Middle East
4:20 pm
Mon November 21, 2011

In Iran, Secret Plans To Abolish The Presidency?

Originally published on Mon November 21, 2011 9:27 pm

The next presidential election in Iran is scheduled for 2013, but doubts are emerging about whether it will actually take place.

A conservative member of Iran's Parliament recently claimed that a secret committee convened by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been working on a plan to do away with the office of the presidency.

Meanwhile, the conflict between the supreme leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to sharpen.

Over the weekend, Iran's judiciary sentenced one of Ahmadinejad's closest advisers, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, to a year in jail for articles he has written that were deemed contrary to Islamic norms.

Javanfekr, who runs one of Iran's state-sanctioned newspapers, gave an interview in which he openly defied the conservative forces arrayed against him and Ahmadinejad.

As a result, security forces fired tear gas into a newspaper office Monday in Tehran in an effort to arrest Javanfekr.

Historically, the country's supreme leader and president have worked together, with the supreme leader wielding ultimate and absolute power. That is no longer the case, as the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei grows.

It is because of this conflict that the supreme leader may move to eliminate the presidency altogether, says Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council. He believes a secret committee has already recommended constitutional changes to Khamenei.

"They've essentially formed an expert committee that has already finished amending the constitution. And therefore barring any unforeseen change of heart by the supreme leader, it looks like the Islamic Republic will no longer hold elections for a directly elected president," Marashi says.

Replaced By A Prime Minister?

Khamenei has not himself disclosed the existence of this committee nor announced its conclusions. But he did float the idea in a lecture he gave several weeks ago.

The existence of this committee and the subject of its work was made public recently by a conservative member of Parliament, Mohammad Dehghan. He is a reliable source, says Abbas Milani, the director of Iran studies at Stanford University.

"What makes the story ... credible is that numerous other [websites] and individuals, all of them reliably close to Mr. Khamenei, have spoken about this and have talked about the possibility of doing away with the office of the presidency altogether," Milani says.

The idea is that the presidency — chosen by direct election of the people — would be replaced by a resurrected office of prime minister, who would be chosen by Parliament. From 1979 to 1989, Iran had a prime minister; a constitutional amendment in 1989 abolished the position.

That, notes Milani, would make it far easier to remove the prime minister should conflict erupt with the supreme leader.

"If this was a quote ... 'parliamentary system,' a vote of no confidence would be all that is needed to get rid of an unfavorable or defiant prime minister and bring in someone else," Milani says.

Right now, Iran's constitution does provide a process for impeachment of the president, and many in Parliament have threatened to begin those proceedings against Ahmadinejad. But it is a far more difficult process than a vote of no confidence.

Process Unclear

How Khamenei might actually do away with the office of president is not clear. There is a procedure for amending Iran's constitution, but it's lengthy and would obviously spark much political controversy. It would involve creating a constituent assembly, which constitutionally should be elected by the people. Then, the assembly would change the constitution.

Or some believe Khamenei could simply do it by fiat.

Stanford's Milani believes he won't do that.

"I think he's going to abide by the constitution. He doesn't really have the political gravitas to declare by fiat that [he wants] to do away with this office. He is in a much more precarious position, I think," Milani says.

Ahmadinejad will complete his second and final four-year term in 2013, and that's when the next presidential election is scheduled. But given the work of Khamenei's secret committee, that election might not be held, says Marashi of the National Iranian American Council.

"There's no doubt in my mind that that's the trajectory that we're on. In fact, I think that's the more likely scenario, barring an unforeseen circumstance. I would be more surprised if there is a presidential election in 2013," he says.

Marashi notes one other reason why Khamenei might want to do away with the presidency: Presidential elections have been the primary pathway for Iran's reformists to gain political power, an outcome the ayatollah is dead set against.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The next presidential election in Iran is scheduled for 2013, but doubts have emerged that it will happen at all. A conservative member of parliament recently claimed that a secret committee, convened by Iran's supreme leader, has been planning how to do away with the office of the presidency.

As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the big reason is an increasingly bitter feud between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: One of Ahmadinejad's closest advisers, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, has been sentenced to a year in jail for articles he has written deemed contrary to Islamic norms. Javanfekr, who runs one of Iran's state-sanctioned newspapers, gave an interview in which he openly defied the conservative forces arrayed against him and Ahmadinejad. As a result, security forces fired teargas into a newspaper office today in Tehran in an effort to arrest Javanfekr.

The conflict between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is escalating, and it is because of this conflict that Khamenei may move to eliminate the presidency altogether, says Reza Marashi of the National Iranian-American Council. He believes a committee has already recommended constitutional changes to Khamenei.

REZA MARASHI: They've essentially formed an expert committee that has already finished amending the constitution. And barring any unforeseen change of heart by the supreme leader, it looks like the Islamic Republic will no longer hold elections for a directly elected president.

SHUSTER: Ayatollah Khamenei has not himself disclosed the existence of this committee nor announced its conclusions, but he did float this idea in a lecture he gave several weeks ago. The existence of this committee and the subject of its work was made public recently by a conservative member of the parliament named Mohammad Dehghan. He is a reliable source, says Abbas Milani, the director of Iran Studies at Stanford University.

ABBAS MILANI: What makes the story, I think, credible is that numerous other sites and individuals - all of them reliably close to Mr. Khamenei - have spoken about this and have talked about the possibility of doing away with the office of the presidency altogether.

SHUSTER: The idea is that the presidency would be replaced by the office of prime minister, who would be chosen by parliament, not by direct election of the people. That, notes Abbas Milani, would make it far easier to remove the prime minister should conflict erupt with the supreme leader.

MILANI: If this was a quote, unquote, "parliamentary system," a vote of no confidence would be all that is needed to get rid of an unfavorable or defiant prime minister and bring in someone else.

SHUSTER: Right now, impeachment is possible, but it is a far more difficult process than a vote of no confidence. How Ayatollah Khamenei might actually do away with the office of president is not clear. There is a procedure for amending Iran's constitution, but it's lengthy and would obviously spark much political controversy. It would involve creating a constituent assembly, which constitutionally should be elected by the people, and then it would change the constitution. Or, some believe, Ayatollah Khamenei could simply do it by fiat. Abbas Milani believes he won't do that.

MILANI: I think he's going to abide by the constitution. He doesn't really have the political gravitas to declare by fiat that I want to do away with this office. He is in a much more precarious position, I think.

SHUSTER: President Ahmadinejad will complete his second and final four-year term in 2013, and that's when the next presidential election is scheduled. But given the work of Khamenei's secret committee, that election may not be held, says Reza Marashi.

MARASHI: There's no doubt in my mind that that's the trajectory that we're on. In fact, I think that's the more likely scenario, barring an unforeseen circumstance. I would be more surprised if there is a presidential election in 2013.

SHUSTER: Marashi notes one other reason why Ayatollah Khamenei might want to do away with the presidency. Presidential elections have been the primary pathway for Iran's reformists to gain political power, an outcome the ayatollah is dead set against. Mike Shuster, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.