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Constitutional Law in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Said Amir Arjomand

The short history of Iran’s post-revolution constitutional law may best be reviewed in terms of the contradictions between the imperatives of the modern parliamentarian system, dating back to Iran’s constitutional revolution in early 20th century, and the demands of a theocracy based on the nearly unlimited powers of the clerically-selected vali faqih (supreme jurist). Indeed, the most salient features of the constitution of the Islamic republic represent a fundamental divide between the principles of individual liberties and popular sovereignty on the one hand, and religious ideology as the foundation of the governmental structure, on the other. Particularly since 1997 presidential election, these fundamental contradictions have come to set the parameters of Iranian politics.

The constitutional powers of the "leader" that have effectively been exercised first by Khomeini and then by his successor, Ali Khamenei, have left scant possibility for the realization of even the modest "democratic" objectives put forth by the current president, Mohammad Khatami. Indeed, his attempts to attain his announced goals of establishing the rule of law, expanding the civil society, and allowing more freedom of political expression, have all met stiff resistance by the entrenched conservative elements. The supreme leader, supported by the conservative clerics who dominate the most powerful governmental institutions, including the Council of the Guardians, has continued to exercise unfettered control over all major levers of political, economic and judicial powers.

The election of the new Majles, most of whose members support Khatami’s positions, has so far had little effect on the outcome of the ongoing struggle. In fact, just recently, and at the behest of the vali faqih, the proponents of a revised and more lenient press law withdrew their proposal without much resistance. However, despite this latest victory of the conservative faction, one can not predict the final outcome of the power struggle that is being waged in the context of the contradictory principles governing the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.