Hassan Rouhani has called for the Council of Guardians to take a supervisory rather than executive role in elections. But this may have more to do with the Iranian president’s fears of disqualification of his allies than a desire for greater electoral plurality.
In a speech on Wednesday 19 August 2015, Hassan Rouhani called for a more cautious Iranian foreign policy and for the Council of Guardians (CoG) to take a more limited supervisory role in election.
Rouhani’s opening salvo
Speaking at a meeting of his Cabinet and provincial governors, the Iranian president discussed the nuclear negotiations and the post-deal course of the country’s foreign policy. Saying that some think negotiations mean making no concessions, he insisted that negotiations instead require give and take. Rouhani also indicated that Iran should pursue a cautious and constructive post-deal foreign policy:
“We should not think that after the conclusion of the deal, we can say and do whatever we want and others will have no reaction toward this change in our behaviour. We must rightly continue the same constructive path, that path that people were attracted to in June 2013 and was the cause of this success. If we do not continue that path it is likely that the deal will not be enduring.”
In the more controversial part of this speech Rouhani declared that competition in elections must be open to all factions: “This is the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Constitution governs here…we have no place in the country that wants to disqualify qualified and caring individuals who want to serve the country using their experiences, regardless of the faction from which they may come. All legal political groups and factions are respected. All are equal from the perspective of the administration and where it must said whether or not an individual is qualified to participate in an election, there are executive councils. We do not have executive councils to qualify a faction and not qualify another faction.” The Iranian presidency plays a role in elections through the Ministry of Interior, which oversees provincially appointed executive councils responsible for carrying out elections.
Critically, he called for a more limited role for the Council of Guardians in elections. The CoG plays a variety of roles under Iran’s Constitution, including vetting presidential, parliamentary and Assembly of Experts candidates as well as legislation to ensure they are compatible with Islamic criteria. The six Shi’a jurists on the CoG are appointed by the supreme leader, while the six lawyers on the body are nominated by the head of the judiciary and approved by parliament.
“The respected Council of Guardians is a supervisor, not an executive. The enforcer of the elections is the [presidential] administration. The administration is responsible for holding elections and a machinery has been created to supervise so that nothing happens contrary to the law. The Council of Guardians is an eye, and an eye cannot do the job of a hand. Supervision and execution must not be mixed. We must completely pay attention and act according to the Constitution.”
Rouhani then linked what he sees as the foreign policy victory in nuclear negotiations to victories that could be achieved on the domestic front including greater plurality in election:
“Was not the first parliament after the Islamic Revolution the best parliament in this country’s history, when not even a Council of Guardians existed and all of the destructive groups were present? The nation of Iran is a mature, experienced and great nation that wisely makes decisions for its future.”
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Majour General Mohammad-Ali “Aziz” Jafari appeared to rebuke Rouhani without directly referring to him on the following day on both the president’s foreign policy and Council of Guardians assertions: “Some believe that our behaviour must be set according to the framework of the will of the enemy,” likely a reference to the Rouhani administration’s efforts to lower tensions with the United States. These people, he continued, say: “We cannot say or act as we want; because others will react to us…”
Jafari warned that “This is the first sign of questioning the glory of the regime and zeal and competence of our revolutionary society and resistant nation which, at the height of power, must set our behavior according to this point of view and the actions of the enemy. It is clearly the beginning of the erosion of independence and greatness of the Islamic and revolutionary regime of Iran.”
“Those who want to open a new breach through these speeches for penetration by foreigners in the country, contradicting the principles of the revolution and the speeches of the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution, must know we shall never permit the development and implementation of this way of thinking.” Jafari asserted that these types of speeches result “in the weakening of the effective bases of the revolution like the Council of Guardians.”
Referencing Rouhani’s approval by the CoG, Jafari also remarked that: “Those who, through this very Council [of Guardian] and with the open-mindedness and non-partisan attitude of its members, have sought the opportunity to appear in the field of the management of the country must have more well-thought out words…and not permit questioning of the revolutionary beliefs and ideals of the society in order to gain the consent of the dominating regime and great Satan [the United States].”
Rouhani’s call for a more moderate foreign policy, in which Iran is more circumspect about both its rhetoric and actions, is not new. Coming in a post-deal context, however, it may be a new sign of his efforts to move Iran’s foreign policy, especially vis-a-vis the United States, in a new direction. His assertion that the Council of Guardians play an “eye” rather than a “hand” in elections can be seen in a context of his push for change at the domestic-level, which the Rouhani administration has done little to advance until now. Rather than a broad call for electoral plurality, it may indicate concerns among the president’s moderate allies, composed of centrists and reformists, that they will face disqualifications in the upcoming 2016 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections. Jafari’s rebuke of Rouhani underlines the tensions between the moderate and conservative camps on the domestic front, and the political battles over this which may play in the course of the coming election campaign and voting.