Part 1 of this series on "Understanding Iran" appears here. Part 2 is here.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran was elected in 2005 for a four-year term of office on a universal franchise of the residents of Iran (male and female). A President can only serve for one set of successive terms. But this provision appears to allow a President who has already served an eight year period to serve more terms as long as these are not successive.
The Majilis, Iran's parliament of 290 members are also elected on a universal franchise. Elections are currently pending. There is also a wide range of elections for Local and Town Councils under the same form of franchise.
BUT - there are a series of controls and restraints upon the above operations, which undermine the democratic credentials of the Iranian constitutional and political system. These are covered next.
The Democratic Deficit
This arises from Iran being an Islamic Republic with strong theocratic controls.
(1) The Supreme Leader And The Assembly Of Experts: It isn't the elected President in association with the Majilis who has the final say within the Iranian system. This position is held by the Supreme Leader. Currently this is Atytollah Khamanei. He was elected for life in 1989 by the Assembly of Experts, who consist of 86 Mullahs and are the only body who can intervene to replace the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief and appoints the heads of the judicary, the police, the military and the State radio. He also operates overall supervision under the provisions of the Constitution.
(2) The Guardians Of The Constitution: The Assembly of Experts are themselves an elected body, but the whole of the electoral system (including elections of the President and the Majilis) is subject to a significant power of veto by a body called "The Guardians of the Constitution". This is made up of twelve jurists. Six have specialisms in Islam and are appointed by the Supreme Leader, whilst another six are jurists whose names are put forward by the Head of the Judiciary (who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader) and are then elected by the Majilis. The Guardians are ruling out a whole host of candidates at the moment who had intended to stand in the General Election for the Majilis. In 2004, some 2,000 such candidates were excluded. Those barred from standing are mainly radicals who wish to see reforms within the political system and are more likely to be supporters of progressive social reforms. The Guardians also supervise the operations of elections. This gives them openings to further interfere in the electoral process.
(3) Presidential Powers Over The Majilis: Although the President's grant of power under the Constitution is secondary to that of Supreme Leader, he still has a position of significance in that he (a) appoints the Heads of a wide range of posts and Ministries outside of those controlled by the Supreme Leader and (b) can block legislation passed by the Majilis. Although there has been a recent case in which the Supreme Leader has acted to override such a Presidential veto.
(4) Loss Of Civil Liberties: For democracy to flourish, there is the need for a wide range of freedoms (a) to express conflicting viewpoints, (b) to enable people to organise into competing political parties and pressure groups and (c) to be able to demonstrate peacefully for their concerns. Iran has a poor record in these areas and the situation is currently worsening. Human Rights Watch covers the situation in Iran on pages 472 to 477 of its "2008 World Report". It set the scene with the following comments - "Respect for basic human rights in Iran, especially freedom of expression and assembly, continued to deteriorate in 2007. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad routinely detains people for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, and regularly tortures and mistreats those detained. The judiciary, which is accountable to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is responsible for many serious human rights violations. The government increasingly cites "national security" as a prexext for silencing expressions of dissent or calls for reform."
(5) Extra Restrictions On Women's Rights: Although women have the vote and a small number have been elected to the Majilis, they are excluded from seeking the offices of Supreme Leader, President or membership of the theocratic bodies mentioned above. They are also invariably barred from associating with men in large groups, whether this on demonstations or in attending football matches.
The Dichotomy At The Heart Of The Iranian System
The Iranian Constitution attempts to marry together a system of regular and universal voting, with theocratic controls. This is an arrangement which can only work smoothly when the bulk of the electorate find themselves in conformity with the norms and values of their religious leadership. When wide groups feel economically deprived and Iran's young population throws up student groups with radical viewpoints and global pressures import values of free association; then social tensions are likely to advance. Pressures can then emerge to improve the democratic arrangements and to try to use them to usher in social change. Whilst some elements of the clerical and economic elites may then seek to compromise with such pressures, others will be given to using and extending theocratic controls. Such tensions could arise, especially, around a future Presidential election and over whom is entitled to stand. As indicated in Part 2, there is also a strong sense of national indentity throughout Iran. When the country is under pressure (as in the Iraq-Iran War) such nationalism can be mobilised for internal political ends as it was by theocratic elements in the 1980s. This is relevant to the conflict between the USA and Iran, which we will examine in a later section.