Several members of the Iranian parliament are openly condemning the arrests of hundreds of student protestors, who've been demonstrating against clerical rule. How much clout does Iran's parliament really have, given the country's theocratic reputation?
The parliament and the president, though democratically elected, are far less powerful than Iran's clerical establishment, which is headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The 290 seats in the national legislature, known as the Majlis Shura-e-Islami (Islamic Consultative Assembly), are up for grabs every four years. So, too, is the presidency, currently occupied by Mohammed Khatami. The parliament is not a Soviet-style rubber stamp for the clerics, but rather a chamber that originates, debates, and passes the nation's laws.
It is the religious leaders, however, who ultimately decide which parliamentary laws can stand. Khamenei, appointed for life by the "Assembly of Experts" in 1989, can veto any law he deems un-Islamic. The Guardian Council, appointed by Khamenei to protect the ideals of the Islamic revolution, also has this power. And it is Khamenei, not parliament or Khatami, who controls Iran's most potent organs of oppression, such as the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, and the state-controlled media.
Still, as a republic rather than a monarchy, Iran allows for considerable voter participation. All candidates for public office must first be approved by the Guardian Council, but even so, electoral contests produce frequent surprises, most famously when Khatami won his first term in 1997. His chief rival, speaker of the parliament Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, enjoyed the support of the country's religious leaders, as well as the mainstream press; Khatami, a relative unknown who'd headed Iran's National Library, was scarcely considered a dark horse. But the reformer won in a landslide, garnering nearly 70 percent of the vote. A stunning 88 percent of registered voters showed at the polls. Three years later, reformers affiliated with Khatami won the majority of parliamentary seats. And Khatami was re-elected in 2001 by a true landslide margin of around 95 percent. His campaign promised a commitment to "independence, freedom, and progress."
Hardliners allied with Khamenei have made those goals difficult to achieve. Members of parliament are supposedly guaranteed immunity from prosecution for speaking their minds, but that hasn't rule hasn't always been observed. A few politicians have been prosecuted over the years for airing allegedly un-Islamic or counter-revolutionary views. In addition, theocratic thugs often harass and threaten reformers and their families. However, compared to many imprisoned journalists and dissidents, these politicians get off pretty easy.
Explainer thanks Ali Banuazizi of Boston College and Daniel Brumberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.