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Iran: Guardians Council Seen As Having Free Hand To Quash Reforms

The large-scale disqualification of pro-reform candidates for parliament by Iran's hard-line Guardians Council earlier this month has led to a major political crisis. This is not the first time that the pro-reform parliament has clashed with the influential Guardians Council. The constitutional watchdog has rejected most of the pro-reform bills passed by parliament.

Prague, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Guardians Council is one of the most powerful bodies in the Islamic Republic.

The Guardians Council oversees presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as elections for the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that chooses the supreme leader, the country's highest authority. In this regard, the Guardian Council has the right to veto candidates for office whose views it deems as un-Islamic.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a leading hard-line cleric, heads the Guardians Council, which has 12 members. Six of them are clerics directly appointed by the supreme leader. The six others are jurists nominated by the head of Iran's judiciary -- who is himself appointed by the supreme leader -- and approved by parliament. The members of the Guardian Council serve six-year terms.

"Clearly, [the Guardians Council] has interpreted the a manner that greatly restricts individual freedoms and civil liberties."
The scope of the Guardians Council's vetting rights is open to debate, however. Reformists say factional political interests motivate many of the Guardians Council's decisions.

Mehrangiz Kar is a prominent Iranian-born lawyer and human-rights activist who lives in Washington. She say Iranian laws give the conservative oversight body a free hand: "The Guardians Council's hands are not tied at all, according to the election law passed in 1999. Its supervisory duty was characterized as approbatory, according to which it can act in a totally political manner, rather than impartially, and can disqualify election candidates on the basis of its own factional leniency -- meaning the factional leniency of the conservatives."

Many see the Guardians Council's right to disqualify candidates as a major obstacle to free, fair, and competitive elections in Iran. The Guardians Council's recent disqualification of more than 3,000 pro-reform candidates -- include some 80 sitting parliamentarians -- from next month's elections (20 February) was widely interpreted as an attempt to gain control over the future parliament. The Guardians Council yesterday reinstated 200 of those candidates.

Several months ago, the Guardians Council established offices in all of the country's provinces to monitor potential parliamentary candidates. Reformist officials harshly criticized the move, saying that the Guardians Council should carry out its supervisory tasks "only at the time of the elections."

Mohammad Seyfzadeh is a lawyer in Tehran and a member of the Center of Human Rights Defenders, which was founded by 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Seyfzadeh says the Guardians Council has overstepped its legal boundaries and is acting unconstitutionally: "The Guardians Council has not fulfilled its legal responsibilities in respect to the parliamentary elections because, legally, supervising entails an act of watching. What the Guardians Council has been doing is absolute interference in the affairs of the executive branch, and it is against the laws and the constitution."

Under Iran's Constitution, the Guardians Council is also assigned the role of checking the compatibility of legislation passed by parliament with Islamic laws and the constitution. The Guardians Council is also responsible for the interpretation of the country's constitution.

Most observers agree the Guardians Council interprets its authority very broadly. Kar said: "[The Guardians Council] has undermined the parliamentary immunity of the MPs by interpreting the immunity clause in the constitution in a fashion that is in total contradiction with that clause. As a result, many of the MPs who expressed their critical views regarding state matters were either persecuted or legally pursued -- and [one was] even incarcerated."

Kar adds that the Guardians Council's interpretation of the constitution has deprived parliament of many of its rights, including its ability to investigate state institutions: "With its interpretation of the constitution, the Guardians Council has deprived parliament of its right to conduct probes -- meaning that the Guardians Council has said that all institutions whose heads are appointed by the [Supreme] Leader should be excluded. So it has excluded many institutions and foundations from the parliamentary probe."

The Guardians Council has rejected many pro-reform bills passed by parliament as unconstitutional and contrary to Islamic laws. They include a bill banning torture to obtain confessions from prisoners and another that defined political crimes and conditions for political prisoners.

Shaul Bakhash is a professor of Middle East history at George Mason University and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, both in the U.S. He believes the Guardians Council is restricting civil rights in Iran: "The Council of Guardians, as you know, just in the last year or two, has blocked Iran's participation or signing of international agreements on the equal rights of women, legislation against torture, and similar bills. So clearly, it has interpreted the constitution in its own role, in a manner that greatly restricts individual freedoms and civil liberties."

The rejected bills are either sent back to parliament to be amended or to the Expediency Council for arbitration. In the past, the Expediency Council has almost always sided with the Guardians Council.

Though there are other institutions in Iran that also seek to quash efforts aimed at reform, Bakhash says the Guardians Council wields particular power: "It's not the only obstacle to reform in Iran. It's part of a number of institutions, personalities, and organizations on the conservative or hard-line side which in the last four or five years have frustrated the efforts of the reformers and the legislation they hoped to pass. Many of the senior clerics, the supreme leader himself, the elements in the Revolutionary Guards -- all these, I think, have been obstacles to the agenda of the reformists. But, since the Guardian Council can veto legislation, it obviously plays a very important role in this endeavor."

Rights activist Kar says the Guardians Council has neutralized many pro-reform initiatives passed by a parliament elected by the people: "Iran's legal structure allows the Guardian Council's clerics to veto the resolutions passed by parliament that are deemed as being against Islamic laws. So in that case, the bill does not become law. And in such a legal structure, we cannot say that the parliament is independent. It means that we are deprived of an independent parliament [in Iran]."

In a report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the Guardians Council a major obstacle to the development of democracy in Iran.

Kar believes Iran's current legal structure and constitution prevents democracy from being achieved in Iran: "I think in the framework of the current constitution and in the framework of the current legal structure, democratic moves to fulfill popular demands -- as well as claims made by the reformists -- are essentially not attainable."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.