In the parliamentary elections that took place in March 2008, the core issue was not whether reformists or conservatives would win – a conservative win was presumed - but whether the new elected Eighth Majles can act in a more effective manner in the face of an executive branch that had learned to play fast and loose with the constitutional requirements of checks and balances, particularly in the budget process where Iran's Parliament has traditionally played an important oversight role.
The previous Seventh Majles, after its first year, had become accused of being weak, repeatedly consenting to Ahmadinejad’s expansionary economic policies and raiding of the oil fund despite qualms and public criticisms, and closing its eyes to the executive branches numerous violations in the implementation of passed legislations. Last year, for instance, Ahmadinejad withdrew $1.2bl from the oil fund for food imports despite Majles’ explicit rejection as a budgetary line item and later went on to say in a television interview that he had received approval from Ayatollah Khamenei to do so.
So, when Ali Larijani was unanimously elected as the speaker of the new Majles, handily beating out the previous speaker, Gholamali Haddad Adel, most observers presumed that his leadership was itself a signal that the era of Majles submission was over, despite hints of a backroom deal between Ahmadinejad supporters and Larijani’s more traditional conservative allies. Larijani had resigned his post as Iran’s nuclear negotiator in an open conflict with Ahmadinejad and this singular act provided the hope for a changed environment in the new Majles when he was elected as speaker
The new Majles has not done much since its convening in late June because it has been mostly been in summer recess. With its return to session, however, the coming week will provide a good testing ground for assessing whether such an expectation was justified. The occasion for this is the confirmation process for three vacant ministries.
Currently there are three ministries – Economy and Finance, Interior, and Transportation - that are being run by caretakers after the firing or resignation of their ministers. The use of caretakers has been Ahmadinejad’s favorite instrument in going around the Majles regarding appointments for which he thinks he will have a hard time receiving approval. But Article 135 of the Iranian constitution is quite clear that the president can only appoint a caretaker for a maximum period of three months.
This is something Ahmadinejad did not do for the all important Ministry of Economy and Finance (and the deadline for the Ministry of Interior is approaching) essentially because he was worried that his caretaker appointee, Hossein Samsami - a rather young Najaf-born economics professor with not much experience in running a government bureaucracy - was not going to be approved by a parliament particularly worried about his newly touted Economic Transformation Plan; a plan whose details have yet to be spelled out beyond the idea of some sort of direct cash payments to the needy as a substitute for untargeted subsidies. A similar situation was brewing at the Interior Ministry where the caretaker, Mehdi Hashemi, is someone whose candidacy for minister of welfare was rejected by the parliament when Ahmadinejad first became president.
Parliamentary complains about the delay was temporarily solved last week by an intervention by Ayatollah Khamenei in the form of a publicly announced but yet unpublished “state order.” Through this order the leader allowed Ahmadinejad to extend the 3-month limit for the Economy and Finance Ministry. What was initially not clear was whether this order extended Samsami’s stay until Majles came back from summer recess (which was last Sunday), as maintained by Majles members, or another three months as claimed by Ahmadinejad’s liaison to Majles.
But it didn’t take long to become clear that support for a longer period and continued constitutional violation was not forthcoming and two days after deputies came back from summer recess, Ahmadinejad hastily introduced his three ministers. Interestingly, though, only the least controversial caretaker, for the Transportation Ministry, was offered as a candidate. For the other two ministries, Economy and Interior, Ahmadinejad was effectively forced to withdraw the names of the caretakers and offer two other candidates.
In the case of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, this withdrawal came after Samsami had a disastrous meeting with the members of the parliament which lasted only 20 minutes. In the case of the Interior Ministry, the withdrawal came after the caretaker had publicly announced that he will probably be the candidate! So there is no doubt that the parliament did manage a pushback.
And despite the last minute changes, Ahmadinejad’s troubles with getting his candidates approved may still not be over. Even Ruhollah Hosseinian, a well-known hard-line deputy from Tehran, is on record saying that he was shocked to hear the names of the candidates and did not see any of them as being effective.
Hosseinian does have a point. Samsami’s replacement is Seyyed Shamseddin Hosseini who seems even more inexperienced in the running of a bureaucracy. His latest portfolio is Secretary of the Working Group for Economic Transformation, which is more of a consultative position. Majles should have at least as much trouble with Hosseini as it did with Samsami unless a backroom deal has been made between Speaker Larijani and Ahmadinejad to ignore Hosseini's inexperience for the sake of trying to overcome at least the appearance of disarray that is plaguing Ahmadinejad’s economic agenda and team. The number of votes received by Hosseini will be a good test for Larijani’s leadership as well as a marker for the extent to which the new Majles is willing to go beyond talks and complains and actually act differently from the previous parliament.
Also to be watched is the vote for Ali Kordan, the candidate for the Interior Ministry. The sudden choice of Kordan is actually quite strange. His name gained prominence last October as someone who might be nominated the head the Petroleum Ministry but, given his low chances of approval, he was never introduced. Instead, despite his lack of experience in the oil industry, he was imposed on the newly approved Petroleum Minister, Gholamhossein Nozari, as his first deputy for human resources and management with rumors abound that he was really the one running the ministry. But Rajanews, which is close to Ahmadinejad, is reporting that his choice was a compromise because he is a friend of Larijani (Kordan was Larijani’s deputy both at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance as well as Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
We shall have to see if there is any truth to all these speculations and whether, if there has been some sort of backroom deal between Larijani and Ahmadienjad, the rest of Majles will agree to the deal. What is not speculation is the reality of Ahmadienjad working with a very limited pool of trusted appointees who are acceptable to both him and the Parliament. What has also been manifestly on display is the dysfunctional relationship Ahmadinejad has developed with the rest of the Iranian political system.
He was able to bully the Seventh Majles by either imposing his will on it or ignoring its legislative dictates on occasions it decided to stand against him. He managed to do it because he has essentially maintained, with quite a bit of righteousness, that there is really no other institution besides the office of the supreme leader that can prevent him from the routine ignoring of the constitutional mechanisms for legislative action and oversight.
Given his brazen attitude, even if the makeup of the new parliament translates into a stronger stance against Ahmadinejad, it will ultimately be Ayatollah Khamenei’s public and explicit orders that will allow Majles' stronger stance to place effective limits on Ahmadinejad’s policies and behavior. Given the record of the past three years, whether he chooses to do so is not at all clear. But this must not be a comfortable position for the supreme leader more used to subtle nudging and ambiguity as a means to maintain the appearance of his office staying above the partisan fray.