Iran: The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic

By Arjomand, Said Amir | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Iran: The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic


Arjomand, Said Amir, The Middle East Journal


The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic, by Asghar Schirazi. Tr. by John O'Kane. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1997. x + 308 pages. Bibl. to p. 315. Index to p. 325. $69.50 cloth; $25 paper.

Reviewed by Sald Amir Arjomand

This is a truly impressive account of constitutionmaking and the politics of legislation in Iran since the Islamic revolution of 11 February 1979. For his richly detailed account of the constitutional politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Asghar Schirazi painstakingly has scrutinized the newspapers, the parliamentary records, and the proceedings of the assemblies that drafted the constitution in 1979 and its amendments in 1989. His account of constitutional politics in Iran is, by far, the best one available so far.

Schirazi begins his analysis with two notable facts about the preliminary constitutional drafts aired during the first months of the revolution, including the official preliminary draft of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran published by the provisional government on 14 June 1979. First, there was no reference to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's theory of theocratic government, or velayat-e faqih (mandate of the religious jurist), and no provision for a supreme jurist as the leader (rahbar) of the Republic. Second, Khomeini reportedly made some minor changes on the margins of the 14 June draft a few days after it was published, and declared his support for it, adding that "it must be approved quickly" (p. 23). The provisional government had promised to formulate a Constituent Assembly in the first days of the revolution. Instead, Khomeini decided in favor of an Assembly of Experts to consider the draft constitution. Of its 72 members elected in August 1979, 55 were clerics. The Assembly of Experts, with utter contempt, set aside the preliminary draft submitted to it by the provisional government and produced a fundamentally different draft constitution, which was ratified by a referendum in December 1979. In sharp contrast to the earlier drafts, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was based squarely on Khomeini's theory of theocratic government. The supreme jurist, as the Leader of the Islamic Republic, was granted sweeping powers, and a Council of Guardians, with six plenipotentiary religious jurists and six lay lawyers with restricted power, was given the right to veto all Majlis legislation.

Khomeini, however, did not wait for the constitution to assert his supreme authority in the new regime, nor did he abide by the definition of the scope of the supreme jurist in the new constitution. A striking fact emerges clearly from this book: Khomeini not only assumed the title of the Imam, which had not been used in Shi'ism for eleven hundred years, but also acted as an Imam immediately upon the victory of the revolution. He appointed a revolutionary council and a provisional government. He also treated the property of the fallen royal family and the old elite as war booty, ordering their confiscation and constituting them into independent foundations. The Imam's representatives were appointed to many governmental agencies and organizations, including the armed forces, and they did not hesitate to make all the major decisions (after the ratification of the constitution, they were referred to as the representatives of the supreme jurist). Khomeini set up revolutionary courts and appointed their judges himself (p. 62), and he acted as the highest legislative power from February 1979 until the Majlis began functioning in August 1980. Furthermore, his position as the Leader of the Islamic Republic, which reflected his own interpretation of the mandate of the supreme jurist, assured his continued "supremacy over the Constitution" (p. 63). He acted as the commander-in-chief during the war with Iraq (1980-88), issued several decrees, notably the decree of December 1982, the first guarantee of rights to life and property against revolutionary organs, and set up new organs of government such as the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution, Special Courts for Clerics, and, above all, the Council for the Assessment of the Interest of the Islamic Republic (called the Assessment Council by Schirazi).

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