A look into Iran's Islamic constitution and how it impedes Iran's democratic reform...

The trigger of violence was officially pulled in Iran when it became clear that the vision of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) as an Islamic society, was to take precedence over all other visions and interpretations after the revolution of 1979. There was disagreement from the start among the various political forces over the definition of the revolution itself.

The left and secularists wanted the term “Democratic Republic”, while a spectrum of Muslims preferred “Islamic Democratic”, but Khomeini opted for "Islamic Republic". The referendum of March 1979 overwhelmingly demonstrated the meaning of the term “Islamic Republic”, and produced the first isolation of all, who believed in adding the word “Democratic” to Iran, and did not believe in “Islam above all”.

The referendum proposed only two options to the voters, Islamic Republic or Monarchy, and was thus boycotted by The National Democratic Front, a broad coalition of forces with different political leanings (from Left to centrist and moderates). Apart from the pro-USSR Toudeh Party that unconditionally supported the IRI in the first years after the revolution, all other leftist groups and a majority of Kurds boycotted the referendum.

A critical fragmentation occurred over the creation of a body of Constitutional Experts, which was to prepare the new constitution, and over the text of the Constitution itself, which was to be voted on in October, 1979. By then it had become clear that Ayatollah Khomeini’s idea of an Islamic society and government was to prevail and that other ideas as to the nature of the new Islamic Republic were not to be tolerated.

The most controversial aspect of the Constitution is the central role it grants to the religious leadership. IRI Constitution of 1979, revised in 1989 to entrust ultimate power into hands of the clergy, is dominated by the "Supreme Leader", who is chosen for life by a body of Shiite clerics. According to the Constitution, in absence of the Hidden Imam (Mahdi), his representative on earth, the Supreme Leader, possesses a vast array of powers, including command of the armed forces and the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the power to declare war and peace, the power to appoint the Head of the Judicial Power and the head of the Iranian Broadcasting Corporation, and the power to dismiss the president.

According to Article 161 of the Constitution, the Supreme Judicial Council determines the laws under which the Supreme Court operates. The Supreme Court, in turn, is responsible for supervising the proper application of laws in lower courts and for creating unity and uniformity in the judicial policies of the country. The head of the Supreme Court is appointed by the Supreme Leader and is answerable only to him. This is in fact the legal arm of repression and atrocity based on the medieval Shari’a (Islamic law). Typical to the constitution’s numerous internal contradictions, the judicial body contradicts Article 2, which rejects any kind of oppression.

According to Article 1 of the Constitution, the form of government in Iran is that of an Islamic Republic due to the current referendum. Not only is Islam omnipresent in the rule and administration of the country, but also in its absolute and unchecked exercise of power through the institution of the “Velayat-e–Faghih” (absolute power of the Supreme Leader).

According to the Constitution, all candidates of the Iranian Islamic “Majlis” (Iranian parliament) and all presidential candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council, which vets them for "strict allegiance to the ruling theocracy and adherence to Islamic principles”. Under the surface, however, the president and the parliament operate at the whim of the Supreme Leader. Every election in Iran is constitutionally controlled by Mullahs and engineered and manipulated by their institutions. No President or Parliamentarian has been elected through a fair and democratic process.

The Constitution actually named Khomeini as the “Faghih” (Supreme Leader), investing him with extensive authority over the judiciary and all branches of government. The Constitution reflected the efforts of Khomeini and his supporters to translate his notions of the ideal Islamic state into practice. Not only was this a clear departure from secular and democratic concepts of politics, it also went against the views of certain religious authorities.

The clash of opinions right after the revolution over this issue between Ayatollah Shari’at Madari and Ayatollah Khomeini brought out into the open internal political differences among the Ulama (clergy) and intensified the power struggle. The Constitution, which declared that the Twelver Shiite sect of Iran superseded other creeds and denominations in the country, also antagonised the Sunni minorities, notably the Kurds and Turkamen, who already felt threatened by the intransigence of the Centre towards their aspirations for minimal self-rule or local autonomy.

As dissension within society intensified, the reaction by Islamists became fiercer. Until the summer of 1979, the attacks had been against the Left as a whole. The next attacks came on those who had been toeing the Islamic line but considered outlook. These included “Mojahedin” (MEK members) and other lay supporters of the Islamic Republic, and eventually factions from within the religious establishment itself, especially those associated with the Muslim People’s Republic Party, close to Ayatollah Shari’at Madari.

The attacks during late 1979 and throughout 1980 extended to those within the administration itself, especially the “liberals”, (a term used by the left to describe those within the leadership with ties to the bourgeois class, including President Bani Sadr and Prime Minister Bazargan). In this process, freedom of speech and expression greatly diminished. Individual liberty has been further repressed by the enforcement of the Shari’a through the establishment of Revolutionary and Islamic tribunals, which were set up immediately after the Revolution.

In August 1979, the Islamic Prosecutor General extended the jurisdiction of the Islamic courts to cover all “counter-revolutionary activities”, as well as commercial and industrial disputes. Criminal offences were dealt with by the Revolutionary courts. Victims have to conduct their own defence, since the functions of a defence lawyer are combined in the person of the Islamic Judge (Hakem Shar’) in each city (a Mullah usually from Qom and usually appointed by Khomeini), who hold powers of arbitration and final sentencing in all cases.

The demand for political liberty had been at the heart of the protests of 1978-79. Ayatollah Khomeini himself, before coming to power, repeatedly promised freedom of expression under the new regime. He knew how hungry the people were for freedom, which especially after the US-led coup of 1953 against the Prime Minister, Dr. Mossadegh, became people’s greatest dream.

The suppression of the right to form political parties began under the Shah. After the coup, the Shah accepted a two party system, in which both parties were the only sources to form government, parliamentarians and other key positions. In 1975, the Shah merged these two parties into the Rastakhiz, or Renewal Party. A one-system party were imposed on Iran.

In the short period of democracy following the uprising of February 1979, hundreds of organisations were formed and the underground opposition forces were, initially, able to work openly.

Once in power, the Shiite clergy formed the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) and organised their supporters into a paid professional militia, including the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran), the Islamic Revolutionary Mojahedin (not to be confused with the MEK) and the Hezbollah or the Party of God. This consolidation paved the way for a crackdown on the independent organisations.

On December 1, 1979, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic was proclaimed by the Assembly of Experts. Principal 26 guarantees the right to establish societies and organisations. Like any constitution of totalitarian regimes, the IRI Constitution is also based on ideology, its ideology being Islam: Article 2 defined an Islamic Republic as a system based on belief.

The Constitution limited the rights of people and their political activities within the framework of Islam. Parties, associations or political and professional societies, Islamic societies and societies for the recognised religious minorities can be formed if they do not negate the principals of independence, freedom and national unity or the principles of Islam and the Islamic Republic. No one can prevent anyone from participating in any particular organisation.

However, despite this remark at the end of the paragraph, not one day passes when a group, individual, idea or political entity that is not pro-IRI is not attacked.

In the fall of 1979, the small office of the newly founded Democratic Front was attacked and its members were forced into hiding. Shokrollah Paknejad, a leader of the Front, who had been imprisoned under the Shah for a decade, was arrested and executed in prison in January, 1982. In fall, 1979, the office of the Iranian Writers Centre, a democratic publishing group, was confiscated and its literature banned. The director, Said Soltanpour, a famous poet and playwright, was arrested at his wedding and executed on June 21, 1981. Other members of the Writers Centre were forced underground or into exile.

On January 26, 1980, the offices of the MEK throughout the country were assaulted by agents of the regime.

The Iranian constitution creates a façade of democracy and a semblance of separation of powers. In reality, it institutionalises Islam by establishing the most repressive and parasitic organs by which totalitarian power can be prolonged. Like any totalitarian regime, the constitution bestows upon the dominant class unlimited power divided among mullahs, who rule according to Shari'a.

Seen in this light, the Constitution is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy. So, the core problem of Iranian society is not the interpretation or reform of this Constitution but its very existence. It is an obstacle to any progress toward democracy and modernisation. While the ideological focus of the constitutions of other totalitarian regimes has been on race—that of Nazi Germany highlighted the superiority of the “Aryan Race”, that of Apartheid South Africa ensured the supremacy of the whites—the IRI constitution’s focus is on Islam. The IRI has imposed an Islamic model of a totalitarian system, in which the main characteristic is gender segregation. Hand in Hand with the Constitution, the regime attempts to impose a patriarchal system of society inspired from an Islamo-Arab culture.

Although Article 3 talks about “the elimination of imperialism and foreign influence”, it implicitly accepts the influence of Islamo-arabism by saying: “Since the language of the Koran and Islamic texts and teachings is Arabic, and since Persian literature is thoroughly permeated by this language, it must be taught after elementary level, in all classes of secondary school and in all areas of study.” Therefore, Arabic language lessons and reading of the Koran become more compulsory despite being abhorred by an increasing majority of students.

The tendency of such a constitution is to pave the way for Arabo-Islamisation of Iranian society. This is not only a thorn in the eye of any Iranian nationalist, but more practically, it is an obstacle to democratisation and modernisation of Iranian society. It stipulates a process in which any non-Islamic components, including those of pre-Islamic Persian ones, must be ignored.

Thus on April 19, 1980, the Islamic Republic launched The Cultural Revolution in Iran. The universities were purged of secular and democratic professors and students. Campuses were then dominated by IRI-oriented gangs of thugs and whatever was left of the early democratic student movements was confined to Islamic student groups. It was the beginning of official state violence to force Islamisation of universities, and of all Iranian culture in subsequent years.

Any aspiration for democracy and modernisation in Iran must begin with the negation of the IRI constitution. The constitution itself legitimises the means of repression and backwardness. In any form and reform, this constitution creates a model of state in which all institutions are orientated in the direction of regressive despotism.

The constitution is full of contradictions and has placed a ban on all reforms deemed "un-Islamic" by judicial and Islamic authorities; Article 4 is immutable and the Council of Guardians ensures that all articles of the Constitution as well as other laws are based on Islamic criteria.

The IRI constitution favours the medieval norms of ruling Mullahs. Since it restricts individual and political rights, ensuring that the Iranian people cannot challenge the clerical regime's supremacy, it stands firmly against any democratisation, gender equality, social justice and modernisation of society.

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