Monday, April 17, 2006

Constitutional method to Iranian President’s madness

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.


Danny said...

It is interesting to not the Supreme Leader truly fits the nature of his title. To be able to single-handedly fire the "President" of the country is indeed a powerful position, not to mention the power to declare war and mobilize troops. The fact that nuclear self-sufficiency is included in Iran's constitution is probably not well known among American citizens. Iran does not want to be at a disadvantage to the rest of the world.

The idea of divine rule does not usually have a positive effect. Citizens of the country can not challenege authority because it is said to be directly from G_d. There is a struggle to obtain the necessary raw materials to generate nuclear power. Doing this requires an outward display to the rest of the world that the nuclear developments are solely for the benefit of the country, not for the armaments of nuclear weapons. With the continous developments of arms the idea of a peaceful onviolent world continues to slip away.

Tricia said...

Yet again, the biases of a country are exposed. Rather than educating the public as to what can happen in other countries and how they may interact with other countries, we let the public assume what the government wants us to think. All it took was one person and the internet to better explain that the president of Iran was not about to obliterate Israel. A clear understanding is all that is needed. As with the American Constitution, there are limits and check and balances. The president is allowed to voice his opinion but ultimately, he is not the Supreme Leader. I find it interesting that those people could turn around so fast and all of a sudden have such a simple understanding after just learning about the Constitution. As humans, we seem to jump right in to speculation without doing our research. Do you think this can be applied to other countries? that we might understand each other better in this world if only we took the time to learn a little bit more about how they operate? And do you think this can be applied to cultures as well?

Ari Siletz said...

in reply to danny,
I really liked the fact that after reading this article you chose to put "President" in quotes. Clearly Iranians and Americans don't mean the same thing when they use the word, and this is part of the issue.
As far as divine rule goes, I look at this system as I would any other biological mechanism. Systems which have survived for long periods have done so because they had the right adaptations to their environment. I make no judgment here as to the moral value of divine rule, I am simply referring to this system's ability to survive the times. It is possible that due to the widespread popularity of individualism and democracy, divine rule is no longer useful. But on a historic scale it is too early to tell. Individualism, though desirable on many levels, may end up not being sustainable in the long run. Just like someday we may have to give up our private cars for mass transit, we may have to give up some of our individualism, allowing only a few elite to make the rules. I hope I never have to live in such a system, but there are others who are raised to believe otherwise. And some of them genuinely feel they have more meaning in their lives than I do. They are not unhappy that their lives are ruled from the Bible or the Koran as interpreted by their priesthood. Do I have the right to 'educate' them out of their bliss? Sure, but only if I can give their souls shelter under something equally meaningful. And Big Mac's, Ipods, and BMWs just won't do.

Ari Siletz said...

In reply to trish,
Yes, Americans should demand a lot more from the mass media. I think every civics course in high school should include training in how to spot prpaganda. In America we are particulary vulnerable to propaganda because our mass media maintains its credibility with the public. Recently FOX news was voted in polls as one of the most trusted sources of news. Assuming the poll itself is not fabricated, this indicates a serious problem with our democracy. FOX is the closest thing to state radio that America has ever experienced. Its news coverage is designed to promote specific policies rather than inform a democratic society.
If you have ideas as how to expose, discredit or just immunize the public against such 'news' organizations, I would be happy to hear them.