Iranian president increasingly grabbing power from parliament

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 4:37 PM

TEHRAN - Two years ago, Iran's parliament blocked several of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's key decisions and impeached one of his top ministers. But today, the ambitious leader routinely ignores parliament's laws and undercuts its authority, leading some politicians and analysts to fear the country is slipping toward dictatorship.

A strong parliament is central to the Islamic Republic's political system, which mixes religion and democracy and divides power among the parliament, the president, and several councils of clerics.

But Ahmadinejad, emboldened by the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says he is merely exercising his rights under the constitution. The Majlis, or parliament, should stop creating an obstacle to Iran's progress, Ahmadinejad argues.

In a recent open letter, leading parliamentarians demanded a resolution to the escalating dispute and warned they could start several procedures, including impeachment, against the president, if his power is not checked.

Members of parliament complain that Ahmadinejad is refusing to sign off on decisions they make that are legally binding on his government. They also charge that he is spending billions of dollars without the consent of the 290-member assembly, and blocking major payments to the municipality of Tehran, with which he and his administration are at odds.

In addition, they say his government is not providing details on the upcoming national budget and is spending unknown sums on dozens of trips to Iran's provinces - all in violation of the constitution.

The leader of the assembly, Ali Larijani, and four other prominent members wrote that parliament's supervisory and lawmaking role, as set out in the 1979 constitution, is in danger. "If the government insists on limiting the parliament," the strongly worded letter read, "this will be tantamount to the elimination of the republicanism of the system."

Intensifying conflicts

After the 1979 revolution, Iranians overwhelming supported a referendum that turned the country into an Islamic republic in which a supreme leader has the final say over all political and religious affairs. Responsibility for the daily management of government affairs rests with a directly elected parliament, Ahmadinejad and his ministers, and a mix of appointed and elected clerical councils, who are in different ways supposed to control and supervise one another.

But since Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection in 2009, conflicts among all these powers have intensified, with the president consistently emerging victorious.

Ahmadinejad responded to the parliamentarians' letter by insisting that, after Khamenei, he is the most powerful man in the Islamic Republic.

"As president, I lead the executive power, I come second after the leader and I am in charge of implementing the constitution," he told reporters in a Nov. 29 news conference. "They are wasting our time with these letters," he said.

The political battle illustrates the changing face of politics in Iran, which for decades was led by several competing factions. In recent years, politicians who led the 1979 revolution have been purged and their parties closed down; some are serving jail sentences.

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