Last month, the University of Chicago hosted a Conference on Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes. Alas, we did not have a paper on Iran, but it seems that constitutional politics in the world’s favorite theocracy are heating up. Indeed, Iran may be exhibit A for the idea that constitutional politics involve significant stakes even in dictatorships.
Last week, the New York Times reported that the Supreme Leader is considering proposing a switch to a parliamentary system. This is a direct outcome of his increasingly serious rivalry with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is a fellow hardliner. Unreported in the Times, however, is that the real object of concern may be Ahmadinejad’s powerful chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is likely seen by Ahmadinejad as a successor. Mashaei is believed by the Supreme Leader to be a religious schismatic, and some believe he has direct powers of communion with the Twelfth Imam who is central to Iranian Shiite theology. This poses an obvious threat to the Supreme Leader.
The Supreme Leader constitutionally controls the judiciary, media and military, giving him significant leverage to limit presidential power. This was most apparent during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who dared to suggest a civilizational dialogue with the West. Khatami, who was optimistically thought of as the system’s Gorbachev, failed to liberalize the country much, and the reformist impulse was decisively shut down in the bloody aftermath of the stolen 2009 elections that retained Ahmadinejad in office. But the schism within the hardline camp may pose an even greater challenge for the regime than stealing an election and murdering its own citizens.