A referendum proposed by President Hassan Rohani to heal Iran's divisions has been attacked by his hard-line opponents but provided an opening for establishment critics to go a step further.
More than a dozen Iranian activists and intellectuals from inside the country and abroad quickly seized on the president's tentative calls this week for the plebiscite, to ask for a UN-backed referendum in Iran that would allow for a transition to a new form of government.
The past four decades, signatories said, in an apparent allusion to the leadership since Iran's religiously fueled revolution in 1979, demonstrated that the clerically-backed establishment cannot be reformed and systematic rights violations, corruption, and religious pretexts had become the "main obstacle to the progress and liberation of the Iranian people."
Their explicit criticism of Iran's postrevolutionary constitution and government are especially notable as they come just a month or so after deadly unrest erupted in dozens of Iranian cities before a crackdown and thousands of arrests mostly restored calm in the streets.
But Rohani's second and final term has seen a sharpening of publicly aired differences between the relatively moderate president and hard-liners who hold most of the cards under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all political and religious matters in Iran.
In a speech marking 39th-anniversary celebrations of a revolution to rid the country of the Western-backed shah of Iran, Rohani on February 11 suggested that "if we disagree on some issues, we should refer to Article 59 of the constitution," which talks about a "popular vote through a referendum."
Article 59 states that "In extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the function of the legislature may be exercised through direct recourse to popular vote through a referendum."
It adds that "any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly."
Rohani added, "If [political] factions have differences of opinions on a couple of issues, bring the ballot box and whatever people say, act accordingly."
Public responses to the December-January protests underscored cracks in the establishment, with Khamenei emphasizing the alleged role of "foreign enemies" in the unrest and Rohani suggesting that there were grounds for public grievances that Iran's leadership should not ignore.
Since then, Rohani has continued to speak out and pressure appears to have mounted from hard-liners in control of key institutions, including through the reported detention of an environmental official within Rohani's government, Kaveh Madani, according to a reformist lawmaker.
Madani said last year he had returned to Iran "to create hope" and pave the way for the return of other expatriates. He appeared live on Instagram on February 12, saying he was at work and expressing hope that "the issue" of the "real friends of Iran's environment" will be resolved.
The fate of Madani, who is on leave from London's Imperial College, remains unclear.
A spokesman for Iran's powerful Guardians Council, Abbas Khadkhodayi, dismissed Rohani's call for a referendum, which he suggested lacked expertise.
He said the function of Article 59 "is known to all those who know the basic law." Khadkhodayi said it referred to the authority of the parliament, adding that "perhaps the president had mistaken it with another article."
Hossein Sharitmadari, editor of the ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan, described Rohani's proposal as an "insult" to those Iranians who took part in state celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution. "If Rohani had heard the voice of the large crowd in the [February 11] rallies, then proposing a referendum would be meaningless," Shariatmadari was quoted by Iranian media as saying on February 13.
'Secular, Democratic System'
One day after Rohani's speech, 15 prominent activists and intellectuals, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, leading Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi, issued their own call for a referendum organized by the United Nations to clear the path for a new system of government in Iran.
Iran's current system, which they accused of systematic rights violations, corruption, and the selective use of religion, has become the "main obstacle to the progress and liberation of the Iranian people," they argued.
"A referendum that would take place under the Iranian Constitution is a consolidation of the status quo," Ebadi, who currently resides in the United States, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "We want a secular and democratic system; the structure of the [current] constitution does not allow such thing."
Eight of the appeal's 15 signatories live in Iran, where officials routinely jail and abuse perceived regime critics and conduct secretive trials in Revolutionary Courts with little public accountability.
The signatories include jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi and a number of former political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh; political activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi; Abolfazl Ghadiani, a member of the reformist Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution party; and former Tehran University chancellor Mohammad Maleki.