President Rouhani has raised the prospect of a referendum as a means of tackling some of the most profound problems the Islamic Republic continues to face. It’s become almost routine for the president to talk about the potential power of the public to vote in times of crisis, and in a televised interview on August 6, he spoke about the importance of using the country's constitution to help make decisions on economic, political, social, and cultural matters
“If we cannot agree on an important question, why not go to the polls?” he said. “Has Article 59 of the constitution become so bed-ridden that it can no longer function?” If someday we need to put this article into action...we must go to the polls.”
Rouhani said the country should be willing to use the provisions Article 59 of the constitution offers to resolve pressing issues. The article states: “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. Any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly.” Rouhani’s recent appeals for a referendum appear to be a response to renewed hostility from the United States, and to the worsening economic crisis.
The proposal met with solid opposition from across Iran’s political spectrum — including from hardliner Friday prayers leader for Mashhad Ahmad Alamolhoda, who challenged the religious and ideological credibility of challenging “the fundamental principles of the revolution.” Others with closer ties to the president also spoke out, even questioning the legality of such a request.
Since he assumed the presidency in August 2013, Rouhani has repeatedly asked for referendums on important economic, social, political and cultural issues. The last time was in February 2018, on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and a month after nationwide protests over the economy that started in late December 2017.
Rouhani pointed out that in almost three decades Iran has never had a referendum. After the 1979 revolution Iran had three referendums — two in 1979 and one in 1989 — and all three were about the constitution or amendments to it.
But holding referendums in Iran is a very complicated process. Article 6 of the constitution refers to the process as a mean of “administering” the country “on the basis of public opinion” alongside elections. But in order to carry out a referendum, as stated in Article 59, two-thirds of the members of the parliament must agree to it. However, Article 99 gives the “responsibility of supervising” referendums to the influential Guardian Council and, even if these hurdles are overcome, Article 110 rules that the Supreme Leader has the power to issue decrees for national referendums.
More a Spectator than a Player
If, in the end, a referendum is held, Rouhani will take on the role of spectator rather than being central to the process. As Article 123 states: “The president is obliged to sign...the result of a referendum after the legal procedures have been completed and it has been communicated to him [emphasis added].” In other words, the president of the Islamic Republic has the least power among authorities when it comes to the matter of referendums.
President Rouhani is not the first to call for a public vote. In early 2000, in a speech aired on national television, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sharply criticized parliament’s “meddling” in the upcoming budget and called for a referendum on cash subsidies to Iranians. The parliament and other institutions simply dismissed or ignored his wishes.
Rouhani’s calls have received much the same treatment. In 2013, before flying to New York for the UN General Assembly in September, he asked for a referendum about negotiations and relations with the US. In response, he was greeted with a wave of criticism, with opponents accusing him of deceit and of trying to reestablish relations with the United States.
“The 36 million who [in 1979] went to the polls voted to stand with the ideals of the revolution,” said Mohammad Kosari, a member of the parliament who is now a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards.
“Somebody must have sneaked this into Rouhani’s agenda,” said Safar Harandi, cultural advisor to the commander of the Revolutionary Guards and a member of the Expediency Council. “Rouhani knows too well that nowhere in the world is a referendum considered credible enough to reflect people’s choice.” And, in true character, Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hardliner Friday Prayers leader of Mashhad, was more hostile. “How can you conduct a referendum about the fundamental principles of the revolution?” he said. “Some people who are Muslims only in appearance talk about a referendum regarding relations with America. Some mercenary pen-pushers want to smooth the way for the Arrogance [American domination].”
Only in a Stalemate
In addition to Rouhani’s hardliner critics, even some moderates and some of his supporters oppose the idea. “I do not agree with referendums on fundamental and national questions because it can lead to tensions,” said Ali Motahari, a supporter of Rouhani’s government and a member of the parliament. “The principles of our foreign policy are clear. So are the powers of the president and the government and they need no referendum because extension of this to cultural, economic and political issues can lead to trouble.” He added that the only time for a referendum is if there is a stalemate. “But right now, there are no stalemates.”
Ali Akbar Velayati, Ayatollah Khamenei’s advisor in international relations, asserted that a referendum cannot be the basis for deciding fundamental issues and questioned the legal basis of Rouhani’s call for a referendum. “Do countries like Britain, France and Russia that have a longer experience in diplomacy than we have rely on referendums to establish relations with a country? Besides, many decisions [taken] by the government are based on [both] public and secret information [not available to the public].”
These objections show that an agreement on holding referendums does not exist in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic, and so President Rouhani has little chance of pushing the idea through. Besides, there is no chance that certain issues will ever be put to popular vote. For instance, a number of political figures want a referendum on obligatory hijab. But about a year and a half ago, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei announced in no uncertain terms that the Islamic Republic will not tolerate discussions about whether hijab should be obligatory or voluntary.
Buying Breathing Space
Rouhani, however, seems well aware of the situation, and of the likely response from the country’s conservative principlists. In fact, he appears to be using Article 59 of the constitution as a propaganda tool to buy himself some breathing space in the current difficult situation, and to create a distraction in the political landscape. Whenever he has called for a referendum in the past, he has never pursued the issue in practical terms.
There are other ways to make the public view known. In 2013, Rouhani had the opportunity to present an exact and detailed report of people’s opinions through publishing the results of a government-conducted survey. But he chose not to. And this time around, he could pick a specific issue and push the Supreme Leader for a referendum on it. Such a move could be the first step in the long process of sorting out the country’s problems in earnest. But, as Rouhani begins his fifth year as president, he is demonstrating that he intends to carry on in the way he has been. The appeal for a referendum is, like so many of his other tactics, just for show.