Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei casting a ballot in elections

Khamenei’s Rejection Of Referendum In Iran Sparks Controversy

Saturday, 04/22/2023
Maryam Sinaiee

A British Iranian journalist and political analyst and a regular contributor to Iran International

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s strong disapproval of suggestions to let people decide about crucial matters through a referendum has angered many Iranians.

“[Who says] the country’s various issues can be put to referendum? Where in the world do they do that? [Who says] all the people participating in a referendum have the faculty of analyzing that matter? What kind of demand is that?” he said Tuesday at a meeting with some students.

Article 59 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, which was approved by a referendum after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, stipulates that in extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the functions of the legislature may be exercised through direct recourse to popular vote by holding a national referendum.

Any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of parliament according to the Constitution.

Former President Hassan Rouhani and others have repeatedly suggested holding referendums on “important issues” in domestic and foreign policy. At a meeting with the senior officials of his government, former lawmakers, journalists and politicians on April 5, he reiterated that the answer to people’s demands in the areas of foreign and domestic policies and economy could be found by holding referendums as envisaged by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.

Some critics such as former reformist lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi have argued in favor of a referendum on religious grounds. In a tweet Thursday, he reminded of the Prophet Muhammed’s defeat in the Battle of Uhud after letting the decision of a Muslim council of war prevail against his own.

Khamenei speaks to president Hassan Rouhani during his presidency

“After the defeat in Uhud War some people criticized the Prophet and asked why he had given in to the view of the majority [who do not have the power of analysis] priority over his own,” he wrote and pointed out that it was then that God sent him the famous Quranic verse 159 of Aali-Imran surah.

The Islamic Association of University Instructors, led by Sadeghi also issued a statement Friday urged Khamenei to “correct” his remark about people’s ineligibility to decide on important matters, and prepare the ground for a referendum.

Critics point out that it was through a yes-no referendum, two months after the revolution, that the new rulers of the country replaced the monarchy with an Islamic Republic. Therefore, the vote taken then also lacked legitimacy according to Khamenei’s logic, expatriate activist Shahriyar Shams tweeted.

Others have criticized Khamenei for double standards, pointing out that in a speech in June 2018 he insisted that the answer to the Israel-Palestine problem would be holding a referendum to decide the type of government in the historical country of Palestine and called it a “modern and advanced method accepted by all.”

Critics also say Khamenei’s insistence that referendum is not common in other countries is sheer fallacy and recounted the many instances including the Brexit referendum in Britain, the referendum for Scottish independence, referendum in Switzerland and Denmark over European Union laws, and the 2017 constitutional referendum in Turkey.

Hardliner loyalists find it hard, given the arguments put forth by the opposition, to defend Khamenei’s new declaration but Abdollah Ganji, the former editor of the IRGC-linked Javan newspaper who is now chief editor of Tehran municipality’s Hamshahri newspaper, in a series of tweets Wednesday said those who speak of a referendum should know that it will be “held by the [current] system itself, not against it.”

“I cannot understand the concurrent impatience of the [foreign-based] opposition and the likes of [Hassan] Rouhani for a referendum… [Suggesting referendum in] domestic or foreign policies is a kind of political-electoral trickery and fraud,” he wrote while claiming that no problems would be solved between Iran and the United States, for example, if people voted to have diplomatic relations with the US in a referendum.

For the second time since the beginning of nationwide protests in mid-September that Rouhani suggested fair and free elections and holding referendums as the only way the regime could overcome huge popular discontent within the existing political structure.

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