Iran’s Rouhani & Direct Democracy: Wants Referendum to Sidestep Hardliners

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

Iran’s system of government is a hybrid. One wing of it consists of a dictatorial theocracy, centered on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The other wing is elected and comprises the parliament and the presidency.

President Hassan Rouhani, a reformer, is worried about being stymied in his economic and diplomatic initiatives by regime hard liners. He has been attacked for his negotiations with the UN Security Council members plus Germany over Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program. Rouhani has also pursued controversial economic policies, such as reducing subsidies and pushing for more privatization and competition. He has had some successes, such as reducing inflation from 40% to 17%

The hard liners include a portion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary Basij, and far-right clerics. They also include Khamenei himself on occasion. They derailed the”2nd of Khordad” movement of President Mohammad Khatami, which began in the late 1990s when he as unexpectedly elected president. Khatami tried to expand press freedom, but Khamenei just had the more liberal newspapers closed. Khamenei also excluded liberals from running for parliament from 2004 forward, producing a rightwing national legislature instead of the more liberal one elected in 2000.

Rouhani said Sunday that he had noticed a provision in the Iranian constitution for the use of popular referendums to settle difficult issues in national politics. He said that the provision had not been implemented, but that as the leader of the executive branch it was his duty to uphold hte constitution. BBC Monitoring renders him thus: “The constitution tells us that the articles of the law and programmes regarding important economic, social, political and cultural issues should be put to a referendum instead of passing a law in parliament…”

Although Khamenei could still over-rule any referendum item that passed, he might be reluctant to be seen dismissing the concerns of millions of referendum voters. The Iranian public is much more liberal than the theocratic, appointed branch of government, but has been curbed by the latter.

Rouhani’s gambit is very clever. 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.

All this raises the question of whether President Obama can get around his hard line congress. Maybe the USA also needs national referendums. Neither in the US nor in Iran are the legislatures any longer representative. On some issues, direct democracy could remove logjams.

If Rouhani goes forward, and succeeds in fostering direct democracy on some issues in Iran, he could be introducing a new element into the country’s governance that will forever change Iranian politics.

Related video:

Wochit: “Rouhani Urges End to Iran’s Isolation”

9 Responses

  1. “Neither in the US nor in Iran are the legislatures any longer representative. ” Yes. Sad but true. Or, one might say, our system represents billionaires and organized special interests very well. Unfortunately, our constitution does not provide for a referendum, and–while I could be wrong–I can’t imagine our elected leaders ever permitting an amendment with such a provision. The closest we have is the presidential election via electoral college. Even an amendment to provide direct election of the president seems unlikely, though it is more conceivable than provision for a referendum. Whether direct election of the president would make much difference, it is hard to know, but I doubt it. Sorry to be a wet blanket; your point is valid anyway.

  2. What President Rouhani said about making use of referendum in his speech in a conference on Iranian economy was very significant. First of all, it should be pointed out that his talk was mainly about the economy and most of the speech was devoted to Iran’s economic problems, including corruption, excessive regulations and above all subsidies. He rightly pointed out that Iranian economy is excessively based on politics, both domestic politics and foreign politics. He said that the only way that the Iranian economy would grow was to end Iran’s isolation, adding: “Our experience shows that the country cannot have sustainable growth when it is isolated.”

    However, his few references to nuclear negotiations were also significant. He said that the negotiations had nothing to do with revolutionary ideals: “Our ideals are not bound to centrifuges. Our ideals are bound to our hearts, brains and determination.” This is reminiscent of what he said during the election campaign, namely “centrifuges should turn, but the wheels of the economy should turn too.”

    Although his reference to a referendum was about “the macro-policies of the country” and was in connection with the economy, nevertheless, his promise that he would hold referendums on major issues could soften some of the opposition by hardliners to his policies, including nuclear negotiations, because the majority of the people would favor resolving the nuclear issue and improving the economy.

    Having said that, it does not mean that he is able or willing to accept a blatantly unfair nuclear deal. Iran has already made most of the compromises in the nuclear talks and may be able to move further, but the key to the resolution of the nuclear dispute lies in President Obama’s hand, and whether he is prepared to accept Iran’s right to enrichment and whether he can take a political decision despite congressional opposition to start a new chapter in relations with Iran. My feeling is that if President Obama decides to go ahead with a deal, the Congress will not be able to prevent it due to the force of domestic and international public opinion. Iranian foreign minister has bluntly pointed out that Iran would not accept “a token nuclear program.”

  3. I think national referendums in the US would be subject to the same spending laws that subverted democracy in the first place. Referendums would be subject to massive propaganda engines.

    On the other hand, don’t mean to be a wet blanket. Might work in the US. What are your thoughts about how this would circumvent the plutocracy?

    • Yes, the problem is that Americans believe TV commercials. As long as buying commercials is “free speech”, we are basically trained chimpanzees.

      If we had strong party systems and high turnout like in Europe, the ads would have less effect. But once we let the rich get rich enough to buy up both parties, there was no place to run. We could replace commercials with all ala carte cable TV selections, meaning we have to pay directly for all the stupid shows we’re embarrassed to watch but do anyway. Print ads don’t matter because print media is dying, like radio. But if all these contaminations were expunged, pressure would mount to make internet ads more obnoxious and inescapable.

      What we really need is for consumers themselves to only buy things they can rationally justify, co-creating new products with Kickstarter, or using expert clients that roam the internet looking for the best actual deals, not the best prices. As you can see, this would leave the same aging Americans who support so many bad policies as the ones still clinging to mass media brainwashing. The rich might whip them into a Tea Party-like frenzy at any attempt to make any of these changes, threatening violence and martial law to crush the rise of a generation of non-fooled Americans.

      • I dunno, you seem to be blaming the American people. It’s not their fault they’re being subjected to the best funded propaganda system in history.

        I follow Cenk and the gang at TYT and know they’re trying to get a constitutional congress together to introduce spending limits. That seems to be the best hope.

  4. Iran is in need of a clerical version of Gorbachev, one who rises through the ranks of the right wing clergy, and has them fouled with regards to his true stance until made Supreme Leader.

    If that was to happen the system may be amenable to reform, otherwise I expect it will eventually face another revolution.

  5. Interesting thought, a clerical version of Gorbachev! I think that would be wonderful, maybe in time possible as the changing of the guard is inevitable.
    It is more progressive to have a national refernedum as Iran has, and certainly the US could be well improved to have national referendums, better still a citizen path to amending the Constitution, where much of what ailes us can be resolved through improving our constitutional design.
    Why either the US or Iran focuses so much attention on nuclear matters is missing the obvious; no sane nation would use a nuke, and so if it is for energy production, then why go the nuclear route (a short-term power source) when solar is there in great abundance, and is about the safest nuclear power source we have in the solar system. Isn’t Iran quite sunny, and with ample wind resources as well?

  6. I would point out that California has had tremendous problems with conflicting voter initiatives. Also I think it is more likely that conservative hardliners would turn out in a special election. Specials are historically lower turnout and we have the recent midterms as a cautionary tale as well.

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