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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 132-136

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Constitutional Constraints

Mehrangiz Kar

In assessing the prospects for democratic change in Iran, one must attend not only to broad social pressures throughout the country, or even to the concrete reform initiatives that come from within the government, but to the ultimate institutional determinant of contemporary Iranian politics: the Revolutionary Constitution of the Islamic Republic. In what follows, then, I will discuss the impediments and obstacles to political reform that Iran's Constitution poses, and explain why such reform cannot be realized without radical constitutional change.

Since the election of pro-reform president Mohammad Khatami in 1997, there have been two basic approaches, two outlooks, toward the achievement of reform in Iran: "Reformists" within the regime essentially believe that the Constitution has the capacity—indeed, the positive potential—to lead the Revolutionary government of Iran toward democracy. By contrast, "secularists," who remain outside the regime, basically think that the Constitution contains impediments profound enough to block meaningful reform. It is not uncommon for reformists and secularists to take shared positions on immediate political questions. And they share some broad, long-range political goals that set them together [End Page 132] in opposition to conservatives. But there are profound stakes between them when it comes to evaluating the conditions for a transition to democracy in Iran.

To be sure, there are articles in the Constitution that allow for the implementation of the basic rights and freedoms for the Iranian people. Certain articles speak of the rights of the accused, due process of law, and other concepts that can be considered essentially liberal-democratic and conducive to the realization of human rights in Iran. But there are other articles that negate these liberal concepts altogether, for which reason one can fairly say that, in the aggregate, the mechanisms afforded by the Islamic Republic's Constitution are quite clearly not conducive to liberal-democratic reform.

When Khatami became president, the Fifth Majlis was dominated by the most conservative elements. To prevent Khatami from being able to carry out his reform agenda, conservatives wasted little time in passing new laws to further restrict those few and limited rights and freedoms that Iranians then enjoyed. For example, they passed newly repressive laws on criminal procedure in cases of press-law violations, further limiting the rights of the accused. And this was just one of the areas in which they tried to tie President Khatami's hands as he attempted to implement the reform program on the basis of which he was elected.

Because of the obstructionist posture of the Fifth Majlis, reformists naturally came to believe that the realization of their goals depended on whether they could gain control of the parliament. Prior to the elections for the Sixth Majlis in 2000, reformists started devising slogans and programs aimed at overhauling the legal system—talking about amending laws that limited people's right to run for public office, restricted the press, and dealt unfairly with women and religious minorities. The reformists also proposed laws intended to ameliorate Iran's catastrophic economic situation. Running on this agenda, they won overwhelming voter support and 200 of the parliament's then-270 seats.

More than two years have passed since the inauguration of the Majlis's sixth term, and despite the presence in that body of a number of very courageous representatives who have discussed in detail, and assiduously promoted, the reformists' program, nothing concrete has yet been accomplished. Indeed, conservatives have accused a number of Majlis deputies of breaching Islamic law and the Iranian penal code merely by criticizing conservative-controlled institutions in the course of parliamentary debate. Some deputies have been tried, and one—Hossein Loghmanian, a deputy from the west-central city of Hamadan—was jailed for a number of weeks. Loghmanian was subsequently released so as to preempt public outcry, but the judiciary has made and kept extensive files on him, as they have on numerous other reformists in the Majlis, for the purposes of political intimidation. Reformist deputies, then, have been denied even limited parliamentary immunity, [End Page 133] creating a new...