, published a secret letter from the same Emami or Eslami, containing the design of the restrictive press law which was just approved in principle by the Majles, and which would put the press under the censorship of the Ayatollahs. The Special Court for Clerics immediately banned Salam, presumably giving itself jurisdiction to do so because the newspaper's editor was a cleric. On July 9, student riots in the University of Tehran broke out in protest against the closure of Salam and continued into the next day. The Revolutionary Guards intervened, alongside the regular police and the hooligans of the Helpers of God (Ansar Allah), causing a few deaths, many casualties and some 500 arrests. Other universities throughout Iran joined the demonstrations the next day.

Although the student riots of July 1999 were effectively suppressed, they may have a long-term constitutional impact. They can be taken as the high point of the continuous challenge that began with the open questioning and public debate on the principle of Leadership or theocratic government after Khatami assumed office. The protesters' slogans, for the first time, included "Khamenei must go!" That the Leader, Khamenei heard it and was yet forced to condemn the forces of order for their irresponsible violence on the campus of Tehran University is indicative of the serious erosion of the principle of Leadership or theocratic government under the strain of the constitutional politics.

Nevertheless, the short-term victory was to be for the Leader and the upholder of theocratic rule. In reaction to the student riots, the conservative clerics in the Majles under the leadership of Majles Speaker Nateq-Nouri, pushed aside the bill prepared by Khatami's reformist Minister of the Interior to curb the power of the clerical jurists of the Council of Guardians to disqualify candidates for elected office, and in fact reinforced those powers.[4] They also introduced a new press law providing for clerical censorship. The attempt by the conservative majority to push through an electoral law that would eliminate second-round runoffs was only blocked by the massive walkout of the minority before voting (Ettela'at, 1/4/2000). Nateq-Nouri's tactic of using "double urgency" to push through such partisan legislation brought the Fifth Majles into disrepute in its last months. Meanwhile, heady with victory over the students and the victims of clerical judiciary activism, some clerical hard-liners, such as Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who is rumored to have issued one of the injunctions justifying the chain killings, openly declared their readiness to take the law into their own hands and punish the enemies of Islam if the government failed to do so. This was too much even for the Leader, into whose Mandate the devotees of the clerical hard-liners claimed to have "melted." Khameini reprimanded them and forbade such extra-legal action: "and now that I [as the Supreme Jurist] have forbidden it, in addition to being legally forbidden, it is also forbidden by the Sacred Law" (Ettela'at, 10/4/99). Meanwhile, the notorious Special Court for Clerics continued its political activities unabashed, first sentencing the editor of Salam and closing it, and then doing the same with the leading reformist cleric, Abdollah Nouri and his paper, Khordad. The trial of Abdollah Nouri in November 1999 was remarkable in many ways. There was hardly any legal argument in the charges whose nature was crudely political: deviation from the opinions of Imam Khomeini in domestic and foreign politics, and publication of the views of Ayatollah Montazeri and the liberals and nationalists whom the Imam had disowned. The trial also provided the occasion for the widespread questioning of the legality of the Special Court for Clerics as well as the legitimacy of theocratic rule and Leadership. Among those who questioned the Court's constitutionality was the Chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution, Dr. Hossein Mehrpur. The clerical judge, however, offered a different argument for the Court's legitimacy, one that bypassed the issue of constitutionality altogether. He justified the authority of the Special Court for Clerics from the charismatic legitimacy of Khomeini: "The revolution derived its legitimacy [in the Sacred Law] (mashru'iyyat)from His Highness the Imam, and this Court, too, derives its legitimacy [in the Sacred Law] from the decree of the late Imam" (Ettela'at, 11/3/99). The all-clerical jury turned in its verdict before receiving Nouri's final written defense, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. Khordad was closed down.

The divisive impact of the Nouri trial can be seen in the failure of the attempt to co-ordinate the electoral campaigns of the two organized clerical political groupings a week or so after the formation of the pro-Khatami electoral coalition in the latter part of November (Ettela'at, 11/22/99). This attempt was doomed by Nouri's conviction. In a sharply worded condemnation of the verdict of the Special Court for Clerics, Ayatollah Yusof Sane'i alluded to the Quranic view of humankind as "the deputies of God" and asked: "How is it possible to give priority to the opinion of one person [the Supreme Jurist] or a few persons or a small social group [the clerical class] over the opinion and vote of all or the majority of people? This is the highest form of despotism and its ugliest face ..." (Ettela'at, 12/2/99). The association of professors and researchers of the seminaries of Qom also condemned the verdict. So did Ayatollah Taheri, the Imam Jom'eh of Isfahan, who also expressed the hope that the next (Sixth) Majles would be committed to Khordad 2 and solve such problems as the Special Court of Clerics (Ettela'at, 12/3/99).

Even though Khatami lost several rounds to the Leader and the crafty conservative Ayatollahs, his insistence on his presidential duty to safeguard the Constitution has driven a wedge into the hitherto seamless edifice of monolithic Islamic-ideological interpretation of the law by clerical jurists. The requirement of "conformity with the standards of Islam," attached to most of the Articles of the Constitution on rights to insure the overriding ideological supremacy of Islam, has become a contested axiom. This is particularly the case regarding human rights, freedom of the press and the legitimacy of clerical authority in government. More often than not, what the jurists of the Council of Guardians declare contrary to the standards of Islam is found to be in conformity with them by the supporters of the President in the press. In this regard, the Kadivar and Nouri trials in 1999 were particularly significant for the widespread challenge to the authority of the clerical judges and the theory of clerical authority on which it rested.

The power of the clerical jurists of the Council of Guardians to approve the qualification of candidates for all elected offices, too, was first effectively challenged by the disqualified clerical or clerically endorsed candidates. In April 1999, the Ministry of the Interior announced it was preparing legislation to deprive the jurists of the Council of Guardians from this supervisory power that has no basis in the Constitution. The issue soon became the subject of constant debate in the press, and the jurists' prerogative was widely contested as a usurpation. Former Majles Speaker Karrubi challenged the constitutionality of the Council of Guardians' assumed prerogative of determining the qualification of all candidates to elective offices and suggested that Khomeini had been against it. Khordad (5/19/99), Nouri's reformist newspaper, went so far as to state: "For the people who overthrew the 2500-year-old regime of monarchy ... the overthrow of the law of supervision of a special wing will, a fortiori, not be difficult." The Leader retorted immediately by endorsing the supervisory power of the jurists of the Council of Guardians (Ettela'at, 5/20/99).[5] The vigorously contested supervisory power of the Council of Guardians jurists was reconfirmed by the Majles conservatives in the aftermath of the student riots, and the jurists did not shy away from disqualifying some 668 candidates for the February national elections, or from annulling a few elections for seats won by reformists. Nevertheless, the percentage of candidates disqualified (under 10%) is the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic. Over a quarter of the candidates for the Fourth and over a third for the Fifth Majles had been disqualified by the Council of Guardians in 1992 and 1996 respectively (Malekahmadi, 1999). This relative restraint can be attributed to the constant pressure from both the President and the Ministry of the Interior, which organized the local electoral boards and insisted on the right of the rejected to hearings.[6] Following public requests that he intervene as the protector of the Constitution and demand its implementation (Etteta'at, 1/6/2000), Khatami met with the jurists of the Council of Guardians, and even had one of them use the new political vocabulary of the rule of law. Ayatollah Reza Ostadi stated that the Council of Guardians would welcome the advice on acting lawfully (qanun-madari) (Ettela'at, 1/7/2000).

In short, Khatami has succeeded in shaking the legitimacy of theocratic rule as one of the heterogeneous principles of order embodied in the Iranian constitution, but he has not yet made many significant concrete gains. With the Participation Front in control of the new (Sixth) Majles, assaults on the Special Court for Clerics, the supervisory vetoes of the Council of Guardians, can be expected. Although the position of the Leader has obviously been weakened by the loss of conservative support in the Majles, it is difficult to foresee any attempt to dismantle the major institutions of clerical power, at least before the presidential elections in next year. If re-elected in 2001, Khatami's final onslaught on clerical power may challenge the authority of the Representatives of the Supreme Jurist and some four hundred Congregational Prayer Leaders (Imam jum'as), who are not mentioned in the Constitution and much of whose extensive powers can be said to be unconstitutional. Such a move, however, is not likely to come soon and cannot succeed without radically transforming the theocratic republic.

Civil Society and Political Participation
If the rule of law as one of the two pillars of President Khatami's reforms is problematic, civil society--its other pillar--is, strictly speaking, unreal and does not reflect the actual situation in Iran. Nevertheless, it cannot be dismissed because it stands for other forces in the constitutional politics of Iran that are real and considerable. The Islamic revolution did relatively little to change the domination of Iranian society by the state, which is the legacy of a half a century of etatiste modernization under the Pahlavis. Civil society in the sense of an autonomous sphere of associations whose growth is facilitated by the legal system is therefore an empty slogan. The new press under President Khatami, however, has broken the taboos of the Islamic revolutionary ideology and is serving as the forum for public debate, indispensable for the articulation of a wide range of positions in the reopened constitutional politics of Iran. The advocacy of rights and democracy by the pro-Khatami press--which incidentally, like almost any other major enterprise, draws on state funds--has forced the conservative press and the proponents of theocratic government and revolutionary Islamic ideology to go beyond labeling their opponents in public debate as "enemies," "hypocrites," and "apostates" and to supply an explicit rationale for the positions most of them had not thoroughly thought out.

Perhaps the fact that the harassed but free press stands for civil society is indicative of a somewhat different reality. Civil society, if not a misnomer, may be an imperfect term for capturing the new type of political space and new forms of agency that have emerged in Iran since 1997. The new political space is disorderly but also pluralistic and boisterously public, and is inextricably linked with government. It is the arena of competition among various social, economic and regional interests. The diversity of interests and agencies ranges from women's organizations to regional interest groups and lobbies, such as those responsible for creating the new province of Ardabil (Chehabi, 1997) and for the division of Khorasan into four provinces, in progress this year. This new political space was expanded in early 1999 to include local governance in the form of the village, city and provincial councils. These councils (shura-ha) were envisioned in the Constitution of 1979 but elected only under Khatami in February 1999. (See the paper by Tajbakhsh in this volume.) I therefore suggest that in the current Iranian context, we think of civil society in close conjunction with political participation the third term in Khatami's reform program.

In his inaugural speech to the Majles, from which I have quoted earlier, Khatami (1997, p. 74) also noted "the epic participation of the noble and discerning people of Iran" as proof that "the entire nation has joined hands in unison." In another major speech some two years later in April 1999 (Ettela'at, 1/30/78), Khatami asserted he would use all his power to carry out his promises. He proceeded to elaborate on his favorite theme of political development, pointing out that the pivotal element in political development was the recognition of the right of opposition within the framework of law. He then announced that "the first step in political development is participation, and the most evident channel for participation is the election of the Councils." The elections for the councils took place, as Khatami had promised, and gave his supporters another landslide victory with over 4/5 of the popular vote. On the anniversary of his now epic presidential victory, Khatami addressed a gathering of some 107,000 elected members of the village and town councils in Tehran, again emphasizing the importance of political development and the need to struggle for "the consolidation of Islamic democracy and popular government (mardom-salari)." He noted that sacred terms such as `revolution,' `freedom,' `Islam' and `leadership' are not the monopoly of any group." (Emphasis added.) The Leader was pointedly absent, and so his message was delivered by the director of his bureau (Ettela'at, 5/24/99, 3/3/78). In the course of the year, the councils elected some 718 mayors and are slowly defining their functions in relation to central government. Some of these new functions have been articulated by the Khatami Administration in the Third Economic Plan (Ettela'at, 11/24/99 and 2/3/2000).

Needless to say, the central organ of political participation in Iran was the Majles, as both the pro-Khatami reformists and their opponents knew well. Said Hajjarian and the President's brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, organized a group which made popular participation its central objective and took the name of the Participation Front of Islamic Iran (Jebheh-ye mosharekat-e Iran-e eslami). It was one of the eighteen political groups which formed the Khordad 2 coalition in mid-November 1999 in preparation for the Majles elections, and brought out its own newspaper, Mosharekat (Participation), early in January 2000. The Participation Front did far better in the landslide February 2000 elections than other members of the Khordad 2 coalition, especially the Militant Clerics and the technocratic Servants of Construction, and are poised to control the Sixth Majles, which convened at the end of May 2000. In their first press conference after victory, the leaders of the Participation Front confirmed their commitment to the rule of law through implementation of certain neglected provisions of the Constitution, notably those concerning rights, and singled out the Special Court for Clerics and the press law as objects of immediate legislation. They also promised to prepare a "law of political development" to promote political rights and liberties, including the right to peaceful demonstration (Ettela'at, 2/24/2000).

It is clear that the struggle between the reformists and the conservative clerics has already set another constitutional crisis in motion. In April 2000, the Council of Guardians postponed the second round of elections, annulled a number of elections for seats won by reformists, and asserted its superiority over the Majles by virtue of the appointment of its jurists by the Leader. The clerically-dominated Expediency Council sought to pre-empt any Majles investigations into breaches of law by depriving it of the right to investigate the Special Court for Clerics, the national radio and television, the armed forces or any other organization which is under the control of Leadership. Meanwhile, the political activism of the clerical judges continues with a major clampdown on the reformist press. At the time of this writing (April 25, 2000), all but one or two of the reformist newspapers have been closed down, and a number of leading journalists arrested and imprisoned.

Let me conclude by highlighting the distinctive perspective I have offered on the constitutional politics of Iron under Khatami. The contradictions among the heterogeneous principles of the 1979 Constitution--namely, the Mandate of the Jurist or theocratic government, the rule of law, and participatory representative government--have set the parameters of Iranian political development since 1997, and can fully account for the confrontation between the Leader and the President. The Leader stands for the first principle, and is supported by the conservative clerics who came to power as a result of the Islamic revolution. They control the revolution-generated organizations, foundations (bonyads) and foundation-supported unofficial groups, including the thuggish Helpers of God, the Judiciary and the commanders of the revolutionary guards. The President stands for the last two principles which are fused together in his new political discourse of the rule of law, civil society, and political development through participation. Behind him are the technocrats, the reformist and excluded clerics and the disenfranchised middle classes.

The 1979 Islamic revolution created a political regime with a unique constitution. Its transformation two decades later bears the indelible mark of that constitution which will make for an equally unique pattern of democratization.

  1. During his presidential campaign, Khatami considered the Constitution to be the basis for national consensus (Ettela'at, 4/4/97, p. 3), and accepted the theory of the Mandate of the Jurist as a pillar of the regime. The political order created by the Islamic revolution consisted of the three Powers (the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary) under the supervision of the Supreme Jurist (Ettela'at, 3/4/97, p. 9). The Leader's supervision of the three branches of government was acknowledged by Khatami in his inaugural speech (Ettela'at, 8/5/97, p. 3). A few months later, he affirmed: "The Constitution of Iran includes the Mandate of the Jurist as one of the principles of the political order, and defending the law means defending the Mandate of the Jurist" (Ettela'at, 11/19/97). It should also be noted, however, that Khatami pointedly avoided using the term "Absolute (motlaqa)" Mandate of the Jurist, which he had been asked to comment on, and added that opposition to the Mandate of the Jurist meant opposition to the Islamic order. This did not mean, however, that the opponents of the Islamic order should be executed. Even after the July 1999 student riots, Khatami told a youthful audience that the Mandate of the Jurist was the axis of the regime, and "whoever accepts the Constitution must also bear (tan dar dahad) the principle of the Mandate of the Jurist.' But he also noted that there were clerics within the regime who did not accept the principle, or did not accept it in its present form (Ettela'at, 7/30/1999).
  2. According to a prominent member I interviewed in May 1997.
  3. This was explicit in the oath of office just taken by Khatami, which echoes Article 113 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.
  4. The conservatives totally subverted the bill prepared by the Interior Minister and reaffirmed the power of the Jurists of the Council of Guardians, with only an insignificant gesture toward the reformists that required the guardian jurists to give reasons for rejecting candidates. The latter haughtily rejected the Majles bill with disdain, considering it beneath their dignity to explain their decisions and thereby admit accountability to anyone but God. The Expediency Council, however, took the side of the Majles and required the Jurists of the Council of Guardians to make public their reasons for rejection of candidates for elections (Ettela'at, 11/15/99).
  5. During Khatami's presidential campaign, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani was alarmed by his constant reference to the constitution, which he took to be indicative of plots for repeating the early twentieth-century Constitutionalists' "the elimination of the clergy" (hadhf-e ruhaniyyat) (by their alleged sabotage of a committee of five ranking jurists which was to have veto power over the Majles legislation and was thus the prototype of the Council of Guardians) (Ettela'at, 4/23/97). Khameini showed the same historical sensitivity and was bent to prevent a repetition of the "elimination of the clergy." He accordingly remarked that the scandal over the supervisory power of the Council of Guardians "is the same calamity they inflicted upon the ranking clerics of the [early constitutional] period; and they think they can inflict the same on the Council of Guardians today" (Ettela'at, 5/20/99).
  6. The Ministry of the Interior did not appear to have secured hearings with the Council of Guardians for the rejected candidates. It did, however, appear to have restored some of them as the earlier disqualification figures announced were higher.

  1. Arjomand, S.A. "Constitutions and the Struggle for Political Order: A Study in the Modernization of Political Traditions." European Journal of Sociology 33:4 (1992): 39-40.
  2. Bakhash, Sh. "Iran's Remarkable Election." Journal of Democracy 9:1 (1998): 80-94.
  3. Chehabi, H.E. "Ardabil Becomes a Province: Center-Periphery Relations in Iran." International Journal of Middle East Studies 29:2 (1997): 235-53.
  4. Ettela'at. Daily Newspaper. The page references are to the New York edition.
  5. Hashemi, Said Mohammad. Hoquq-e asasi-ye jomhuri-ye eslami-ye Iran." vols, Qom 1996/1375.
  6. Khatami, Said Mohammad. Hope and Challenge. The Iranian President Speaks. Binghamton, NY: Institute of Global and Cultural Studies, 1997.
  7. Khordad. Tehran Daily Newspaper.
  8. Malekahmadi, F. "The Sociological Intersection of Religion, Law and Politics in Iran: Judicial Review and Political Control in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Ph.D. Dissertation, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1999.
  9. Montazeri, Hasan-'Ali Derasat fi vilayat al-faqih, 2 vols, Qom 1988/1408.