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The Rule of Law vs. Politics: The Case of Yazd, Iran

In spite of ongoing misconceptions and uninformed perceptions, political, and more broadly, societal dynamics in Iran are no more outlandish or exotic than those unfolding in most countries in the world. What’s been unfolding in Yazd, Iran since May 2017 deserves notice.

On November 3, Al-Monitor reported on an ongoing debate surrounding one Yazd municipal councilor. One of its members, whose mandate was renewed in the May 2017 municipal elections, stands to be evicted from his office by court order. The legality of the invalidation by the Court of Administrative Justice has been hotly contested since then and the mandate of Sepanta Niknam remains in limbo.

It is to be noted that Mr. Niknam’s victory which was not contested by any of the other contenders at the time is stated that he legally (as per the Constitutional provisions) and legitimately won the seat.

What is worthy of notice is the angle from which the battle is fought. The election of M. Niknam was deemed by the Council of Guardians contrary to what appears to be the spirit of Iran’s Constitution, most likely Article 4: “All civil, penal financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. This principle applies absolutely and generally to all articles of the Constitution as well as to all other laws and regulations, and the fuqaha’ [mujtahids – author’s note] of the Guardian Council are judges in this matter.”

The Council’s move is opposed by those (not least the chairman of Yazd’s City council, Mr. Sefid, and the chairman of Yazd’s Bar) who contend that the Article 99 of the Constitution makes no explicit mention of the Guardians’ role in municipal elections and therefore the legal basis for the Administrative Court’s invalidation of Mr. Niknam’s mandate is not valid.

The Court of Administrative Justice handed down its award basing it on a “letter” written by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Chair of the Guardians Council. The letter, according to Iranian news agency ILNA, was published in the official journal of the Islamic Republic. Therein, Ayatollah Janati refers to Amendment 1 of Article 26 of the Council’s Elections Laws. Article 26, Section D reads: “the nominee must have faith in Islam and has proved in practice his obedience to Islamic values and to the governance of the Jurist.” Yet amendment 1 states that the “minorities recognized in the Constitution (here including Zoroastrians) must have faith in their own religion and prove in practice their obedience to their own religious values.”

From that perspective, the fact that the Court handed down an award using that letter as a legal base may appear as a minor point: whatever the legal value of that letter and no matter how eminent Ayatollah Jannati is, the text of the Constitution does not seem to provide for the Council to intervene in local elections. According to article 173 of the Constitution, it is solely the remit of the Court of Administrative Justice to judge the legality of Mr. Niknam’s election. One may be tempted to say that the Guardian Council’s move is “unconstitutional.”

The dynamics of Iranian politics are not much different from those occurring all over the world: politics are a means to redistribute assets within a given human community. These assets can be tangible (land, hard money, real estate, jewelry, food, etc.) or intangible (the granting of/appointment to an office, a title of symbolic and/or social significance being bestowed, an alliance of any kind, etc.). The mechanics of redistribution can be more or less transparent, legal or legitimate. Politics is one way to achieve a final end state (whatever it is).

The way this redistribution is carried out, though, is often more impactful than the actual wealth (either material or symbolical) being redistributed. Here, the resource at stake could be the ability to influence the local government’s policies and decisions. One has to recall that the 2017 Iranian elections saw Reformist factions victorious not only at the state level (presidency, the Islamic Consultative Assembly/Parliament) but also at the local levels (they notoriously won the Tehran City council and the mayoral office – two different institutions). Over the last few months, the more conservative factions of Iranian powerbrokers have been trying to reconstitute their capacity to influence politics.

The Guardians Council is a bastion of the status quo and principalist factions. It is also a state organ. Half of its members (the mujtahids) are appointment by the Supreme Leader, while the other half (the jurists) are elected by the Consultative Assembly of Iran (the Parliament) from a list drawn by the Head of the Judiciary, himself appointed by the Supreme Leader.

What’s happening in Yazd seems to pit the state – more precisely the ability of the most conservative groups of Iranian politics to influence the country’s political play – against a city council. Of note: Mr. Niknam is a Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism is one of the religions indigenous to Iran. It was the official belief of the Sassanid Empire before the Muslim conquest replaced it with Islam. Zoroastrianism holds a specific place in the Iranian Constitution and it is a religion recognized by the state. Mr. Niknam was allowed to run, win and carry through his previous mandate unhindered.

In other words, Ayatollah Jannati considers Mr. Niknam illegitimate to represent a constituency where the vast majority of people are Muslims. Under the guise of upholding the spirit of the Constitution, the conservative factions of the Principalists may be attempting to regain influence at the local level at the cost of the rule of law in Iran. The population of Yazd is one of the more traditional and religious in Iran. Yet a Zoroastrian was elected for a second term. It is perhaps no wonder that some factions that ended up on the losing side in May are anxious about their ability to regain some leverage to legally influence the mechanism of redistribution.

There may be local realities and less obvious dynamics which may have led to the legal and political play currently unfolding in Yazd. Yet, this can only happen when a critical mass of a population has reached a certain level of political consciousness and economic empowerment. Contrary to what may be perceived from outside, Iranian society, very likely because of its high level of education and its demographic trends, is far more diverse and lively than meets the eye. What is being played out in Yazd is one manifestation of the complexities of Iran.