On Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested invoking a provision of the Islamic Republic’s constitution that would allow him to put issues of major national import to a popular referendum:
Rouhani, speaking during a conference on the country’s economic problems, said that Iranians were entitled to have major issues put to a nationwide vote, as described in the 1979 Constitution. “It will be good to, after 36 years, even for once, or even every 10 years if we implement this principle of the Constitution, and put important economic, social and cultural issues to a direct referendum instead of to the Parliament,” Mr. Rouhani said.
In the opaque world of Iranian politics his remarks are a clear warning to hard-liners, who control the Parliament, key decision-making councils, the state-run media, the security forces and the intelligence services, but who have a shrinking base of support in the country.
While Rouhani didn’t refer to the nuclear negotiations specifically, many Iran watchers interpreted the speech as a signal that he might try to use the referendum process to bypass hard-line opposition to a deal with the US. “Rouhani’s gambit is very clever,” Juan Cole writes:
Likely there are people in his circle who have been influenced by the California referendum system. Rouhani is popular, and his policies are for the most part welcomed by the general public, however much the hard liners despise him for his shift to the left. If he does conclude a deal with Barack Obama this summer, allowing Iranian nuclear enrichment but forestalling any weaponization of the program, Rouhani could confront a risk of the deal being undone by hard line opposition. A popular referendum would give him the proof of popular backing he would need to over-rule the hawks.
But his opponents were quick to push back:
In an interview with Fars News Agency, conservative Kayhan newspaper’s editor Hossein Shariatmadari said that Rouhani misunderstood the two articles in the constitution pertaining to referendums. He said that Article 59 refers to a “legislative referendum” that needs two-thirds approval by the parliament to be put to the people. The second reference, Article 177, concerns appealing or revising laws. Rouhani appears to have invoked Article 59, which outlines a “legislative referendum” and not an “executive referendum.”
Conservative Mashregh News reported that instead of distracting the public, Rouhani should “give the reasons for the ineffectiveness” of his foreign policies. Its article read that many people are wondering why despite Iran’s “suspending a great deal of the nuclear program, the price of the dollar has increased and the price of oil has dropped? Why have the sanctions increased? What is the limit of [Rouhani’s] confidence-building with the enemy? And finally, when are the people going to see the results of a different diplomacy in their lives?”
In the same speech, Rouhani also called for opening up the largely state-controlled economy and ending Iran’s international isolation—another implicit criticism of his conservative rivals:
His appeal in a speech to 1,500 economists appeared to be critical of hardliners who oppose his efforts to deliver Iran from years of erratic economic management by the previous administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Our economy will not prosper as long as it is monopolized (by the government). The economy must be rid of monopoly and see competition,” he said. “It must be freed of insider speculation, be transparent, all people must be aware of the statistics. If we can bring transparency to our economy, we can fight corruption.” He added: “Our political life has shown we can’t have sustainable growth while we are isolated.”
Here’s hoping the Iran hardliners in Washington can see past the turban and understand that this is a man we can work with. On that front, though, Derek Davison is bearish:
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) visited Israel late last month and told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that there would be a vote on the previously stymied Kirk-Menendez bill (to impose additional sanctions on Iran) sometime in January, and that the new Congress would “follow [Netanyahu’s] lead” on dealing with Iran and the nuclear talks. Putting aside the astonishing sight of a US senator pledging allegiance to a foreign leader, sanctions are a clearly decisive issue for Tehran. The imposition of another round of broad US sanctions, even if they are made conditional on Iran abandoning the talks or breaking its obligations under the existing negotiating framework, would strengthen hardliners in Tehran who have long argued that Washington cannot be trusted. The Obama administration has pledged to veto any additional sanctions on Iran so long as talks are ongoing, but that may not matter; Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) told reporters last week that he expects the new Congress to pass a new sanctions bill with veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate.