Friday , 28 January 2022

Could Iran Hold A National Referendum?

RFL/RE – President Hassan Rouhani’s suggestion that conflicts in Iranian society could be resolved with a constitutional referendum is stirring controversy.

“The constitution can break the deadlock. The law has the potential to put an end to discussions by referring to Article 59 [on referendums] of the constitution” said Rouhani in a speech commemorating the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution February 11.

Rouhani did not specify a question to be put before the Iranian people in such a referendum, but in light of recent anti-establishment protests that shook the country in late December 2017 and early this year, the country’s struggling economy, heavy-handedness by security organs, and women’s rights are all areas where the popular will of the people is increasingly in conflict with the regime.

Following Rouhani’s comments, his political opponents launched a new round of attacks on his relatively moderate administration, accusing him of going against the interests of the country.

Article 177 of the constitution, which deals with revising the constitution itself through referendum, stipulates that the regime’s nature as an Islamic Republic, its objectives, and the rule of the jurisconsult (Velayat-e Faqih) cannot be changed by holding a referendum.

But Rouhani has repeatedly pointed to a referendum as a tool for reconciliation rather than an existential threat to the regime, saying three years ago, “At least once we can call for a referendum to put an end to disputes among officials.” At the time, Rouhani regretted that the Iranian Constitution’s potential for holding a referendum “has not been tested even once.”

Talk of a constitutional referendum is not unprecedented in Iran. Other politicians have floated the idea of polling the people directly on key questions.

Referendum within the frameworks of Islamic Republic

According to Article 59 of the Iranian Constitution, “A referendum may be called for to resolve major economic, political, social, and cultural problems. The call should be approved by two thirds of the Parliament.”

However, all MPs are vetted by the Guardian Council, a 12-member conservative body that wields considerable power in Iran, and it is highly unlikely any question regarding the foundations of the ruling system in Iran would ever be put to referendum by a carefully selected parliament, as some hardliners fear.

Article 177 of the constitution, which deals with revising the constitution itself through referendum, stipulates that the regime’s nature as an Islamic Republic, its objectives, and the rule of the jurisconsult (Velayat-e Faqih) cannot be changed by holding a referendum.

In other words, Rouhani’s opponents’ fear that a referendum could change the power structure in Iran, including the role of the Supreme Leader and his control over the Guardian Council, the judiciary, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) intelligence organization is baseless.

Post-unrest rhetoric

Calls for a referendum are the result of the country’s economic and social realities. Iranians are facing growing economic hardships and are increasingly willing to engage in civil disobedience over issues like obligatory hijab, as recent events have shown.

Referendum questions can be about forcing the many charitable foundations (Bonyads) linked to Khamenei, the IRGC, and the holy shrine of Mashhad, which channel oil income to prop up the regime, to pay tax on those massive revenues.

A referendum still has the potential to bring about intrinsic change in the country, even if the ruling structures themselves can’t be touched.

Referendum questions can be about forcing the many charitable foundations (Bonyads) linked to Khamenei, the IRGC, and the holy shrine of Mashhad, which channel oil income to prop up the regime, to pay tax on those massive revenues. Or it could be about the price of fuel, the subsidies, ties with the West, judiciary reforms, the dress code for women, and the like.

Hardliners oppose even these narrower referendum questions, fearing the tsunami-style escalation of people’s demands for reform.

From dream to reality

There is a wide gap between what Rouhani and other regime moderates want, and what is really feasible within the rigid structure of power in Iran. This is why there has never been a referendum in the Islamic Republic, despite the fact that it is allowed by the constitution.

Rouhani and other moderates wish to reduce the frightening width of the gap between the rulers and the nation “before it is too late.”

As a candidate for succession to the post of Supreme Leader when Khamenei dies, Rouhani wants to bring about reconciliation between the government and the nation.

In the meantime, other candidates for succession, including hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi and Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, continue their authoritarian projects and at the same time trying to tarnish Rouhani’s image and prevent his influence, or any popularity he might have.

The opinions expressed in the article are not necessarily those of Radio Farda
Morteza Kazemian is an Iranian journalist and political analyst based in Paris, who contributes to Radio Farda.

 

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