Khamenei’s balance of power strategy: Reining in parliament?

In a recent speech to an assembly of newly elected representatives of the Ninth Majlis, Iran’s legislature elected in April 2012, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the previous Eight Majlis (2008-2012) thereby conveying a subtle message about his hopes and expectations for the future. Khamenei’s criticisms centered on three main themes: The legislature’s unrelenting opposition towards the executive branch, parliamentarians’ lack of discipline and responsibility, and their unaccountable and feckless spending habits.

Khamenei’s strongest criticism was of the Eight Majlis’ harsh attacks against the Ahmadinejad administration:

“Majlis must not think that it can use its independence as a pretext to oppose the executive over every issue. If the Majlis has a difference in opinion it can pass laws without resorting to such unhelpful actions.”

Khamenei also bemoaned the lack of decorum in the Majlis, asking why parliamentarians mercilessly heckled anyone from the Ahmadinejad administration who came to speak before them or why they resorted to ugly personal attacks.

Next, Khamenei criticized the lack of discipline and responsibility in the Majlis. He said that many parliamentarians shirked their public duties by failing to show up to important committee meetings or not participating in important debates and votes.

Lastly, Khamenei raised concerns about what he perceived as the financial irresponsibility of the Majlis, which included inflated budgets, pork barrel spending, and earmarks as a result of political lobbying by different interest groups.

Editor’s note: Khamenei’s speech seemed to rebuke the Eight Majlis, whose political makeup is similar to the Ninth Majlis. This can thus be taken as something of a warning to the new Majlis about the supreme leader’s expectations. Interestingly, Khamenei’s criticism of the legislature in general and particularly of its harsh line against the executive goes somewhat against the media narrative that has arisen since 2010 which claims that Ahmadinejad is engaged in a power struggle with Khamenei. What can explain this apparent change of tone? There are a number of possible explanations.

After the suppression of the 2009-2010 Green Movement demonstrations the Islamic regime rallied around Ahmadinejad against the Reformist faction, helping him emerge in a stronger position. However, from the beginning of his second term Ahmadinejad appeared to be infringing on the prerogatives of Khamenei. For example Ahmadinejad attempted to remove Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, an action which looked like a direct challenge to Khamenei. After such apparent confrontations did Khamenei take an active position against Ahmadinejad or simply remove his fulling backing for the controversial president?

Khamenei remained silent, and his silence created a vacuum in which Ahmadinejad’s enemies, particularly in the Majlis and Judiciary (led by the Larijani brothers), were better able to attack him. In this vacuum, Ahmadinejad has become weaker, with constant threats of impeachment for him and his administration officials from parliament and investigations of those close to him by the judiciary.

By giving such a strong criticism of the Eight Majlis, Khamenei may be reining in the legislature and judiciary and restoring some of his support for the president. In seemingly attempting to create such a balance of power, Khamenei may be revealing that while he has his problems with Ahmadinejad, he does not favour the president’s rivals such as Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani and his supporters in the Principalist Unity Front (PUF). Only time will tell which political currents Khamenei and the upper echelons of the regime do favour, and could support in the future.