How Can Majles Influence Iran's Foreign Policy?
(Picture: Stand-off between proponents and opponents during a parliamentary debate over ratification of the 2015 nuclear deal. Credit: Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim)
Iran’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, enjoys a wide range of powers in both internal and foreign affairs enshrined in the constitution. Enactment of bills, approval of international agreements, questioning and impeachment of the ministers and the President, investigating and commenting are some of these powers, among others.
The legislative power can affect foreign policy through legislative diplomacy and parliamentary diplomacy. However, the Iranian parliament has so far failed to realize its full competence, always overshadowed by specialized decision making bodies in the government due to the complexity of foreign affairs, the need for instrumental efficiency, secrecy and so on. Having traced signs of increasing parliamentary involvement in shaping and controlling foreign policy, this piece is going to assess the Iranian parliament legal tools to play a role in the external sphere.
A unique form of separation of powers runs in the Islamic Republic of Iran: a semi-presidential system was approved by referendum after the 1989 reform of the constitution. As an organization whose members are elected directly by the people, the Islamic Consultative Assembly has always been of a great importance in Iran’s political system. Imam Khomeini, the leader and founder of 1979 revolution named this body as the most crucial part of the system.
Based on the constitution, legalization and surveillance in all areas are the main functions of parliament. Chapter six of the constitution refers to the scope of competence, responsibility and the power of legislative branch and its bicameral system. This principal document considers a wide range of powers for the parliament in Legislative Diplomacy. Article 71 enables the parliament to enact laws in all the internal and foreign affairs and approve international treaties among others.
No other body in the Islamic Republic enjoys such a wide power in policy making and surveillance. But the parliamentary pattern of conduct during the last 40 years portray a different picture. Iran’s parliament has been tended to implement surveillance more than the legislative tool. Rarely we can find any initiatives from the parliament regarding foreign affairs. The parliament has normally has played a reactive role and has focused on check and balance responsibility.
Principally, the parliament has an indirect impact on foreign affairs and its members can play an active role in policy making. Article 84 of the Constitution has made it clear that each member has the right to express his opinion on all domestic and foreign affairs. By means of this effective tool, decisions by the executive branch could be challenged by the public opinion which, a very influential factor in forming foreign policy.
On the other hand, the parliament can run investigations on the executive branch’s decisions, and question and even interrogate the President and ministers. Despite the right to investigate in all national affairs, there has been no example in foreign affairs so far. This could be another sign of complexity of foreign affairs and the overall tendency of the parliament not to interfere in this area. At the same time, Article 88 enables every Member of Parliament to raise questions. In the 10th Parliament, only 8 of 689 questions were related to foreign affairs, almost the same to Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (7) and Ministry of Intelligence (7).
The most specialized department of the parliament, the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, monitor’s foreign policy, however, the committee’s actions are more of a surveillance nature. This is despite the fact that the Budget Integration Committee of the parliament decides on how to allocate funds needed for foreign policy operations.
In the political context of the Islamic Republic and based on Article 57 of the Constitution, all the three powers of legislation, executive and judiciary operate under the supervision of Supreme Leader. This may be one of the reasons why the legislative power is overshadowed by other bodies. Compared with domestic affairs, the complexity and importance of foreign affairs and the role of superordinate bodies have posed obstacles against parliamentary interventions. Fundamental decisions of foreign policy are informally made by bodies which are more specialized in this sphere and in a higher position than the executive and legislative bodies.
The Supreme National Security Council is the most influential organization in policy and decision making of foreign affairs. Based on Article 176, the Council is headed by the president to protect the national welfare, and safeguard the Islamic Republic, territorial integrity and national sovereignty. It’s quite essential that the council’s resolution can be executed after the approval of Supreme Leader. This confers legal credit or an even higher status to its resolution.
In some rare cases, the parliament uses its position to assess or modify the executive decisions on foreign issues. The most recent one emerged in the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) case. For this special case, which was formally initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the parliament formed a special-purpose commission to scrutinize the decision. However, the decision was informally approved by the Supreme National Security Council. JCPOA was finally approved by the legislative body as an inevitable choice.
Although the constitution has not defined an executive role for the parliament, development of international relations and importance of democratic organizations in the recent decades pave the way for parliamentary diplomacy. Consequently, the parliament needs to assume an active role more than ever. Inter-parliamentary relations can help to solve different challenges of the country, prevent conflicts, dispute settlements, resume relations and promote the foreign affair goals inter alia.
As the head of the legislative power, the Speaker of the Parliament plays a key role in parliamentary diplomacy. International and regional organizations, and World Conference of Speakers of Parliaments are some examples for the speaker to engage in foreign policy, discuss and negotiate with counterparts and play a role in advancement of national priorities.
Parliamentary statements and correspondence are among other tools which normally help parliament to declare its stance in terms of international issues and drawing public opinion’s attention.
One of the most important platforms for these interactions is the Parliamentary Friendship Groups. Parliament members can interact with their counterparts through these groups and pave the way for formal diplomacy assumed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the next step. Since the governments don’t consider this type of diplomacy as officials, protocols and restrictive measures can’t be a hindrance. Historically speaking, the first Parliamentary Friendship Group was formed in the Second Parliament (May 1984-May 1988), but in the Third Parliament, the regulation was codified to develop political, economic, cultural and parliamentary communication, resolve barriers and facilitate friendly relations in line with the foreign policy goals.
Members of National Security and Foreign Policy Committee (or other specialized committees) occasionally accompany the Foreign Affair Ministry delegations in foreign visits. This may help legislators to engage more deeply in such affairs and aid the Foreign Affairs Ministry in receiving support from the legislative power. Besides, sufficient parliamentary involvement is pivotal to ensure public support of the choices made. By providing political support to complex policies and initiatives, the parliament democratically legitimizes actions and gives more political weight to the consequent actions.
Inter-parliamentary delegations have an important duty to exchange information and interaction in foreign affair cases. One such actual instance was during the Syria crisis, when many parliamentary delegations exchanged views and played an active role.
The inter-parliamentary union (IPU) is parliamentary involvement in foreign policy at the global level. The organization focuses on notions like peace, democracy, equality, human rights and sustainable development. This is as well an opportunity that the Iranian parliament may use to convey Iran’s view and exchange information.
Recently, the overall trend of increasing international relations and significance of international organizations has opened room for the parliament to conduct foreign policy. To achieve this, parliament can employ different tools at its hand. Despite its informal nature, parliamentary diplomacy considered as informal, it could shape a base for formal diplomacy. The parliament needs to keep close cooperation with executive and other actors to improve efficiency in foreign policy. The more the actors, the more challenges against the ultimate necessity for effective, coherent and consistent in foreign policy.