President Rouhani has gone ahead and has made a very unprecedented demand in a speech, he has demanded a referendum. More importantly, he has decried the type of “idealism” (read: fanaticism) that exists in the higher echelons of the Iranian regime and has defended pragmatism in diplomacy with a very clear language.
At a Jan. 4 economic conference in Tehran, Rouhani said, “Until when should our economy subsidize our policies? It subsidies both our foreign and domestic policies. Let’s reverse this relationship for one decade. Let’s have our foreign policy subsidize our economy, and let’s see what happens to the people, their livelihood and the employment of their youth. Let’s ask the people. ”
Rouhani continued, “One of the articles of the constitution that has not been implemented from the beginning, one which I, as the chief executive of the constitution, would very much like for the conditions to be provided for, … [is] a referendum of the people on the important issues of the country. The constitution tells us that on important economic, social, political or cultural [issues], instead of parliament ratifying a bill, article of the constitution or direct program, a public vote and a referendum will be held.”
This report misses a part of his speech where I think is more important. He says “Our ideals are not tied to centrifuges. They’re tied to our brains, our hearts, our souls.” And he goes on to mention why we need to be pragmatic in our diplomacy rather than idealistic.
Of course in this very controversial speech referendum was the most controversial part. Rouhani offered no specific thing to be on referendum, but since the entirety of his speech was about the nuclear issue, one can assume he was referring to that.
According the Iranian law, referendum should be passed by the two thirds of the parliament and then be approved by the Supreme Leader or the Supreme Leader should directly command it. The Parliament is filled with rabid conservatives and the Supreme Leader is… well he is the Supreme Leader. So no referendum will be taking place.
Some people have said that there might be some breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations and they want to put it on referendum so that they can justify their significant retreat by calling it “the will of the people”. This is of course too good to be true.
Most analysts have called this speech a “psychological warfare” and they are right. Rouhani is planning to demonstrate that on the nuclear issue he is willing to listen to the voice of the people, but his enemies are not.
The thing is very clear: In the election the candidate who represented a tough stance towards the nuclear issue got only 11% of the votes, Rouhani who was nicknamed “the Diplomat Sheikh” and the very symbol of pragmatism on the nuclear issue won the election in the first round, and more importantly, Velayati, a moderate conservative, who came out very strong in favor of pragmatism on the nuclear issue got 6%, and that means reconciliation got at least 57% votes.
But also a credible polling agency says that 86% of Iranians support a diplomatic nuclear deal with Iran and that 80% support how Rouhani has handled this issue.
So if there is such a referendum, Rouhani would win it easily and decisively and there’s no question of it.
So if the conservatives reject Rouhani’s proposal, they would look bad, and the Parliament’s unwillingness to do so demonstrates how undemocratic they are and therefore they will look bad. I can already read the editorials when the time for Parliamentary elections come around.
So how have the conservatives reacted?
The most important reaction came from Mohammad Reza Naghdi (link in Persian). He is the commander of the basij, a militia under the control of the Revolutionary Guards in charge of oppressing people and harassing women who don’t ascribe to the Islamic code, a very major institution of the regime.
He said that “Our ideal is not tied to centrifuges” (a very clear allusion to Rouhani’s speech), and then added “our ideal is destroying the White House and erasing the Zionist regime [he means Israel] and if anyone disagrees and says we should be pragmatist, he should confess that was never a revolutionary”. Naghdi is of course, as you can see, a very extreme type of fanatic, but he is very important because of his position and cannot be dismissed as fringe.
Al-Monitor lists some other conservative reactions:
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?”
Shariatmadari is not less important than Naghdi in terms of influence in the power structure of the regime.
So the conclusion I can reach is that Rouhani and his enemies are engaged in a heated psychological combat, and Rouhani invokes the specter of a referendum to remind his enemies that he has the popular support of Iranian people on this issue.