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Conservatives Suggest Eliminating The Presidency In Iran, A move That Can Backfire

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) speaks with President Hassan Rohani during a meeting with members of Iranian Assembly of Experts in Tehran, March 14, 2019
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) speaks with President Hassan Rohani during a meeting with members of Iranian Assembly of Experts in Tehran, March 14, 2019

A former political prisoner and a reformist politician has suggested to combine the positions of Supreme Leader and the president of the Islamic republic into one executive power, elected by the people and subject to term limits.

Mostafa Tajzadeh in a video released on Twitter March 22, proposed the idea as a response to some Iranian conservatives who have been suggesting in recent weeks to replace the presidency with a parliamentary system.

Other critics say if the change takes place, Iran will no longer be an Islamic "Republic".

There is no room for a president in what the conservatives are suggesting. Instead, the parliament elects a prime minister to lead the executive branch of the government.

The move, if furthered, will effectively and officially put Khamenei or the future Supreme Leader in the driver's seat and someone like Rouhani could be his prime minister.

This might be the reason Tajzadeh has thrown the ball into Khamenei’s court by proposing to merge the presidency with the top leadership and make the supreme Leader an elected official.

As it seems at this juncture, the idea of eliminating the presidency might backfire for conservatives and Khamenei as more people join the debate to oppose the scheme.

First, it was the ultra-conservative former minister of culture Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi who put forward the idea on state TV on March 17 and stirred a new round of controversy in Iran's political circles. Harandi, who is a member of the Expediency Council, has proposed to eliminate the presidency in the Islamic Republic.

It appeared that Harandi's idea is more about opposition to Rouhani than a change in the system of government as he asked on live TV: "Why should we tolerate Rouhani for eight years?" The attacks on Rouhani are made when he is at one of the weakest points of his tenure. During recent days Rouhani has been harshly criticized by his opponents for going on holiday in the Sunny Qeshm Island in the south while thousands of homes in northern Iran are washed away by a torrential flood.

Another Ahmadinejad aide, Abdolreza Davari also predicted in his Telegram channel that the system of government in Iran will change to a parliamentary system.

The idea is not entirely his. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei initiated the debate about the form of government in Iran during a visit to Kermanshah in October 2011, when he said, "In the current situation, the political system of the country is presidential, and the president is directly elected by the people, which is a good and effective system. However, in a distant future, if it is felt that the parliamentary system can better elect the executive officials; there is no problem in changing the current format."

Although the idea came originally from Khamenei, most of those who advocate the parliamentary system are conservatives close to Khamenei.

Infographic - This is how Iran is ruled
Infographic - This is how Iran is ruled

​In fact, eliminating the presidency will reduce the direct role of the people in the country’s politics. While the Supreme Leader is chosen by a handful of elders, the president is elected directly by citizens.

This gains more relevance in a post-Khamenei world, where factions will probably enter into a more open and fierce competition. A directly elected senior official such as the president will carry weight and can claim legitimacy by receiving millions of votes.

The idea was cautiously debated by officials and media at the time and everything was left to Khamenei's decision at the end. The next round of debate on the issue came up in 2017 when members of parliament decided to write a letter to Khamenei proposing an amendment to the country’s constitution that would change the ruling system from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government.

Parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani who welcomed the idea of changing the political system in 2017, said in an interview with Sazandegi newspaper in late March 2019 that he had no objection to debating the matter at Parliament (Majles).

However, his deputy, Ali Motahari, a socially conservative but politically more open-minded politician told reporters on March 22, "I do not agree with the idea of changing the Islamic Republic to a Parliamentary system at the time being as this will reduce the people's role in the government."

Former hardline MP Alireza Zakani tweeted that "the change will play into the hands of opportunists who wish to alter the nature of the Islamic Republic."

The debate is taking place at a time when all essential decisions about the affairs of the state are made by Khamenei and major political and economic issues appear to be solely in his jurisdiction. For instance sending troops to Syria, Iraq, and Yemen were never debated by parliament and his Jihadist Economy idea was never put to vote, nor does the president appear to have had any role in making those decisions. In the area of foreign policy the most important decisions such as entering into negotiation about strategic matters like the nuclear issue are made by Khamenei.

On social media, almost all those who comment not only view the change as a negative development, but users appear to oppose both forms of the government as long as the same individuals are going to run it.

Twitter user Hasan Moa, said both forms are "non-democratic."

Deneris writes that "people do not care whether it is a Presidential or Parliamentary system. They oppose the regime altogether."

When Khamenei first suggested the idea of doing away with the role of the President in 2011 his suggestion was paving the way for getting rid of Ahmadinejad, or showing him that it is easy to replace him with no hassle. Now, reviving the same debate in March 2019, could be sending the same message to Rouhani, a president who has been under because of his administration's inability to ease the ongoing economic crisis and foreign policy deadlock.

In fact many critics have characterized Rouhani's role as one of a prime minister particularly during his second term in office when Khamenei has been more actively intervening in the affairs of the government.