There is great excitement in Iran these days for a number of reasons. It would, however, be wrong to assume that this is due to lifting of the decades-long illegal sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic. These were lifted on January 16 following completion of all aspects of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran had complied with all its requirements under the deal. Finalization of the deal has released some $32 billion in frozen funds as per head of Iran’s Central Bank, Valiollah Seif (January 19), but it is at the home front that real excitement is building up that is unrelated to sanctions relief.
Two crucial elections are scheduled for later this month (February 26). Both the Majlis (Parliament) as well as the Majlis-e Khobregan (Assembly of Experts) will elect a fresh slate of members. Of the two, the Assembly of Experts elections are drawing considerable interest because these are held every seven years and because of the crucial role it plays in Iran’s political affairs. The level of interest in the elections can be gauged from the number of people that have registered to run for office.
Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli announced on December 26, 2015 (a day after the registration process closed) that a total of 12,123 people including 1,434 women had signed up for the parliamentary elections. It is the largest number of candidates registered for the 290-seat Majlis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The total was up by more than 100% over the 2012 parliamentary elections.
There was equally strong enthusiasm for the Assembly of Experts elections although the qualifications to run for that body are far stricter: the candidate must be a mujtahid (ayatullah). For the 88-member Assembly of Experts, 801 candidates have registered. In order to qualify to run, each candidate also has to pass a proficiency test in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) administered by the Guardian Council, a body of senior ‘ulama and legal experts. There is both a written and oral test. While not specified in the constitution, the Assembly itself has passed a law requiring all members to be experts in fiqh and authorized the Guardian Council to assess each candidate’s proficiency.
Neighboring Pakistan could learn something from Iran. Pakistan’s National Assembly (Parliament) is full of morons and illiterates. The former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf introduced a provision requiring each candidate contesting a National Assembly seat to hold at least a bachelor’s degree. While Pakistani degrees are of pathetically low standards, most members of the assembly have not obtained even that, unable to pass the exam.
Musharraf’s announcement, however, immediately gave rise to a cottage industry in fake bachelor’s degrees. Some, like Asif Zardari, the notorious crook, husband of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (died, December 2007) who became president of Pakistan — yes, president of the “land of the pure” (!) — cooked up a degree from a college in London that does not even exist! Is it at all surprising that Pakistan is in such a sorry state? There is also a plethora of political parties that are mostly one-man shows.
Unlike Western as well as many Muslim countries (the few that hold elections), there are no political parties in the Islamic Republic of Iran. True, there are political factions where likeminded people come together to form a bloc during election time. This has the advantage that each elected candidate can vote on an issue based on his/her conscience rather than be prisoner of the party line. It has been observed in many Western countries that while a candidate may not agree with his party’s position on a particular issue, he/she is helpless and has to vote according to the line laid down by the party hierarchy or he is expelled. At the very least, a candidate may find himself/herself relegated to the backbenches and virtually banished from political participation.
Not so in the Islamic Republic. Each Majlis deputy is free to speak his/her mind and vote according to his/her conscience. That is why it is not unusual to see a candidate vote with one bloc on one particular issue but against this bloc on another issue. While some factionalism still exists, it is not rigid, allowing for much better reflection of the constituents’ concerns.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic also allows for representatives of various religious minorities to be elected to parliament. Thus, the Jewish and Christian communities have their own representatives in the Majlis alongside the regular MPs for those particular constituencies. This enables religious minorities to present their concerns directly in parliament and be heard. There is a 30,000-strong Jewish community in Iran that lives comfortably without anybody bothering them. Despite strenuous efforts by the Zionist regime in Occupied Palestine to lure Iranian Jews with offers of money to migrate to Israel, they have refused.
While the Majlis passes bills and vets ministerial appointments, the 88-member Assembly of Experts deals with even more serious issues. Members of the Assembly are elected for a period of eight years by direct public vote. Its current Chairman is Ayatullah Muhammad Yazdi and Deputy Chairman is Ayatullah Seyyed Mahmoud Shahroudi. The law requires that the Majlis-e Khobregan meet at least two days every six months. It could and does meet more often.
The most important function of this upper body, according to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, is to supervise the role and conduct of the Rahbar, currently Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. It is also charged with electing a new leader in the event of the death of the sitting leader, as happened when Imam Khomeini passed away in June 1989. The Majlis-e Khobregan immediately held an emergency session and elected Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei as the new leader.
Though the Majlis-e Khobregan does not meet as often as the Majlis (Parliament), its responsibilities put it on a much higher plane. Since its establishment in 1982, the Assembly of Experts has chosen only one Leader but the decision was not light. Its members are required to consider and review the qualifications and suitability of candidates for the highest office in the land.
Constitutionally the criteria of qualification for the office of the Rahbar (Jurist-Consult) include “Islamic scholarship, justice, piety, right political and social perspicacity, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership.” The constitution, however, does not require that they elect a leader from among their own members. If they find a jurist better versed in Islamic regulations, in fiqh or in political and social issues, or possessing more general popularity or special prominence than any of their members, they can elect that person as the Rahbar. The Experts Assembly can also choose one of its own members as the leader.
One interesting feature — something that is not generally known or acknowledged — is that unlike a candidate for the presidency, the Rahbar does not have to be born in Iran. What this indicates is that while the president is elected for the Iranian people and his authority is limited to Iran, the Rahbar is leader of the entire Muslim Ummah.
This is what makes the Islamic Republic’s system Islamic in the true sense of the word.