Yasmin Alem writes for Al Monitor:
A trial balloon floated by Iran’s Supreme Leader last year is coming closer to reality and with it, the prospect that Iran’s political system will become even less representative of popular will.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei first raised the idea in October of abolishing the directly elected Iranian presidency by highlighting the regime’s flexibility for institutional change. At the time, his statement elicited an array of reactions from across the political spectrum. His allies in the parliament and the Guardian Council, a body that vets candidates for elected office, swiftly endorsed the proposal, assuring Iranians that well-established legal mechanisms existed for such a change. Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, speaker of the Guardian Council, told Khabar Online that the changes would not “undermine the republican and democratic values of the regime".
In contrast, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani warned that eliminating the presidency would “undermine the people’s power to choose the country’s political direction.” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was uncharacteristically tight-lipped on the subject.
The Supreme Leader has taken this notion a step further. In late July, a parliamentary faction was established to assess the conditions for changing the presidential system to a parliamentary one, with the “president” selected by parliament. A newspaper affiliated with Ahmadinejad decried the change as a subterfuge for power-hungry factions that have difficulty getting popularly elected — an ironic comment in view of Ahmadinejad’s own disputed re-election in 2009. (A former Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor on August 3 that the Supreme Leader has reportedly anointed former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati to be the next president.)
Iran’s byzantine political system, established in 1979, has undergone significant transformation in the past 30 years. In 1988, the father of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, abolished the office of the prime minster and divided its powers between his office and that of a popularly elected president.
The then-president, Ayatollah Khamenei, was closely involved in the process, knowing early on that he would be the next supreme leader. Another architect of the change was Hashemi Rafsanjani, who became the new president, giving up a prior position as speaker of the parliament. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the prime minister, was pushed out of the hierarchy and only re-emerged in 2009 when he ran against the current president, "lost" elections and wound up under house arrest.
Institutional, personal and national security considerations are behind the push for changing the Iranian system.
From an institutional perspective, the bifurcated structure of power in Iran has proven dysfunctional. Abolishing the elected presidency would resolve a two-decade-long power struggle between the two most powerful men in Iran: the supreme leader and the president. While the former constitutionally eclipses the latter, all Iranian presidents have eventually challenged their subservient position and sought to use their directly elected status to stymie Khamenei’s authority and consolidation of power.
The colossal bureaucratic and parallel institutions around the Leader have repeatedly tilted the balance in the Ayatollah’s favor. Nevertheless, the resulting tensions have been corrosive for the regime.
The dual-leadership challenge has also been exacerbated by personal differences. The Supreme Leader has developed an acrimonious relationship with all three of his presidents.