President Ahmadinejad of Iran had lashed out again at Israel, and an American colleague at the office was demanding an explanation from me. “You wrote a book on Iran, you explain this to me,” he said slapping the morning paper down on my desk. If he was angry enough to break the American taboo against talking politics at work, he was angry enough to misconstrue any explanation as an excuse. So I used the trick America uses when politics threatens to disturb her peace: appeal to the constitution. The Iranian constitution in this case.
“You see,” I began nervously. “President Ahmadinejad can’t try to wipe Israel or any other nation off the map because, unlike the president of the United States, he is not the commander in chief of his country’s armed forces.”
We went on the internet on company time, where I showed my skeptical friend that the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran gives meager power to the president. Here is the scope of Ahmadinejad’s powers as written in that document :
After obtaining the approval of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, the President has the authority to sign treaties, protocols, contracts, and agreements concluded by the Iranian government with other governments, as well as agreements pertaining to international organizations. The President is responsible for national planning , budget, and state employment affairs.
“He used to be the mayor of Tehran,” I argued. “Now he is the mayor of the whole country with a few international bells and whistles added. ”
To show my colleague where the real power lies, I scrolled down to where Iran’s constitution spells out the duties of the highest ranking cleric, the Supreme Leader. His duties include:
1. Assuming supreme command of the armed forces.
2. Declaration of war and peace, and the mobilization of the armed forces.
“So only the Supreme Leader can credibly threaten to wipe Israel off the map. And he’s been quiet,” I said.
We could hear the boss’s voice across the cubicles, so we lowered our voices as we went on to where it says The supreme leader is responsible for:
Dismissal of the' President of the Republic, with due regard for the interests of the country…
“The Supreme Leader can fire Ahamadinejad’s butt?” my friend realized in hushed tones. Right! In Iran certain duly elected mistakes can be undone without an impeachment process. But why is the Supreme Leader allowed to thumb his nose at We The People? Because, according to Iran’s constitution, he is sitting in for the Messiah. The exact words of the constitution translated into simple English are this:
During the temporary absence of the Messiah, may God hasten his reappearance, the guardianship and leadership of the public are passed to the just and pious jurist, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability, [he] will assume the responsibilities of this office…
The messiah language also sheds light on Ahamadinejad's claim to divine inspiration. I was about to theorize as to how, when the boss walked in on us. Scrambling to close the web page would have acknowledged more authority to him than I was prepared to yield. Ignoring him would have been rude, so I just included him in the conversation. Turns out he too had freaked when he found out Iran's president had an aura around him during a U.N. speech. But this politician's claim to having a halo wasn't so much messianic radicalism as internal jockeying for power. Now that Ahmadinejad has a halo, every Iranian knows the Supreme Leader isn't the only one who is golf buddies with the Messiah. Constitutional checks and balance, Iranian style.
By the time my presentation on Iran’s constitution got to the country’s nuclear standoff with the West, a few people had gathered. I estimated that at their rate of pay the company was losing quite a bit of money, not including the number of widgets that weren’t being made. Iran’s constitution has something important to say about widgets, including atomic ones. The document mandates:
The attainment of self-sufficiency in scientific, technological, industrial, agricultural, and military domains, and other similar spheres...
This is why Iran has to have its own uranium enrichment industry. Nuclear self sufficiency is in the constitution, and Ahmadinejad couldn’t do anything about that even if he wanted to.
Later in a more somber discussion my American colleague and I sorted out how Iran’s constitution weighs in on Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust. Here’s a relevant excerpt from the document :
… while scrupulously refraining from all forms of interference in the internal affairs of other nations, [Iran] supports the just struggles of the weak and persecuted against the powerful and arrogant in every corner of the globe.
The document borrows the words for “weak and persecuted” and “powerful and arrogant” directly from the Arabic of the Koran where the words are used in the context of the persecution of early Muslims. These terms have strong spiritual and emotional content for Ahmadinejad’s branch of Shiism which divides the world into pure good and pure evil. The Holocaust muddies this clean dualism in that the purportedly powerful and arrogant Zionist Jews are also the weak and persecuted Jews of the Nazi era. By denying the premise of the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad hopes to cast the issue back into its original black and white simplicity.
As with the Constitution of the United States, the Iranian constitution does not determine the specific actions of the nation’s politicians, but it is a reasonable guide in making sense of their overall behavior.