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The Farda Briefing: Iranian Activists Angered By Khamenei's Rejection Of Referendum 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei questioned whether voters had the "capacity" to make informed choices on important state matters if a referendum were to be held.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei questioned whether voters had the "capacity" to make informed choices on important state matters if a referendum were to be held.

Welcome back to The Farda Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I've been following during the past week and what I'm watching for in the days ahead.

The Big Issue

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled out holding a referendum on key national issues, a demand made by antiestablishment protesters, activists, and opposition figures.

"Where in the world is this done? Is it possible to hold a referendum for various issues of the country?" Khamenei, who has the final say on all important matters of the state, said during a meeting with students on April 18.

According to Iran's constitution, a referendum can be held on "extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters." A vote can only be called with the approval of two-thirds of parliament.

Why It Matters: Khamenei's rejection of a referendum appears to be in response to a call by former President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate, who recently suggested that holding a popular vote on domestic, economic, and foreign policy matters could resolve the unrest in the country.

Iran was gripped by months of antiestablishment protests that erupted in September, the biggest challenge to the Islamic republic in decades. Many protesters demanded greater social and political freedom and the end of clerical rule.

In recent months, some opposition figures and civil society groups have called for a referendum on protesters' demands. They include opposition figure Mir Hossein Musavi and Iran's top Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid. Others have called for the drafting of a new constitution that could pave the way for a new political system.

What's Next: Khamenei's dismissal of a referendum, although not surprising, has been criticized by some Iranians.

Some accused the Iranian leader of double standards, saying he has previously called for a referendum to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Others noted that the current clerical system was established after a referendum was held soon after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

In his comments, Khamenei had also questioned whether voters had the "capacity" to make informed choices on important state matters if a referendum were to be held.

"If we don't have the capacity to analyze and take part in a referendum, then why do we have the capacity when it comes to noncompetitive elections?" the Islamic Association of University Teachers said in a statement.

Paris-based analyst Reza Alijani told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Khamenei has monopolized power and has "issues even with regime insiders." "He opposed a referendum, which Rohani called for based on the constitution, unlike Musavi and others who have demanded a referendum that goes beyond the constitution," Alijani said.

Stories You Might Have Missed

A U.S.-trained professor at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Tehran said he was fired after he came out in support of nationwide protests against the clerical establishment. Many Iranian university professors have faced expulsion for their support of the demonstrations, while others have already been pushed from their jobs.

Iranian former crown prince Reza Pahlavi's recent visit to Israel, Tehran's arch foe, courted controversy. Some Iranians criticized Pahlavi for being silent on the plight of Palestinians. Others questioned why he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time when tens of thousands of Israelis are protesting his controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.

What We're Watching

Hamed Esmaeilion has announced he is leaving an alliance of exiled Iranian opposition figures and celebrities.

The Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran was formed in February and includes Pahlavi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, rights activist Masih Alinejad, actress Nazanin Boniadi, and Abdullah Mohtadi, the leader of a Kurdish political party.

In March, the alliance issued a charter for a transition to a new, secular democratic system that would be followed by free elections. The group has called for international efforts to isolate Iran's clerical establishment.

Esmailion, who was the spokesman of a Canada-based association that represented the families of the victims of a passenger flight that was shot down in Iran in 2020, said he quit because of "anti-democratic" attempts by "pressure groups" to impose their views on the alliance.

Why It Matters: Esmailion's withdrawal suggests Iran's exiled opposition has been unable to end infighting and bridge their differences. Further withdrawals could lead to the collapse of the alliance.

Prominent Tehran-based analyst Sadegh Zibalakam said the exiled opposition "only agrees on opposing the Islamic republic." "Outside of their opposition to the clerical establishment, they don't have much of a [policy],' he said on Twitter.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Golnaz Esfandiari

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

About This Newsletter

The Farda Briefing

The Farda Briefing is an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. Written by senior correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari and other reporters from Radio Farda.

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