Iran's Guardians Council as an Obstacle to Democracy

Article excerpt

Iranians' participation in recent elections can be interpreted as an indication of their desire to change the status quo through democratic means. Efforts to change the system through elections, however, are countered by officials and state organizations with competing agendas and by a constitution that is vaguely written in key places. The Guardians Council, with the constitutional duty of supervising elections, is the most powerful body in blocking truly competitive elections.

The extent of participation in Iran's recent elections can be viewed as a sign of public interest in reforming the country's political system, or at least as a rejection of the status quo. In the Islamic Republic, however, efforts to change the system through elections are countered by officials and state organizations with competing agendas who manipulate a constitution that is vaguely written in key places.

The February 2000 election of Iran's sixth parliament and the June 2001 presidential election bear out the validity of the first part of this assertion. 69.25%, or 26.8 million, of Iran's 38.7 eligible million voters cast ballots in the parliamentary election. Even as the votes were being counted, it became clear that mostly conservative or "independent" candidates had lost to "reformists." And after the second round of the election, the reformist gains were even more clear-cut. They held almost 200 of the parliament's 290 seats. In the presidential election of 2001, furthermore, the victorious reformist incumbent, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, garnered almost 77% of the votes cast.

The actions of the Council of Guardians of the Constitution bear out the second part of the opening assertion. The Guardians Council's rejection of many potential candidates before the parliamentary election caused some unhappiness in Iran. What caused real disquiet was the Council's actions after the first and second rounds of the election. Specifically, the Council used the law to disallow reformist victories by annulling or otherwise changing election results.

It would be disingenuous to say that the exact course of the Guardians Council's action was predictable. Much of the decision-making takes place behind the scenes and almost nothing about Iranian politics fits a theoretical model or framework, unless one looks to history for patterns. In that case, one sees that the Guardians Council has regularly used its constitutional power of "approbatory supervision" (nizarat-e estisvabi) over elections to make sure that only candidates who meet its standards actually serve in public office.' This supervisory power, which gives six clerics extensive power over Iranian elections, is one of the main obstacles to the development of a true democracy in Iran.

Relying mostly on Iranian news sources, this article will discuss the powers of the Guardians Council and some of the arguments for and against this legislative body's supervisory functions. This will be followed by a discussion of the role of approbatory supervision in recent Iranian elections and whether or not the Guardians Council will be more accountable and transparent in the future. Three issues relating to the Guardians Council and elections will be examined in the conclusion: why did the fifth parliament strengthen approbatory supervision in 1999; is the Guardians Council acting within the law when it cancels election results; and what is the future of approbatory supervision?


The Islamic Republic's first draft constitution proposed a twelve-member Guardians Council, made up of five clerics and seven laymen, to ensure that all legislation was compatible with Islam.2 Their power actually to veto legislation, however, was limited.3 In the ensuing debate, secular parties argued for greater decentralization and greater power for the legislature, while socialist and Marxist parties argued that the constitution would legitimize the "anti-revolutionary intentions and activities" of the "bourgeoisie. …


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