By Pezhman Tahavori
May 18, 2020
“The performance of Iran’s last [tenth] parliament in supervising the executive was weak.”
Many agree with this criticism of the tenth parliament that, in a week, will be replaced by the eleventh parliament, which was elected on February 21. Freshman representatives, just elected, take this criticism more seriously than most. They are waiting for the new parliament to start work so they can hold those in power accountable, unaware that same criticism will be aimed at the eleventh parliament when its term is over, four years from now, the same way that has been happening at the end of every parliamentary term for decades.
But chanting revolutionary slogans is not going to change anything. The Iranian parliament is structurally unable to effectively perform its supervisory duties for at least 10 reasons.
1. The Supreme Power of the Supreme Leader
In the structure of Iran’s political system, everybody is accountable to the Supreme Leader and it makes no difference whether one is a member of the executive branch, a member of parliament, a judge or a military commander. All are accountable to the Supreme Leader because they rise with his approval, they fall when he does not want them and none are accountable to each other.
When the president is qualified by the Guardian Council with the approval of the Supreme Leader, when ministers are introduced to parliament only after the Leader approves them and when a minister is not impeached if the Leader indicates his disapproval of a bill to impeach, why should the government be accountable to parliament?
In such a system, everybody must coordinate everything with the Supreme Leader and his establishment.
2. The Supreme Leader Cannot be Supervised
Accountability, auditing, separation of powers and transparency are characteristics of democratic systems, not of a system based on the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih), i.e. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ideology at the heart of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s political structure has no common ground with democratic values, norms and principles. In such a system, expectations of effectiveness from elected institutions are futile. We cannot build an undemocratic system and expect it to behave like a democracy.
3. The Effectiveness of Threats and Bribery
Threats and bribery are two winning cards in the hands of the regime – it uses them to control all institutions, including parliament.
Let us say that a few members of parliament in the undemocratic system of the Islamic Republic want to swim against the current and perform their supervisory duty – as has happened in every term of parliament. Each one of these members has now been disqualified from running in the next election and, in some cases, the judiciary has charged them and even sentenced them to prison.
To get a better picture, let us glance at a report [Persian link] by Abdolreza Mesri, a deputy speaker of the tenth parliament, in the waning days of its session: “Three hundred and seventeen requests for investigations were raised in the tenth parliament. Fifty-two of them were passed by the committee and, of this number, 43 were brought to the floor of parliament and 32 of them were approved. Investigations for 28 cases started and six of them were referred to the judiciary.”
This picture was completed by Hamid-Reza Haji Babaee, a member of parliament associated with Iran’s hardliners who said: “I do not believe that even one of these six cases has led to a verdict.” In other words, none of the six cases – that were not already foiled through threats and bribery – came to a conclusion because the Iranian judiciary sees no reason to comply with parliament’s votes.
4. Ignorance of Supervisory Mechanisms
Supervising and auditing government institutions needs not only the will to supervise but also knowledge and skill. But those elected to the Iranian parliament receive no training in this field. After going to parliament, many elected representatives are not familiar with even the basics of their jobs, let alone with how to supervise government institutions.
5. Parliament as an Assembly Line for Producing Laws
For numerous reasons, the Iranian parliament has become an assembly line for producing laws and the representatives spend most of their time studying and approving bills. This full-time job as legislators leaves practically no time for performing an oversight function of government. Of the five days in a week that parliament is in session, three days are spent in session parliament and the remaining two days are taken up by attending committees and caucus meetings and by meeting with constituents and managers of electoral districts.
6. Too Big a Government
The enormous size of the Iranian government has seriously weakened parliament’s supervisory ability. When all affairs of the country, big and small, are controlled by the government, how can members of parliament supervise the executive? From setting the price of tomatoes to foreign relations, everything is done by the government. Simply put, such an enormous size means that the executive cannot be supervised.
7. The Parallel Government
What makes supervision even more challenging is the existence of parallel institutions. When scores of government institutions have the same responsibility, each one points the finger at the other one. In the end, parliament might hold the government accountable but the executive institutions have myriad ways to escape taking responsibility.
8. Dependence on the Government Budget
The most important expectation of the electorate, especially in midsize and small cities, is for parliamentary representatives to build them roads, schools, universities, hospitals, factories or airports. And whenever representatives report to their constituents, they always list such development projects. In the electorate’s view, a member of parliament is successful if he or she can build more roads in the district, create jobs for young people and build a hospital to treat the sick.
As a result, one of the most important duties of a representative becomes budget appropriation for the development of their own electoral district. In fact, a representative is often more keen on making deals (or colluding) with government officials to launch development projects in their districts than on supervising government institutions.
9. Stacking the Deck
Representatives’ efforts to place their allies and like-minded individuals in government positions makes them indebted to the government. When people are given top government jobs through the influence of members of parliament, they expect the representatives to support them, not to question their deeds and their performance. In turn, to maintain their credibility with senior government officials, the representatives have to cover up the failings and weaknesses of their associates. In other words, in this vicious circle of appointments and dismissals, the representatives turn from interrogators to the interrogated.
Add to this ethnic and tribal loyalties. Ethnic caucuses in parliament and the efforts to place more people of one’s ethnic tribe in government positions leaves no room for supervision because the deciding factor is that certain government officials belong to one’s tribe and should be protected.
10. Managing the Constituents’ Entreaties
If you have ever visited the offices of parliamentary representatives in iran, you must have noticed the printed forms on their desks. At the request of their constituents, each representatives writes dozens of introduction letters to government and military officials to help constituents in arranging their affairs. One is looking for a job, another wants a loan and the third want a position with the government. There is hardly a member of parliament who would refuse to write such letters at the behest of their constituents. The constituents have a myriad of problems, the representatives need their votes to get re-elected and government officials need the support of the representatives to keep their jobs or rise in the ranks. This endless circle leaves no room for supervision and accountability.
These problems were not exclusive to the tenth parliament. All previous parliaments faced the same challenges and the incoming eleventh parliament will be built on the same foundation. Things are not going to change as long as the Islamic Republic’s system remains – or remains the same.