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Parliamentarism in Iran

The victory of the Persian Constitutional Revolution in Iran in 1906 marked the start of parliamentarism in Iran. The causes of the Constitutional Revolution could be summarized as follows:

 

In the 18th century, the Qajar dynasty's failure to administer state affairs came to the limelight in each and every domain. Defeats in rapid succession from Russia and loss of lots of land in northeast and northwest including Caucasus and parts of what is today known as Central Asia, the loss of Afghanistan due to Britain's intervention, giving colonial-style economic privileges to the Russian and British governments including the 1890 Concession of the Tobacco Regie in Persia were all indicative of the incapability of the former rulers running the country. In addition, governors’ acts of injustice against people in different parts of the country, nationwide poverty and insolvency, and the Qajar kings' unnecessary and costly trips to Europe showed the ruler's problems. Meantime, adoption of a firm stance by senior and influential clerics and religious scholars in Iran, and the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Samarra against the Qajar kings, particularly in the final days of power for Nasser ad-Din Shah, raised public awareness and mobilized people from different walks of life against the Qajar kings' injustice. This clerical movement came to fruition with the victory achieved in the Tobacco Movement. Furthermore, measures undertaken by Abbas Mirza and Chief Ministers like Mirza Abdol-Qassem Qaem and Amir-Kabir for modernism, sending students abroad to study, formation of a modern Army and establishment of printing house and technical school, constituted other factors that raised national awareness and persuaded people to join the Constitutional Revolution. Intellectuals like Akhundzadeh, Malkom Khan, and Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, who set up secret associations and printed newspapers to promote progressive thoughts through articles were among other factors of the victory of the Constitutional Revolution.

 

Among the four aforesaid groups of factors, the role of the clergy and intellectuals in creating parliamentarism in Iran is justified. Despite differences between these two groups, they held a common view on one point, i.e. the necessity to curtail the monarchal power to enforce rule of law and parliamentarism in a bid to avert despotism. This common view and coordinated action triggered a historical event, known as the Constitutional Revolution. That opened a new chapter in the contemporary history of Iran, which was then known as Persia. The Constitutional Revolution hit some snags; however, its legacy has survived throughout years. It was the most important factor showing people's involvement in determining their own political fate. The legacy of the Constitutional Revolution is parliament which has been through ups and downs. In other words, the establishment of legislative body and separation of powers cleared the way for the first steps to be taken towards democracy in the country.

 

The Persian Constitutional Revolution recognized the National Consultative Assembly as the very foundation of Constitutionalism. The main task assigned to the National Assembly was to stabilize Constitutionalism in the country and strengthen the position of legislative power vis-à-vis executive power. Nonetheless, it must be taken into account that in then Persia parliament was not as influential as it was in some European countries. In Europe, the parliamentary procedure was born out of the society and had experienced balanced growth based on historical conditions and in consistency with requirements of each and every period. In Iran, parliament was an imported organ, which was supposed to replace the absolute power of the Shah. However, the performance of parliament in the final years of Qajar in power and throughout the Pahlavi regime proved that cultural and political grounds in Iran could not digest the fallout from marginalizing absolute monarchy and supplanting it with democratic organs.

 

In the wake of the victory in 1979 of the Islamic Revolution, this important objective was achieved to a favorable extent owing to the historical experience of the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties.

 

The history of parliamentarism in Iran may be divided into four periods as follows:

 

Period I: Qajar-Style Constitutionalism; First to Fifth National Consultative Assembly

 

The first period started during the formation of the 1st National Consultative Assembly and survived the 5th Assembly until the 1920 Britain-backed coup brought Reza Shah to power. However, due to domestic and international issues, over a 14-year period, the Assembly was in effect for seven years only. In other words, the emergence of parliamentary regime failed to contain domestic chaos born out of domestic and foreign events. The first three rounds of the National Consultative Assembly failed to serve out their terms: The 1st Assembly came under artillery fire at the order of Mohammad Ali Shah; the 2nd Assembly was dissolved in less than two years by the government following an ultimatum from Russia; the third Assembly did not serve out its full term due to World War I and the Anglo-Russian occupation of Iran. The impact of WWI and the weakened central government, as well as foreign conspiracies during the long interval between the third and fourth Assemblies, left significant impacts on the future history of Iran because the ensuing insecurity triggered local unrest in Khorasan, Azerbaijan, Guilan and other provinces. This helped Reza Khan come to power to initiate a new round of monarchy.

 

Therefore, one of the most important events transpiring the first round of Iranian parliamentarism occurred after the Qajar dynasty was declared over on October 30, 1925. Of course international events were instrumental because the victory of Russia's October Revolution in 1917 and concomitant establishment of a Socialist government, and Russia's withdrawal of its troops from Iran led Britain to imagine that Russia may win control over Iran. To counter such a scenario, Britain laid the foundation for monarchal changes in Iran. In parallel, the National Consultative Assembly for the first time made arrangements for the formation of parties in Iran.

 

During the term in office of the 1st National Assembly, the election was union-based and there was no proper ground for the formation of parties. This is while under the second National Assembly, the lawmakers were divided into Moderates and Democrats. Political struggles in the two opposing camps were key to the stability or instability of Cabinets and the implementation of government plans. However, the newly established parties were short-lived as they were banned after Reza Shah came to power. This historical experience repeated itself every time the country saw political overture.

 

Period II: Reza Shah Monarch; 6th to 12th National Assembly

                                                            

The second period pertains to the Reza Shah rule up to World War II and his deposition by Allied governments. The sixth to 12th national assemblies were in power under Reza Shah, from July 1, 1926 to October 30, 1941. These assemblies were ceremonial and got orders from Reza Shah and the Court. Most lawmakers had been elected to parliament after receiving a green light from Reza Shah. These national assemblies were fully harmonious and were totally at the disposal of Reza Shah's dictatorship and modernization. Legislative elections were held without any campaigning, political tug-of-war, and rivalry between political parties. Unlike the past, the parliament was calm and stable. The mission assigned to parliament was to legitimize and legalize government decisions and bills. This mission was accomplished in the best possible manner. The parliament did not wield sufficient power to stand against world powers, nor could it impeach any minister or have a say in the Cabinet lineup. Such circumstances were in compliance with forced modernization pursued by Reza Shah. The Shah believed that fast modernization was not possible with drawn-out talks and deliberations by opponents and proponents. The Shah pushed ahead with his policies through ceremonial elections because he could not ignore the existence of parliament as he had been brought to power thanks to Constitutionalism and concomitant parliamentarism.

 

Reza Shah's move to secularize the government and the society had affected the lineup of MPs. The strong decline in the number of clerics in the National Assembly was an immediate outcome of this policy. In the first Assembly, the clerics had won 24% of seats, which dropped to below 11% in the following terms. In other words, the number of clerical MPs had fallen from 17 in the 6th Assembly to 2 in the 13th Assembly.

 

Despite their contribution to the struggles leading to the Constitutional Revolution and their role in strengthening the foundations of the system, merchants had been sidelined. The merchants who made up 41% of the first Assembly went on an upward trend in the next Assemblies. From the 8th Assembly onward, the bourgeoisie class of merchants started experiencing a relative growth until it exceeded 20% by the end of the Reza Shah era. This was caused from economic stability, trade development, infrastructure, and ruling order. During the Reza Shah rule, the number of government employees elected to parliament was on the significant rise while lower classes had no chance to be represented. The only exception was in the 6th and 7th Assemblies where lower classes constituted about 2 percent of lawmakers.

 

After Reza Khan was ascended to the throne to establish an absolute monarchy, multipartite system in Iran was weakened until it collapsed. Not only did Reza Shah outlaw political parties and groups, but he also banned any political activity. These circumstances continued until Reza Shah abdicated and suitable conditions were prepared anew for the activity of parties.

 

Under Reza Shah, the national consultative assemblies failed to safeguard national interests. Non-opposition to the extension of the D'Arcy Concession and laxness during WWII are prime examples of the parliament's silence vis-à-vis major political issues.

 

Period III: Shah Mohammad Reza; 13th to 24th National Assembly

 

The third round of parliamentarism was under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, starting from the 13th to the 24th terms of National Consultative Assembly (the 24th term was the last term of the National Assembly). That happened from November 12, 1941 to February 10, 1979. During those years, the tenure of lawmakers increased from two to four years and women were granted the right to vote.

 

The years of Reza Shah's monarchy showed that the efficacy of parliament in a monarchy system was directly linked with the level of the Shah's despotism and autocracy. The political atmosphere prevailing during years of Shah Mohammad Reza's monarchy proved the truth of this issue. The level of the Shah's authority during different periods decided the lineup of parliament in terms of social classes and political inclinations.

From 1941 to 1953, when the 13th to 18th terms of National Consultative Assembly were in power, the Shah's pressure on the parliament had been alleviated due to political overture in the society. The Shah was young, international conditions were positive, the Iranian population was young, and the number of university graduates and civil servants had grown due to administrative, industrial, and technical reforms initiated by Reza Shah. That had prepared the ground for the distribution of political power among parties and establishments.

 

During the said period, about 30 political parties, groups, and associations were established, but only four of them were engaged in the rivalry for gaining power: Tudeh party, National Will party, Democratic Party of Iran, and National Front which itself incorporated numerous political parties. All this had provided suitable conditions for the establishment of effective parliaments. Caused by the presence of certain influential MPs, the parliament was among major political organs that decided the major policies of the Iranian society.

 

However, the August 18, 1953 coup against the then prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq and the further empowerment of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi drastically changed the political equations in Iran. Shah Mohammad Reza had grown into an autocratic Shah who effectively destroyed democratic organs like the National Assembly that had been established under Reza Shah. As a result, the National Consultative Assembly turned into a ceremonial parliament at the order of the Shah. From the 18th Assembly onward, the political activity of MPs was limited to expressing non-political issues as well as local issues related to constituencies. As the National Consultative Assembly saw its authority shrink, the intelligence service SAVAK was established and the Army which was under full command of the Shah was empowered further. The Army systematically interfered with general elections and got any MPs it desired elected into parliament. Meantime, in those years, conditions were not conducive to the free and serious activity of political parties.

 

In the 1950s, only two political organizations – Fadaian Islam in full secrecy and National Resistance Movement in half secrecy – were active. However, even these two political parties could no longer continue their political activities due to dictatorship. As national struggles were triggered against the Pahlavi regime, particularly following the June 5, 1963(15th of Khordad) uprising, new political parties were established or older parties were revived. International pressure on Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to establish democracy in the country was effective in the changes made to the prevailing conditions. Due to international pressure, the Shah had to lay emphasis on the necessity of establishment of Western-style democracy in Iran. Therefore, he set up Rastakhiz party and obligated all MPs to join it in a bid to safeguard the signs of a democratic society. The Assembly received its orders directly from the Sha,. However, during years leading to the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and a revolt by MPs against the Rastakhiz party, the National Assembly could enjoy relative freedom of action.

 

Period IV: Islamic Republic

 

In the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the political structure changed in Iran. The National Consultative Assembly was no exception. The official name of parliament was "National Consultative Assembly" in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. On May 29, 1980, it was renamed the Islamic Consultative Assembly, but it remained unchanged in the Constitution. Finally, during the revision of the Constitution in 1989, the National Consultative Assembly was officially renamed the Islamic Consultative Assembly.

 

Unlike the pre-Revolution era, post-revolution parliament was powerful. In a public speech, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said that the parliament was at the top of state affairs. Therefore, MPs were the main decision-makers on political issues in the country. After the Islamic Revolution, the parliament was dubbed the House of the Nation. Of course, post-revolution parliaments have not enjoyed equal authority as in some terms of parliament influential MPs and political conditions in the country had given rise to a powerful and effective parliament. However at some points, due to political infighting and factionalism, the Assembly had seen its power decline in some terms.

 

During the first days of the Islamic Revolution, the parliament was assigned the task to decide about key issues like the fate of US diplomats taken hostage in Iran, impeachment of then president Abolhassan Banisadrm and the war with Iraq. The MPs were directly elected by people in free and fair elections. All groups and parties were allowed to cast their ballots in the election. This issue was more reflected during the first days of the Revolution. Some pundits say the first post-revolutionary parliament was one of the freest in Iran's history. Different political parties competed for seats and a variety of groups had their representatives elected into parliament.

 

Political rivalries outside the parliament gradually led to the elimination of Tudeh party, the terrorist Mujahideen Khalq Organization, and the Freedom Movement of Iran. The Islamic Republic party emerged as a winner in these rivalries. The elimination of these parties and groups from the political scene led to their defeat in the next round of parliament and from the second round, the Iranian parliament became the scene of rivalry between revolutionary forces following Imam Khomeini's line.

 

From the early 1980s, as the second parliament took office, rivalry emerged between the so-called right-leaning and left-leaning forces. After the dissolution of the Islamic Republic party due to infighting and the Assembly of Combatant Clerics' split from the Society of Combatant Clergy, the third parliamentary elections turned into the scene or rivalry between Leftists and Rightists. That rivalry decided the fate of following elections and continues to exist to date. During the first years of such political rivalry, leftists were always the winner in legislative elections. In the run-up to the 4th legislative election, the top monitoring body Guardian Council enforced a controversial discretionary arbitrary vetting process based on Article 3 of Election Law which required the Guardian Council to supervise legislative elections in all stages in all affairs. The very basis of discretionary arbitrary vetting, which caused fierce political rivalry, was Article 99 of the Constitution which included all stages of general elections including screening candidates to be qualified for running.

 

The Guardian Council was a product of the first Constitution in Iran, but it had remained ineffective in practice. Under the Islamic Republic, it was revived and turned into one of the most significant organs of legislative power in Iran. The main task assigned to the Guardian Council on legislation is to make sure laws comply with Islam and the Constitution. There were always differences of view between parliament and the Guardian Council. Due to the significance of such differences, during the revision of the Constitution in 1989 under the order of Imam Khomeini, the Expediency Council was established as an advisory and arbitration body to advise the Supreme Leader and settle disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council.

 

 

The 4th and the 5th parliaments were dominated by Principlists, however, the reformists won the majority of seats in the 6th parliament whose election was held under the presidency of reform-minded cleric Mohammad Khatami. Iran's political literature has since been dominated by the "Reformist" and "Principlist" terms. The Reformists and Principlists were vying for seats in parliament, local councils, and other general elections.

 

In the lead-up to the 7th legislative election, about 80 sitting MPs who had registered to stand were disqualified by the Guardian Council. Half of the MPs in the 6th parliament held a sit-in in protest and boycotted the election. That provided Principlists a chance to win the election and dominate the 7th parliament.

 

The 7th parliament survived both reformists Khatami and Principlists Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Ahmadinejad was effectively born out of the political background of the 7th parliament; however, his decisions mainly in the economic sector divided the 7th parliament.

 

The 8th parliament also remained in the hands of Principlists. This parliament coincided with the post-election riots in 2009 following the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2009 events affected the 8th parliament. MPs started criticizing the second administration of Ahmadinejad and many of his ministers faced impeachment. The 8th parliament set a record in terms of impeaching ministers although most censure motions failed. Also for the first time, the 8th parliament grilled Ahmadinejad. Differences between Principlists on how to deal with Ahmadinejad resulted in the formation of Perseverance Front which split Principlists in the next parliament. The 9th parliament witnessed a totally different political lineup.

 

In addition to division in the camp of Principlists, new MPs were elected into parliament. Nearly 170 MPs of the 8th parliament failed to be reelected. The political plurality of parliament served Reformists in the presidential election. The candidate favored by Reformists was moderate Hassan Rouhani who had been endorsed by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

 

This research has been drawn up in two general sections – first about the 24 terms of National Consultative Assembly and second about the 9 terms of Islamic Parliament of Iran. Each parliamentary term is studied independently. For each term, historical conditions, challenges, main incidents, the quality of elections, lineup, and number of MPs, lineup of Presiding Boards and their performance, legislative and political activities, concluding thoughts, the parliament's involvement in politics, important and outstanding activities at the national and international levels, political parties, and groups vying in the election and the most important pieces of legislation of each assembly have been reviewed. In the second section, diagrams and tables have been used for more clarification and details.

Legislatures before the Revolution

Legislature after the Revolutions

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