The rupture in Iran

From the diaries by Erick.

The only real test for the stability of a constitution is not how it copes with consensus, but how it stands up to the stresses of division.  Iran’s complicated constitutional structure is about to face that test.

Some have suggested that all power lies with the Supreme Leader.  Some media have even described the position of Supreme Leader as one chosen for life.  This is not so.  On paper, the real power lies with the Assembly of Experts.  Whether that is so in practice, remains to be seen.  The Assembly of Experts chooses, supervises, and can dismiss the Supreme Leader.  There have, of course, only been two Supreme Leaders, and the first died in office, without ever having been challenged.  But the constitution of Iran does not require that the role be a job for life, not does it require that the Assembly remain supine.

There is no evidence that the Assembly of Experts has ever challenged any opinion or position of the Supreme Leader – though since it meets only in secret, no such evidence would be likely to come to light, even if it had been a very boisterous organisation.  But this crisis is one that has no precedent.  At the very summit of the state, revolutionary loyalists who served with Khomeini are deeply divided.

The authority of the Supreme Leader has been challenged.  He called for the demonstrations to stop, and they did not stop.  The Assembly of Experts can hold him to account in his hour of weakness.  The Assembly could summon him and ask him questions.  Why, for example, did he declare that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected without waiting for the constitutionally mandated period in which candidates could challenge the conduct of the election?  Why has he prejudged the enquiry into the election by the Council of Guardians, an enquiry which he himself requested?

Constitutionally, the Assembly of Experts can replace the Supreme Leader, and a new Supreme Leader could replace half of the members of the Council of Guardians.  In law, it is with the Assembly that real authority lies.

The problem for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is that his greatest political foe – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – chairs the Assembly of Experts.  Candidates linked to Rafsanjani won 65 of the 86 places in the last election.  So when the government – presumably with Ahmadinejad’s blessing – arrested members of Rafsanjani’s family, it was probably a tactical error.  He may have threatened his own position, and that of his main protector, the Supreme Leader.

The fact that Rafsanjani’s list won the last elections does not mean that any of the things I have described are inevitable or even likely.  That members of the Assembly of Experts were aligned with Rafsanjani at the time of the election does not mean they are under his control or necessarily agree with him on this issue.  Many may be cautious of flexing the Assembly’s muscles, for fear of breaking the system entirely.

Can the Assembly of Experts assert the powers which the constitution gives it, but which have never been used?  No-one knows.  Could the constitution survive any attempt to assert those powers?   No-one knows the answer to that either.  If the Assembly were to dismiss the Supreme Leader, would the Revolutionary Guard or the army recognise the change?  We live in interesting times.