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Analysts Weigh In On Rohani's Call For Referendums

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and President Hassan Rohani in a combo photo
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and President Hassan Rohani in a combo photo

A call by Iranian President Hassan Rohani for possible referendums on key issues and a greater say in state affairs for the Iranian people has created a debate in Iran and among Iran watchers.

"As the enforcer of our constitution, I would like -- even just once -- to see conditions ripe for the implementation of a tenet of the fundamental law [the constitution] calling for major economic, social, political, and cultural issues to be put to a public referendum," Rohani said in his January 4 speech.

The Iranian president noted that provision of the constitution had never been used.

The remarks are seen as a warning to hard-liners who control key state institutions including the judiciary, state broadcasting, and security forces. They are unlikely to accept such a proposal.

The parliament, which under the country's laws would have to approve a referendum, is also controlled by conservatives and hard-liners who oppose reforms.

Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation, tells RFE/RL that even if Rohani could legally hold a referendum, he would need the support of the establishment, especially the supreme leader, who has the last say in Iran:

"Rouhani's bold statement is a sign that he may be preparing to sell a potential nuclear deal at home. He knows the conservatives will brand any agreement as a defeat, especially since they fear that a nuclear deal may empower Rouhani at home and lead to some political reforms.

"While Rouhani controls the executive branch, the rest of the establishment is out of his control. So he has to appeal to the public which voted for him, and he is using popular opinion as a weapon. He may not intend to hold a referendum, but may see the threat of doing so as a deterrent against the conservatives."

Reacting to the call, the ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan listed the results of some recent opinion polls conducted in Iran and claimed that the views of the Iranian people on key issues like the nuclear one are clear. Polls conducted in the Islamic republic can be unreliable due to an unwillingness to express genuine opinions about important issues:

"Regarding the nuclear issue, the latest opinion poll of the Public Opinion [and Social Development] Research Centre of the University of Tehran indicates that '91 percent of the Iranian people assess the development of the nuclear program to be very important for the country,' the daily wrote in a piece published over the weekend."

The daily added:

"Nevertheless, the honorable president must be asked, assuming that even if he circumvents the dignified outlook of the people and halts all the nuclear activities and causes imperialism to become more impudent and demanding, then what will he do? Suppose that even if 90 percent of the Iranian people were not supporting national technology and national honor -- as they are, and they are standing by them -- then will he negotiate from a position of power, or a position of absolute weakness?"

Other hard-line outlets, including the daily Javan and the website Mashreghnews, were also critical of Rohani's comments.

And as Professor Nader Hashemi, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, explains, the "hysterical reaction" from hard-liners is unsurprising:

"This is not a surprise to me because it shines a spot on the crisis of legitimacy facing the Islamic Republic, specifically its authoritarian and non-democratic nature. The preferences of the Iranian people, specifically the sizeable Iranian youth population and the urban and middle classes, are at odds with the policies of Iranian hardliners. The threat of including their voices in policy decisions (i.e. the threat of democracy) has petrified the Iranian conservative establishment. It is precisely and exactly for this reason that they protesting so vociferously against Rouhani today."

Inside Iran, moderate media outlets and reformists have welcomed the call.

Reformist politician Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of former President Mohammad Khatami said it would be good to get people's views on two major issues.

The first, he said, is the nuclear issue.

"I as a citizen expect the nuclear issue to be solved without a grudging match, but some hard-liners have other views for solving the nuclear issue. The suitable solution for resolving this is to get people's views," he said.

Khatami also said that the other issue on which Iranian people should be allowed to express their opinions is the house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi. The three have been held under house arrest since February 2011.

In 2010, Musavi called for a referendum on what he described as the "destructive policies" of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

A year earlier, a call for a referendum was made by ex-President Khatami in the wake of the crisis over Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 reelection. Khatami said a referendum on the legitimacy of the government would restore trust in the establishment.

The calls were seen as a challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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