Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani speaking on Saturday May 25 said that a referendum on the country’s nuclear program “can offer a breakthrough”.
The Iranian president in a meeting with media managers in Tehran was answering a question when he said that Article 59 can “unblock” difficult situations. He added, “The question of when we should utilize this Article or when in the past we should have used it, is a different matter”.
Rouhani told the gathering that in 2004, when he was not president, he told the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to put “the nuclear issue” to a referendum and Khamenei “thought using the Article was a good idea and accepted” Rouhani’s suggestion.
Apparently, Rouhani referred to the months before the election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and said that “later the government changed and the process took a different course, but Article 59 could offer a breakthrough at any juncture”.
This is not the first time Rouhani has raised the possibility of referendums to solve fundamental disagreements in the country or untangle issues. In early 2017 he defended the principle of resorting to public vote to make decisions on crucial issues. At the time, Rouhani’s suggestion met with stern opposition from Khamenei’s top allies.
Khamenei, using his constitutional authority and the unrivaled power he has accumulated in 30 years of rule, has the ultimate say in almost all matters, particularly in foreign policy, internal security and military issues. A referendum can be a challenge to his power, as people would get to decide directly.
It is almost unavoidable that Khamenei's conservative allies will react negatively to Rouhani's suggestion, not only because of concerns about diluting Khamenei's authority but also considering the risks in offering people the chance to decide on the nuclear program.
At this point it is unclear if the president coordinated his suggestion with the Supreme Leader, which is also a possibility.
Iran has suffered years of severe international and U.S. sanctions, which have greatly harmed its economy and impoverished the people.
Rouhani is not the only politician who has spoken of using referendums. An outspoken member of parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi also has suggested to hold a referendum in approving anti-corruption legislation demanded by the international community.
Article 59 says, “In important economic, political, social and cultural issues it is possible to legislate through referendum, resorting to the direct vote of the people, which…should be approved by two-thirds of the total number of members of parliament.”
However, some influential politicians and officials believe that based on other constitutional principles, the Supreme Leader should agree to holding any referendum. Article 59 has never been used in the Islamic Republic after the adoption of its current constitution.