Juan Cole: Rafsanjani's Steps to Resolve Iran's Crisis

Roundup: Historians' Take

What was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani trying to say in his Friday prayers sermon? (The text is below).

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader and ultimately all important decisions are made by him. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Misbah-Yazdi is an important exponent of this authoritarian view of the Islamic Republic. The Leader in this view is a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

Then Rafsanjani says:

' As you are aware, according to the constitution, everything in the country is determined by people's vote. People elect the members of the Assembly of Expert[s] and then they elect leader, that is, the leader is (indirectly) elected by people's vote. Presidents, MPs, members of the councils are elected by direct votes of the people. Other officials are also appointed (indirectly) through people's vote. Everything depends on people. This is the religious system. The title of Islamic Republic is not used as a formality. It includes both the republican and Islamic nature.'

He points out that the parliament, president and members of municipal councils are drectly elected. But the Supreme Leader is indirectly elected, since he is chosen by the Assembly of Experts. But they in turn are directly elected by the people (i.e. the Experts are a sort of electoral college in American terms).

Opinion polling shows that Iranians mostly want the Supreme Leader to be directly elected. But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.

Rafsanjani then speaks of a plague of doubt about the election results that has afflicted a not inconsiderable number of Iranians, including many intellectuals and thinking persons.

His solution to this crisis of confidence consists in the following steps:

1. All parties to the dispute should act only in accordance with the law.

2. The authorities must exert themselves to regain the confidence of the people.

3. The door must be left open to free and unrestrained public debate among the contending parties, including on the state-run radio and other media.

4. Demonstrators and other prisoners of conscience must be released by the regime.

5. The press must be left free to publish a wide range of opinion on these issues.

Rafsanjani seems to have been acknowledging that the results of this election are unlikely to be overturned. But he is urging fresh legislation and wide open debate as means of resolving the crisis.

So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
Read entire article at Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole)

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