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The Elephant and the Blindfolded Men | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The great Iranian mystic Roumi has a poem about an elephant surrounded by a number of blind men in a dark room. Each blind man touches one part of the elephant and describes it accordingly. To one, the elephant is a pillar. To another, it is a table-cloth.

As Iranians follow the current political debate in Tehran, some are bound to recall Roumi’s poem as a description of what is going on within the narrow confines of the Khomeinist establishment. For the debate is about the nature of the regime created by the mullahs over 30 years ago. In this case, the elephant is the constitution of the Khomeinist republic .The difference is that this time we are faced not with blind men but men who have blindfolded themselves.

The debate was kick-started by the Speaker of the Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, Ali Ardeshir, also known as Larijani.

In a veiled attack on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month, he claimed that the Khomeinist system was a parliamentary system in which the Majlis was ‘ at the head of affairs.’ The subtext was that the president was no more than a prime minister in charge of carrying out policies initiated and approved by the Majlis.

As usual, President Ahmadinejad did not wait long before dismissing Larijani’s claim as ‘ignorant and preposterous.’ Ahmadinejad argued that the Khomeinist system was a republican one in which the president, as head of the executive branch, shapes and implements policy. Had the system been a parliamentary one, Ahmadinejad insisted, the president would have to emerge from within the parliament. In such a set-up, he would be a prime minister.

Larijani and Ahmadinejad are not the only blindfolded men trying to describe the elephant. Ahmad Khatami, a fire-breathing mullah with his own brand of sycophancy, has intervened to declare both Larijani and Ahmadinejad to be ‘off the mark.’ According to Khatami, the Khomeinist system is built around the Faqih al-Wali or the ‘Supreme Guide’, a mullah answerable to no one except, perhaps, the Hidden Imam.

Yet another blindfolded man to join the foray is Mehdi Karrubi, once a dyed-in-wool Khomeinist who is trying to project himself as something of a democrat.

According to him, in the Khomeinist system, the Supreme Guide is one player among many and could even be impeached and dismissed.

Karrubi has written to Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another mullah who heads the so-called Assembly of Experts, asking him to review the behaviour of the current ‘ Supreme Guide’ Ali Khamenei, presumably with a view to impeaching him.

Meanwhile, some among the growing number of regime dignitaries who have fled into exile, have joined the debate by insisting that the system that has forced them out of their homeland is an ‘Islamic democracy’, the unhappiest oxymoron.

The only problem, according to them, is that Ahmadinejad ‘stole’ last year’s presidential election. In other words, all the 30 or so other ‘elections’ organised under Khomeinism were clean and democratic. Therefore, the problem is the person of Ahmadinejad!

Several thousand miles away, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also joined the debate. According to her, the Khomeinist Republic is morphing into a Third World-style military dictatorship in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) wields real power. Clinton’s subtext is that Ahmadinejad, Larijani, Rafsanjani, Khamenei and Karrubi are mere puppets in the hands of the military-security elite.

We know from Roumi’s poem that the blind men were partially right in their description of the elephant. Their problem was that they could not arrive at a complete understanding of the beast.

One could say the same thing about the blindfolded men trying to describe the Khomeinist elephant. Each of them correctly describes part of the beast, failing to understand it in its totality.

The constitution of the Khomeinist regime is a jumble of contradictions that, taken in their totality, make the creation of a stable system difficult if not impossible. This is why 30 years after the mullahs seized power the ruling elite is sill uncertain about the fundamentals of the system. And this is why the regime’s former dignitaries come close to accusing each other of treason.

For 10 yeas, the system had a prime minister who was engaged in a constant struggle for power with the president and the Majlis. In the meantime, Khomeini and his son Ahmad run the show with Rafsanjani as their front man.

Once it was decided that Rafsanjani should become president, they saw no need for a prime minister and simply abolished the post. To make sure the president does not get out of hand, the Khomeinist system has something called the Assembly of the Guardians of the Constitution, modelled on the French Constitutional Court. However, the struggle for power continued unabated, this time between the president and the Majlis. To handle that, they created The Assembly for the Discernment of the Interest of the System. This new creature became yet another participant in the struggle for power. To counter it, they created yet another body modelled on a Turkish organ of government, the High Council for National Security, of which anybody who is somebody in the regime is a member.

Shadowing all those organs is the Cabinet of the Supreme Guide which, according to some analysts, is the star chamber of the Khomeinist system.

The jumble of contradictions that constitutes the Khomeinist system reflects Iran’s inability to grow out of its historic schizophrenia.

For over 150 years, Iranians have dreamed of a Western-style democratic system while clinging to the idea that all power belongs to the Hidden Imam. For generations, Iranians wanted to get rid of their absolute monarchy while remaining attached to it. Under the Khomeinist system, they have retained a caricature of it in the shape of a ‘ Supreme Guide’ with potentially unlimited powers.

The Khomeinist constitution is a translation of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic with some articles added to inject the concept of the Walayat al-Faqih. But when this witches’ brew was presented to Iranians three decades ago, few of them frowned.

We do not know how serious Karrubi’s conversion to democracy might be. However, by implicitly calling for the impeachment of the ‘ Supreme Guide’, he has propelled the debate beyond its previous limits.

It must be clear that, beset by deep contradictions, the Khomeinist constitution simply does not work just as the previous constitution, installed in 1906, was also rendered inoperative by its desire to combine the absolutist tradition with parliamentary democracy.