Two years ago, Iran’s parliament blocked several of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s key decisions and impeached one of his top ministers. But today, the leader routinely ignores parliament’s laws and undercuts its authority, leading some politicians and analysts to fear that Iran is slipping toward dictatorship.
A strong parliament is central to the Islamic republic’s political system, which mixes religion and democracy and divides power among the parliament, the president and councils of clerics.
But Ahmadinejad, emboldened by the support of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says he is merely exercising his rights under the constitution. The Majlis, or parliament, should stop creating an obstacle to Iran’s progress, Ahmadinejad argues.
In a recent open letter, leading parliamentarians demanded a resolution to the escalating dispute and warned they could start several procedures, including impeachment, against the president if his power is not checked.
Legislators complain that Ahmadinejad is refusing to sign off on decisions they make that are legally binding on his government. They also charge that he is spending billions of dollars without the consent of the 290-member assembly and blocking major payments to the municipality of Tehran, with which he and his administration are at odds.
They also say his government is not providing details on the upcoming national budget and is spending unknown sums on dozens of trips to Iran’s provinces – all in violation of the constitution.
The leader of the assembly, Ali Larijani, and four other prominent members wrote that parliament’s supervisory and lawmaking role, as set out in the 1979 constitution, is in danger. “If the government insists on limiting the parliament,” the strongly worded letter read, “this will be tantamount to the elimination of the republicanism of the system.”
After the 1979 revolution, Iranians overwhelmingly supported a referendum that made the country an Islamic republic in which a supreme leader has final say over all political and religious affairs. Responsibility for daily management of government affairs rests with a directly elected parliament, Ahmadinejad and his ministers, and a mix of appointed and elected clerical councils, who are in different ways supposed to control and supervise one another.
But since Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009, conflicts among all these powers have intensified, with the president consistently emerging victorious.
Ahmadinejad responded to the parliamentarians’ letter by insisting that, after Khamenei, he is the republic’s most powerful man.
“As president, I lead the executive power, I come second after the leader and I am in charge of implementing the constitution,” he told reporters in a Nov. 29 news conference. “They are wasting our time with these letters,” he said.
The political battle illustrates the changing face of politics in Iran, which for decades was led by several competing factions. In recent years, politicians who led the 1979 revolution have been purged and their parties closed down; some are serving jail sentences.
Meanwhile, with power increasingly centered on Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, the president and a small circle of confidants are moving to reshape the country. They are seeking to boost Iran’s profile on the international stage and, domestically, want to redistribute subsidies to the poor, extend their influence on schools and universities, and move at least 5 million people out of the capital, Tehran.
The Ahmadinejad government “says it needs more power and wants its hand to be open to implement its policies,” said Emad Afroogh, a former parliamentarian who had been a strong supporter of Ahmadinejad but now disagrees with his polices.
For the president and his ministers, parliament is an obstacle, Afroogh said. “But if parliament is weakened and decisions are taken personally, against the constitution, in reality that would mean dictatorship.”
Obstacles to impeaching
At the end of Ahmadinejad’s first term, parliament – filled with politicians who had been among his strongest supporters – ironically did everything it could to limit the president’s power, forcing him to change ministers and continuously calling them in for public questioning. Those who opposed Ahmadinejad in parliament often shared his general policies but were unhappy about the way he was pushing them through the system.
In 2008, parliament impeached Ali Kordan, the education minister and an Ahmadinejad ally, when it was discovered that his Oxford degree was a fake, and it forced other government ministers to resign. Ahmadinejad charged that parliament was out to “sabotage” his government.
While the constitution permits parliament to impeach the president for violating laws and ignoring its supervision, the current assembly is too weak and politically divided to make such a radical move, politicians and analysts say.
Few parliamentarians are keen to take on the president publicly, especially because many need his government’s support of infrastructure projects to help them get reelected in 2012.
Another roadblock is Khamenei, who, under the constitution, would have the final say on impeachment. In several speeches he has supported the government’s policies, making it highly unlikely that he would confirm such a decision by parliament. He has, however, ordered the formation of a special committee aimed at solving the problems between parliament and the president.
Prominent parliamentarian Ali Mottahari has been trying for weeks to gather 72 signatures needed to bring the president in for questioning, a much lower form of legal punishment than impeachment. When pro-government media revealed some names of alleged signatories, all strongly denied signing the petition.
Mottahari insists that making those names public was a trick engineered by Ahmadinejad and his government, and has vowed to keep the names of supporters secret.
For now, despite the long list of incidents in which parliament has been defied, neither the president nor his ministers face a serious threat.
“Due to the unlimited support of other power centers for Ahmadinejad, the parliament’s hands are tied,” said Abbas Abdi, an analyst critical of the government. “That is why the government is strong and parliament completely powerless and weak.”
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