President Hasan Rouhani, has repeatedly spoken about the need to defer to public opinion to resolve key issues facing Iran. In his latest statement at the University of Tehran, he made it clearer: “If we do not come up with solutions for issues that we have been discussing for over 40 years, we should hold a referendum.” There are three questions concerning Rouhani’s calls for a referendum: What issues does he seek to have a referendum on? Is it really possible to have a referendum in Iran under clerical rule? If not, why has Rouhani insisted on a referendum?
When Rouhani has spoken about a referendum, he has had in mind two critical foreign policy issues which he believes need to be resolved in order to improve Iran’s deteriorating internal conditions by reverting to the public to break the political deadlock between his government and the ruling elite:
1. The first critical issue is whether confrontation or engagement with the world is the way forward: “Is the country’s development and future in the shadow of interaction or confrontation with the world? It may be easy to answer this question but this is a strategic question that we have not come to a clear and conclusive answer to for 41 years. Some people believe that the current problems cannot be solved other than by a show of force and breaking the enemy and some believe that many of the problems can be resolved through dialogue.”
2. The second critical issue is regarding Iran’s nuclear program: “In 2004 I asked the supreme leader to give the people the chance to express their opinions on the nuclear issue. He recognized and accepted the use of this Article [in the constitution], but there was no word on when it is going to be done. And then the administration changed and the process continued on another route, but Article 59 can be helpful at any point.”
Is a Referendum Possible?
The Iranian Constitution refers to a referendum in articles 6, 59, and 110. Article 6 refers to a referendum while it also explains how the country’s affairs should be administered: “The country’s affairs in the Islamic Republic of Iran must be managed on the basis of public opinion as expressed through elections, including the election of the President, the representatives of the Islamic Parliament of Iran, and the members of the councils, and the like, or through referenda, in cases specified in other articles of this law.” Article 59 defines how a referendum should be enacted: “In very important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the functions 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 Parliament of Iran.” What makes a referendum difficult to implement is that the final decision is made by the supreme leader of the country (part 3 of Article 110 of the constitution, describes the duties and powers of the supreme leader).
The constitutional articles on a referendum, like many other constitutional articles which guarantee some public rights have been forgotten or sidelined. There has been only one referendum in the history of the Islamic Republic to change the constitution, which was carried out at the request of Khomeini. The result was not risky for the government due to revisions by a loyalist group appointed by him. Any referendum which does not have the ruling elite’s backing or involvement at the outset is doomed to failure because 1) the rulers of the Islamic Republic consider the legitimacy of the system to have its roots in the guardian jurist who is a delegate of the Hidden Imam and not in the sovereignty of the people, and 2) referendums are risky as the outcomes are unpredictable and may embarrass the ruling elite.
Why Talk About a Referendum?
If a referendum is unable to resolve the two aforementioned critical foreign policy issues on Rouhani’s mind, why has he repeatedly spoken about it? There are five political motivations driving Rouhani’s calls for a referendum:
1. The Rouhani administration’s performance ratings have fallen sharply even among the people who voted for him and criticism towards his administration has increased. Therefore, by calling for a referendum, Rouhani wants to direct public criticism to another part of the government, namely the supreme leader and his loyalists.
2. Even before the uprising of January 2018, the reformists’ support for the Rouhani administration sharply declined. Therefore, to appease the reformists and in order to reduce their pressure and criticism towards his administration, Rouhani has been vocal about a referendum. He is aware of the fact that the reformists would be supportive of such a demand as they themselves have previously called for a referendum to resolve critical foreign policy issues facing the country.
3. Hassan Rouhani is in his second term and is not permitted to serve a third term. In the past six years, he has strengthened his relations with the IRGC, Khamenei’s office and other conservatives in the ruling elite. This political positioning by Rouhani possibly indicates that he has plans to compete for the supreme leadership post after Khamenei’s death. Although, the Iranian people have no say over who is appointed as Iran’s supreme leader, their support for the appointed person can give him much legitimacy and credibility. Therefore, Rouhani having built important relationships with key conservatives, is now possibly calling for a referendum to boost his popularity in order to have all the political cards in place in case he launches a bid to head the Iranian government post-Khamenei.
4. The purpose of Rouhani calling for a referendum may be to use public pressure against the supreme leader in policy-making decisions. Rouhani’s view is that the position of the supreme leader and his loyalists regarding relations with the West in general and the United States in particular, is different from that of the majority of the Iranian people, but in Iran, an independent opinion poll is impossible to conduct. The government of Iran has banned independent or semi-independent opinion polling institutions and does not grant these organizations work permits. Polls in Iran are only ordered by government agencies for their own use without the results being made public. So Rouhani talking about a referendum is a practical and legitimate way to channel public anger towards the supreme leader and his loyalists, or at least to hold a sword over their heads by threatening to hold a referendum.
5. Towards the end of his second term, Mohammad Khatami said that the presidency in Iran takes care of nothing other than logistics. By talking about the president’s power and the constitutional legitimacy for holding a referendum, Rouhani wants to show that he is not just someone who is responsible for logistics in Iran.
It can be concluded that Rouhani’s calls for a referendum are motivated by self-interest as he fully knows that a referendum is not possible without the supreme leader’s green light. In addition, the critical foreign policy issues he considers vital for the future of Iran are not in his domain but handled by the supreme leader and his loyalists. The Iranian public is being deceived by Rouhani, for the aforementioned political motivations, as the struggle between the government and the ruling elite increases in the midst of corruption scandals targeting government officials and their family members.