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Influential Cleric Dismisses Calls For A Referendum

Head of the Assembly of Experts, 91 year old Ahmad Jannati. File photo.

The chairman of the influential Assembly of Experts and Guardian Council of the Islamic Republic has joined the chorus of conservatives in Iran who say the country’s ruling system is beloved by the people.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati says the high turnout for ceremonies celebrating the 39th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution February 11 is all the proof he needs that the regime is as popular as ever, despite a recent wave of anti-establishment protests that swept the country beginning late December 2017.

The 91-year-old cleric, who was speaking February 27 as the head of the Council for the Coordination of Islamic Propagation, dismissed President Hassan Rouhani’s recent call for a referendum on matters of dispute between Iran’s rulers and large segments of society.

In a speech to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Rouhani remarked that “The constitution should be our point of reference --- If we disagree on some issues, we should refer to the article 59 [which lays out conditions for constitutional referenda].”

Rouhani did not specify a question to be put before the Iranian people in such a referendum, but the country’s struggling economy, heavy-handedness by security organs, and women’s rights are all areas where the popular will of the people is increasingly in conflict with the regime.

Based on Article 59 of the Iranian Constitution, a referendum may be called to put major economic, political, social and cultural issues to the nation’s direct vote. Two thirds of parliament must vote to hold a referendum.

By some interpretations of the constitution, however, it is the Supreme Leader who must initiate any process that could involve amending the constitution, including a referendum.

Iran has held three referenda since 1979. The first in March 1979 endorsed the creation of the Islamic Republic; the second in December 1979 ratified the country's new constitution; and the third in 1989 amended the constitution following Ayatollah Khomeini's death, allowing Ali Khamenei to replace him as Supreme Leader.

Rouhani’s suggestion that conflicts in Iranian society could be resolved with a constitutional referendum immediately stirred widespread controversy.

Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the firebrand Friday prayer leader in Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad, chimed in with others close to the Supreme Leader to insist there is no place in Iranian society for a referendum. He said even the suggestion of a constitutional referendum is tantamount to supporting secular democracy and affirmed it is only the Supreme Leader who can call for a referendum in any case.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-linked Tasnim News Agency quoted Alamolhoda as saying in his February 16 sermon, “The Supreme Leader solves all the problems that occur in the country’s management…Iran is a religious democracy and a secular democracy is the wrong system.”

Khamenei’s representative Hossein Shariatmadari told the leading hardline daily Kayhan that Rouhani’s statements are “stirring controversy, playing to the hands of the enemy, and insulting those who took part in the revolution anniversary rally.”

Nevertheless, Rouhani’s deputy for legal affairs, La’ya Joneidi, defended his boss’ suggestion, insisting that, according to her interpretation of the constitution, the president is also authorized to propose a referendum.

“The law for holding referenda, ratified by parliament in 1989 stipulates that either the president or 100 MPs have the right to propose holding of a referendum,” said Ms. Joneidi.

Earlier, fifteen prominent Iranians from cultural and political spheres inside Iran and in exile signed a statement calling for a referendum on the theocratic ruling system in the Islamic Republic.

The group of civil rights activists, lawyers, film directors, a Nobel laureate, and current and former political prisoners demanded a nationwide referendum held under the supervision of the UN in order to bring about peaceful change.

“The only way out of the current situation is a peaceful transition from an Islamic Republic toward a secular state based on parliamentary democracy and free people’s votes, which fully respects human rights, eliminates all institutionalized discrimination, particularly against women, ethnic and religious minorities, and all other minorities,” the group wrote in their statement.

Acclaimed Iranian film director Jafar Panahi has also called upon the leaders of the Islamic Republic to either allow a referendum to determine the popularity of the current ruling system or let the people freely protest and present their demands.