Where does the Assembly for Expediency fit?
What began as a body to adjudicate between the Majles and the Council of Guardians has been transformed and expanded into an arm of the leadership
From the first days, to the present the rulers of the Islamic Republic had to face contradictions arising out of their own nature and their patent clash with the needs of contemporary society.
This showed itself in differences of opinion between the Majles (parliament) and the Council of Guardians (CG), in legislation and policy making. The latter had the statutory duty of ensuring that the laws passed by the elected Majles is compatible with the Constitution and the shari’a. This was where the dilemma began:
The Islamic regime was pushed by the pressing needs of government, and in order to keep its grass-root support base (especially during the Iran-Iraq war), to pass a series of economic and social laws which the CG rejected as being incompatible with shari’a. The “Assembly for the Discernment of the Expediency of the [Islamic] Government” (hereafter abbreviated to Assembly for Expediency or ADEG) was only the latest in a series of schemes aimed at resolve this dilemma.
Only two years after the Constitution was ratified Khomeini openly subverted it by allowing the Majles to pass laws based on “secondary commandments”. 1 Again in the autumn of 1981, after the CG disagreed with the Majles over ownership of urban land Khomeini pronounced an edict directing the Majles to ratify by a majority vote “whatever safeguards the Islamic government 2 in Iran”, provided they make clear the temporary nature of the legislation.
In practice this scheme failed to overcome the objections of the CG to, for example, laws relating to ownership of mines, foreign trade, and land reform. Pressed by the CG’s objections to the mechanisms of deciding “necessity” Khomeini diluted his edict in 1983 and required a two-third majority in the Majles for recognition of “necessity”. In subsequent years Khomeini had to resort to other stratagems to overcome religious objections by the CG on such laws as the Labour Code,3 all to no avail.
In January 1988 Khomeini finally presented his views on the “absolute clerical rulership”4 where “governmental commandments”5 could supersede shari’a laws should the necessities of the Islamic Republic government demand it. In addition to other considerations, this step was an attempt to reduce the squabbles that had brought the legislative function of the Majles to a virtual halt.
Soon afterwards, a number of the most influential members of the regime, 6 wrote to Khomeini and asked him to set up an assembly to identify “the expedience of society and the government” and to assert “governmental commandments”. The setting up of the Assembly for Expediency on February 5, 1988 was Khomeini’s response. Members of the assembly were the writers of the letter plus Musavi Kho’iniha, Tavassoli, the heads of the legislative, judiciary and administrative services, the ulema from the CG and, depending on the issue under discussion, the relevant minister.
Its powers were initially limited to dealing with disputes between the Majles and the CG. In practice, however, the Assembly actually passed laws de novo. Objections by the Majles that their role has been usurped persuaded Khomeini to remind the Assembly of its original designated role.
Despite the fact that many disputed the Assembly’s right to promulgate laws, ADEG continued to pass such laws as “narcotics control”, “punishments not in shari’a” 7 “divorce”, “the right to trade and commerce”, and “disciplinary courts for judges”. Indeed, according to available information only 14 of the 50 or so resolutions passed by ADEG in the first five years of its life related to solving conflicts between the Majles and the CG.
Both the Assembly for Expediency, and the powers of the “absolute velayate faghih” entered the revised Constitution in 1989. Article 112 of the Basic Laws defines the functions of ADEG. It is to meet at the behest of the leadership to decide on expediency in “conditions where the CG has considered legislation passed by the Majles violates shari’a laws or the Constitution, and Majles cannot meet the requirements of the CG”, and to “advise the leadership on issues referred to it by the leadership, or other duties defined in this law”. The leadership appoints both its permanent and variable members. Article 110 which defines the duties of the leadership defines three roles for ADEG:
1. Its original role of solving disputes between the Majles and CG. Here it co-ordinates and brings together the various ruling factions and institutions. 2. Help the leadership solve such difficulties the government might face which cannot be resolved through “normal” channels. 3. Assist the leadership to arrive at “decisions on the general policies of the government, or those issues referred to it by the leadership”.
The last two are vague on what constitutes “difficulties” which “normal channels”, what “general policies” and who decides on them. These vagaries open the way to various interpretations depending on the disposition of the leader or factional rivalries.
Thus the leadership controls the formation, makeup, and function of ADEG and also confirms its internal rules and all its decisions. This organ therefore acts as an “arm” or “tool” of the clerical rulership.
Greater size and power
In the balance of power following Khomeini’s death, and Khamenei’s succession, ADEG continued as before with only a handful of members replaced. For years, there was little change in either its makeup or its duties.
On March 17 1997, Khamenei' decreed major changes in both the make-up of the Assembly as well as in its tasks. After listing its “authorised” duties, and also the “few” issues he had referred to them, Khamenei' went on: “now that the holy government of the Islamic Republic is enjoying the stability, success and respect it deserves, it is appropriate that the aforementioned august Assembly fulfils its legitimate role to the full and acquire the needed potential in its distinguished role in counselling the leadership”.
Khamenei' expanded the membership of the ADEG whose members save for five years. 8 Representatives of all the various factions 9 are present with Khamenei's faction in the majority. Ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was appointed to lead it.
A distinction was made between the function of the members. When considering issues relating to disputes between Majles and CG the whole ADEG should assemble. When attending other issues the ulema belonging to the CG, who are there on a “legal capacity” will be absent - except for two who are also there on a “personal” capacity.
Khamenei' addressed the first meeting on April 9. He emphasised the “advisory” role of this organ for the “general policy making of the entire government and for important questions”... so that “the leader, provided that he considered them necessary and correct, can notify all organs” and have them “put into unquestioned practice” ... “the purpose for setting up the ADEG with its new composition is so that it can gather and organise policies, acting as the august and able advisor to the leadership”.
Thus the leadership, as the “real manager and guide of the affairs of the country...can perform the task of policy making”, advised by ADEG, and can “define the long term goals and future policies”. ADEG is “in reality a tool for the leadership of the Islamic community and the world of Islam”. The Assembly can suggest different issues for debate, and can discuss any issue the leadership instructs. They can even supervise the execution of policies for which the “Secretariat will have a important role”.
Thus regardless of how realisable such a broad definition of duties is in the current balance of power, there is no doubt that this organ has taken on the function of many institutions such as the Majles, administration and Council of Guardians. New conflicts and contradictions are therefore inevitable. Indeed if ADEG were to function fully as envisaged in the edict, little work is left for ministries and their huge bureaucratic apparatus, the Majles and all their committees, and all the other legislative authorities of the Islamic Republic.
Despite Khamenei's insistence that this is not a legislative organ it is worth recalling that even before its duties were expanded, ADEG was already passing laws. Clearly Khamenei' hoped to enlarge his own power, gradually emasculate other institutions and bring them under his direct control and influence. Moreover by having an intermediary organ he avoids a direct confrontation with acute and potentially dangerous situations, while moving these, wherever possible, towards his own will and desire.
Khamenei' expanded the Assembly at a time when he was confident of the victory of his candidate Nategh Nouri in the presidential elections. At that time the ultra-conservative clergy around the newspaper Resalat objected to Rafsanjani’s appointment to the head of ADEG. They insisted that the organ should have a consultative and not a policy-making role. Others expected that the changes are only a transitional move linking the period of the “founding” of the Islamic Republic to that of its “expansion”. The Pro-Rafsanjani Kargozaran, who at that time had little hope of winning the presidential election, hopefully imagined him as “presiding over the future president”.
After the presidential elections the whole debate over the Assembly has taken a new dimension and urgency. The key question is the relation between this assembly and the executive branch and in particular the president.
There are also other ambiguities: is this an organ above the three branches of government or is it a form of “leadership council” which would ultimately dilute Khamenei's powers? Or has it merely a consultative role. Or what is the position of ex-president Rafsanjani at the head of ADEG?
Before he handed over the presidency Rafsanjani had already transferred some powers to this organ. The Centre for Strategic Studies, previously under the president, was placed under ADEG. He allotted the Marble Palace to its meetings and created a secretariat headed by Habibi (later Mohsen Rezai). The meetings were increased from fortnightly to weekly. The first meeting considered the law against narcotic smuggling. In the following month five specialist committees were set up.10
According to Khamenei' in the Islamic Republic “general policies should be determined by the leadership which sets guidelines for the Majles and the administration. Until now the leadership had directly announced these policies, as in the Second Plan... from now on they will first take counsel from the Assembly for Expedience and then pronounce them... the difference is between consulting and not consulting but the actual policies must in the end be proclaimed by the leadership”.
Rafsanjani defined the functions of the ADEG as that of overall policy-making in all those spheres the Constitution has assigned to the leader. Executive policies are outside the scope of the Assembly. Asked if relations with America will be discussed in this assembly, he replied that ADEG does not initiate any discussion without instruction from the leadership. Khamenei’ had asked for overall policies to be defined. This ADEG had done, as well as clarifying its elements. It was up to the leadership to bring these back to the Assembly.
Mohsen Rezai, the Secretary to the ADEG, gave a slightly different view. “In reality” he said “ADEG, and its secretariat, are the command headquarters for the country which through setting policies keeps the whole country on the road of Islam and the way of the Imam [Khomeini]”. He added that the “scope of the Assembly does not stop at the executive, but includes the legislature, judiciary, the Voice and Vision (radio-television), the armed forces and even the entire range of popular [organs]. The leadership of the Islamic government leads not just the people, but also the government and all ruling institutions. On this basis ADEG watches over all the components of the nation in the country, the private as well as the state sectors”.
Power to the leadership
It is clear that the recent changes in the ADEG are attempts by Khamenei' to extend his personal authority. Its functions, were expanded from arbitrating between legislative institutions, to become an “august consultative body”, a “tool for the leadership” helping him define the “overall policies” and supervise their conduct, and to henceforth “more completely” realise those of his powers which have been incompletely realised.
A subsidiary, but important additional function was to find a suitable post for Rafsanjani, whose unconstitutional request to be allowed to stand for a third presidential term was rejected by Khamenei'. Rafsanjani, in turn, will undoubtedly try to use the enormous prestige of his new role, and through his Kargozaran allies in the executive, to retain as far as possible his personal position as the “number two man in the government”. It should be noted, however, that Rafsanjani owes his present position, not to the ballot, but to his appointment, for a limited period, by Khamenei'.
Yet another role could be seen for the ADEG. With the passage of time and the rise of a new generation of state functionaries, a place had to be found for the retired statesmen and personalities. ADEG could, therefore, also be seen as a form of appointed “senate”, a “consultative council” for the leader, above other government institutions, but deriving its authority from the leadership. Were Khamenei's faction to lose its majority in this, or the next Majles, such an appointed body could come in useful and readily erode some of the former’s functions.
Even more important is the relationship of ADEG to the executive, especially after Khatami’s election to the presidency. Even before the present elections, Khamenei’ made the changes in ADEG to reduce some of the power of the executive president and concentrate it in his own hands. Previously the president was also the head of ADEG. Now Khamenei' has appointed someone else to that post.
Having failed to secure election of his own candidate, Khamenei’ and his supporters, who retain important positions in the CG, hold a majority in the Majles majority and ... will do all they can to tighten the president’s field of action. In these circumstances, the role of the ADEG can be critical. They are likely to promote Rafsanjani’s personal position, while at the same time cutting off the hands of his supporters in the ministries, municipalities etc. Khatami may face increasing frustration in carrying out his election promises.
One must, however, add that the final position of ADEG in the structure of power is not entirely clear. The last word, like much else in this regime, would depend on the results of the ongoing struggle between the various ruling factions of the Islamic Republic.
Translated, abridged and lightly edited from Ettehad-e Kar no 44 January 1998.
1 Ahkam sanavi. Laws, outside (or even contravening) the normal shari’a, in answer to a “necessity” and passed on a temporary basis.
2 Nezam= Order, as in Islamic Republic Order. In the absence of a suitable English equivalent we will use “government”
3 Such as setting conditions “at the time of [the labour] contract”.
4 See footnote 1 in article: Velayate Faghih: a system on its deathbed.
5 Ahkame hokumati
6 Rafsanjani, Khamenei', Musavi Ardebili, prime minister Mir Hossein Musavi, and Khomeini’s grandson Ahmad.
7 Ta’zirat hokumati
8 The “actual” (as opposed to legal) members of the old Assembly were: Mahdavi Kani, Hassan Sane’i, Mohammad Kho’iniha, Mohammad-Ali Movahedi-Kermani, Mohamad Reza Tavassoli, Abdollah Nouri, Hassan Rowhani, Hassan Habibi, and Mir Hossein Mousavi. Those entering for the first time include such “personalities” as: Ebrahim Amini Najafabadi, Va’ez Tabasi, Ahmad Jennati, Mohammad Emami Kashani, Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammad Reyshahri, Habibollah Askar-Owladi, Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi, Ali Larijani, Mostafa Mir-Salim, Morteza Nabavi, Hassan Firuzabadi, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, Mohammad Hashemi, Mohsen Nourbakhsh. Later Mohsen Rezai the former Revolutionary Guard commander joined it as Secretary.
9 Jame’ Rohaniat Mobarez (Association of Militant Clergy whose paper is Resalat), Majma’ Rohaniun Mobarez (Assembly of Militant Clerics whose paper is Salam), the Imam-line, Kargozaran Sazandegi (Agents of Construction).
10 Political, security, cultural, social, and judicial, macroeconomics and commerce, infrastructure and production.
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