President Hassan Rouhani has called for a public referendum in Iran to decide the fate of the nuclear agreement. The proposal coincides with escalating tensions between the United States and Iran in the Gulf region. The United States has deployed its warships and sent is bombers to the Gulf region and has also accelerated the sale of arms to its allies, citing the need to contain the Iranian regional threat.
The call for a public referendum can rally the public behind President Rouhani if his goal is to jumpstart talks with the United States. Most Iranians will support the nuclear deal if it promises their country better economic opportunities. But the United States pulled out of the deal and imposed tough economic sanctions on Iran. These sanctions might be revoked if Iran and the United States were to talk again.
A public referendum on the nuclear agreement can serve the interests of Iran’s European trade partners. The European Union (EU) will be in a better position to pressure the United States to allow Iran to do business with the world if a public referendum supports the nuclear agreement. Europe has promised Iran to help it circumvent the US sanctions, and it recently signed an agreement with Tehran to provide insurance on exports to and from the country.
Tensions with the United States will continue to escalate if Iran refuses to diffuse them. Iran is trying to buy time. Signaling Iran’s desire to de-escalate tensions with Washington, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, is touring Iraq, Pakistan and India, while the Iranian diplomat and nuclear negotiator, Abbas Aragchi, is traveling to Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. A call for a public referendum is a step closer to keeping the United States at arm’s length until Tehran calculates what its next moves are after speaking to its regional neighbors.
The trips have taken place amid rumors of a possible de-escalation taking place soon to resolve differences between the United States and Iran. Iran denies having had any talks with the United States on the subject. Iraq has expressed its willingness to mediate to de-escalate tensions between the United States and Iran. Zarif and Iran’s Ambassador to the UN in New York, Majid Takht Ravanchi, both have indicated to the press this week Iran’s willingness to talk to the United States but not under pressure.
Rouhani’s proposal for a public referendum sheds light on divisions inside Iran on how to move forward. The IRGC affiliated Tasnim News Agency insists that there are few proponents of talks with Washington in Tehran. Other Iran-based news websites have dismissed rumors of quiet talks happening between the two adversaries. Tasnim questions if Rouhani’s call for a public referendum aims to cover his government’s failure to reap the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement.
President Rouhani has fought back by insisting that Iran would have left the nuclear agreement long ago had it not been for his government’s steadfast commitment to the agreement. To resolve the internal political stalemate and to move forward with the nuclear deal, Rouhani believes that a public referendum on the nuclear deal is a sound option.
This is not the first time that Rouhani has proposed a referendum to break a political stalemate in the country. In 2014, Rouhani asked Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to consent to holding a referendum to push the nuclear talks forward. A year later, the nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers were concluded. Though Khamenei initially welcomed the idea of holding a referendum, he refused to put his authority on hold over a referendum and it never happened. Instead, Khamenei quietly urged the Iranian parliament to quickly ratify the nuclear agreement, knowing that there was widespread national support for the deal.
Rouhani’s calls for a public referendum now and in the past suggest that his tactic might or might not have any tangible impact. Tehran is opposed to holding referendums should it disrupt the status quo including the tight hold over power that the hardliners have, and there has been no referendum held in Iran since the establishment of the Islamic revolution in 1979. But Rouhani’s tactic might place some pressure on Khamenei to give in and for talks with the United States to proceed.
There is more to Rouhani’s call for a public referendum. Iran has learned several key lessons from the recent round of nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea. Tehran has sought North Korean advice along the way. Looking at the Trump administration’s outreach to North Korea, Iran speculates that US President Donald Trump will also want to talk to Tehran. The escalation between the United States and Iran might serve to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. Similarly, an escalation did happen prior to a decision by the United States and North Korea’s leaders to negotiate directly. Both leaders were able to contain the escalation and talk to each other, although the results of the US-North Korea talks remain inconclusive.
This unclear North Korean pattern of talks with the United States means that Tehran also has time to buy with President Trump, by suggesting that it is open to talks. Just talking to the United States is not a stable parameter to ensure success for Iran, but like North Korea, it can buy time with Trump by promising to talk as long as Trump remains unclear about his Iran policy.
Unlike North Korea which relied on major powers such as China and Russia to help de-escalate tensions with the United States, Iran has fewer neighbors capable of leveraging the United States to reduce pressures on it. So ultimately, it might take a public referendum in favor of keeping the nuclear agreement in place that would suggest the need to renegotiate it with the United States. Taken in this light, a public referendum could be one of Rouhani’s last cards to play to salvage the nuclear deal and to avert a political showdown with his foes.