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A light on Iran's dark powers

Iran's president calls an end to the consolidation of power, which may be a challenge to rule by ayatollah. His words reflect a need to balance power in government based on the equality and dignity of each citizen.

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    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, center, is surrounded by lawmakers as he leaves the parliament after presenting the country's draft budget, in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 7.
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Within Iran these days, telling the truth about its autocracy is usually found only on social media. But when President Hassan Rouhani does it, the rest of the world can hope Iran may finally start to honor the dignity of the individual through self-governance and democracy.

On Monday, Mr. Rouhani boldly stated that Iran should eliminate the consolidation of power “in a single body.” Right now, almost all religious and secular authority in Iran lies with an unelected “supreme” leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his network of agents, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Candidates for Iran’s controlled elections must meet the ayatollah’s approval.

In the 2013 election, for example, Rouhani, who was the closest candidate that could be called a reformer, was the supreme leader’s least favorite. Yet Rouhani, a Scottish-educated Muslim cleric, won the vote. Now governing as the people’s choice, the president felt courageous enough to call for a separation of powers. That universal principle is necessary, he said, to “keep power under control.”

“Whatever in the society is not competitive and is monopolistic with monopolized management, is wrong,” he said.

He might as well have been quoting James Madison. The American constitutionalist created a democratic system in the United States to prevent government abuses by balancing the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Until men act like angels, Madison asserted, they need controls over their ambitions for power.

Iran, like China, has discovered that corruption grows in high places when power becomes too personal and too absolute. Each country ranks high on Transparency International’s index of the most corrupt countries. The leaders in each country now worry that their legitimacy is eroding as young people resent the fact that wealth and promotions are achieved more by connections than by merit. Corruption also dampens private investment.

“The continuation, the deepening and the expansion of corruption is endangering ... the Islamic Revolution,” said Rouhani. In China, President Xi Jinping said in 2012 that the Communist Party must curb corruption or else corruption would “lead the Party and the nation to perish.”

In Iran, former Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi was recently convicted and sent to prison. In China last week, powerful former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang was arrested on criminal charges. The official People’s Daily suggested the party has failed to oppose “cliques” of power like those run by Mr. Zhou.

Anticorruption campaigns, however, are often futile unless a government also ensures the equality of all citizens before the law or the principles that govern society. If rights and freedom are inherent to the individual, they must be preserved by distributing power and allowing voters to yank someone from office in elections.

In China, power is still flowing to Mr. Xi. In Iran, Rouhani may have limited ability to change Iran’s power structure. But telling the truth is a start.

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