Something interesting happened in Iran yesterday that some, particularly outside of Iran, are interpreting as a serious political blow to Ahmadinejad. I am not sure whether it should be considered a serious blow or more of an election maneuver on the part of the current speaker of the parliament speaker, Gholamali Haddad Adel, trying to improve his standing among his conservative colleagues who have to decide soon who should lead their list of candidates for the next session of the parliament or his Tehrani constituency who will have to make a decision soon about whether or not he should be re-elected.
The story goes something like this. Apparently some time in the past week or so Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter to the speaker complaining about parliamentary legislation passed which mandate policies that, from his point of view, clearly infringe upon the prerogatives of the executive branch. Calling these legislations - which included retuning to daylight savings time after Ahmadinejad had rashly abandoned it or the law mandating the executive branch to specify budgetary lines for certain allocations – unconstitutional, he asked the speaker to stop these “evident” violations of the constitution. He also said that he would not implement a legislation to supply cheap gas to villages suffering power cuts in an unexpectedly harsh winter because the source of funding was not specified.
But in registering these complaints Ahmadinejad was standing on shaky grounds as the Iranian constitution has a rather clear and peculiar institutional set-up for finding which legislative acts are unconstitutional. The Guardian Council has the task of validating both the Islamic and constitutional nature of legislation (with the Expediency Council as the final arbiter if the parliament and Guardian Council cannot reach an agreement). Regarding the latter, it often sends back legislation it deems unconstitutional on the basis of Article 75 of the constitution which requires specification of compensation or source of funding for any legislation that leads to the reduction of public revenues or increase in public expenditures. By in effect proclaiming the executive branch a constitutional authority and then using that authority to not implement laws that couldn't have become laws unless the Guardian Council had agreed were constitutional, Ahmadinejad is walking on very thin legal reasoning as far as the parameters of the Islamic republic are concerned.
Haddad Adel decided to solve the problem by writing a letter to the leader, who, since the 1989 constitutional revision which significantly expanded the power of his office, is endowed with the responsibility of resolving conflicts among the three branches of the government. Ayatollah Khamenei responded immediately in a short, terse note, stating "All legal legislation that has gone through [the required] procedures stipulated in the constitution is binding for all branches of power."
Receiving the response, Haddad Adel immediately released all the relevant written exchanges, making a point that the leader had taken the side of the parliament.
As I mentioned above, some outsiders, perhaps looking for individual conflicts at the top as the explanation for why things happen in Iran they way they do (a sort of Kremlinology, if you will, applied to Iran) and trying to extract what these conflicts indicate about the direction of Iranian politics, saw this intervention as the “latest in a series of recent signals that Khamenei is losing patience with a president to whom he once showed staunch loyalty.”
In Iran, though, the commentary was much more skeptical and focused not on Khamenei’s action but Haddad Adel’s. Why did he publicize this? Why did he do it now? To some the move was a good one but rather late. After all, as one current reformist deputy put it, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly violated legislative authority on financial matters by making promises of major projects in his numerous provincial trips without going through the required funding process in the parliament. Even more problematic the parliamentary leadership had said nothing despite repeated complaints by various deputies.
A couple of conservative deputies, frustrated by the parliamentary leadership’s passivity, were more brutal, pointing out that Ahmadinejad’s unilateral moves had undermined and weakened the institution of the parliament which instead of “being behind the government was more held in its fist.” This is why to them what Haddad Adel did seemed more like a “propaganda move” to hide the lowering of the status or weakening of the parliament that had occurred under Haddad Adel’s own leadership.
Etemad newspaper saw the move less in terms of shaping public opinion and more as part and parcel of an attempt to force the conservative coalition to place Haddad Adel on top of its list of candidates for the city of Tehran, enhancing his chance of re-election but also for becoming a speaker again. This was more than anything else “a message about Haddad Adel’s spiritual influence and current position in the Islamic republic and that because of this influence the conservative leadership has no other choice but to accept him as the list leader and probably his leadership again in the 8th parliament.” One deputy quoted in the Etemad piece even goes so far as to suggest that the whole thing was a mere personal feud between the two men.
From his point of view, Ahmadinejad had not implemented many legislations in the past and will continue to do the same in the future (indeed even after the leader’s intervention, he went on and insisted that what the parliament was doing was still unconstitutional). His mistake this time around was simply to put his long-held position in writing, giving Haddad Adel an opportunity to capitalize and letting those making decisions about the candidate lists know about his clout and his ability to get the support of those who really matter in Iran.
Accepting Etemad’s version of what happened essentially implies that everyday politics in contemporary Iran, like everywhere else, may simply and merely be interesting, intricate and yes petty, nothing more and nothing less. Trying to read too much into everyday politicking of Iranian politicians interested in securing their position in relation to other politicians is increasingly looking like an over-interpretation intended to fit Iran into a narrative that implicitly or explicitly asks us to think of its politics as different from elsewhere in so far as some fundamental change about power relationships are about to happen.
Strangely despite all the economic problems, external pressures, and even the reality of a president who has antagonized a whole of array of elites in Iran and is deemed both incompetent and rash by many of them, Iran looks pretty settled to me; settled enough for dirty laundry to be washed in public for electoral gains. In any one day, the president can yell constitutional disaster; the speaker of the parliament can make big noises about parliamentary prerogatives; the all powerful leader can intervene presumably for the good cause of parliamentary vigor; commentators can look around for a second, detect manipulation and personal rivalries, note it and then get ready for commentary on the next public drama. Life goes on!