Idea of referendum floated in Iran but nobody knows about what

Hard-liners and the IRGC may welcome the economic turmoil in Iran as it weakens Rohani’s position.
Friday 30/03/2018
Iranian President Hassan Rohani poses at the inauguration a newly built extension of the Chabahar port, which was constructed by an IRGC -affiliated company, last December. (AP)
Slipping popularity. Iranian President Hassan Rohani poses at the inauguration a newly built extension of the Chabahar port, which was constructed by an IRGC -affiliated company, last December. (AP)

TEHRAN - Labour strikes. Nationwide protests. Bank failures. In recent months, Iran has been beset by economic problems despite the promises surrounding the 2015 nuclear deal it struck with world powers.

Its clerically overseen government is starting to take notice. Politicians now offer the idea of possible government referendums or early elections. Even Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei acknowledged the depths of the problems ahead of the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

“Progress has been made in various sectors in the real sense of the word; however, we admit that in the area of ‘justice’ we are lagging behind,” Khamenei said in February. “We should apologise to Allah the Exalted and to our dear people.”

Whether change can come, however, is in question.

Iran largely remains a state-run economy. It has tried to privatise some industries but critics say they have been handed over to a wealthy elite that looted them and ran them into the ground.

One major strike now grips the Iran National Steel Industrial Group in Ahvaz, in south-western Iran, where hundreds of workers say they haven’t been paid in three months. Authorities said demonstrators have been arrested during the strike.

More than 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht has said. The unemployment rate is more than 11%.

Banks remain hobbled by billions of dollars in bad loans, some from the era of nuclear sanctions and others tainted with fraud. The collapse last year of the Caspian Credit Institute, which promised depositors the kinds of returns rarely seen outside of Ponzi schemes, showed the economic desperation faced by many in Iran.

Meanwhile, much of the economy is in the grip of Iran’s security services.

The country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which answers only to Khamenei and runs Iran’s ballistic missile programme, controls 15-30% of the economy, analysts say.

Under President Hassan Rohani, a relatively moderate cleric whose government reached the atomic accord, there has been a push towards ending military control of some businesses. However, the IRGC is unlikely to give up its power easily.

Some suggest hard-liners and the IRGC may welcome the economic turmoil in Iran as it weakens Rohani’s position. His popularity has slipped since he won a landslide re-election in May 2017, in part over the country’s economic woes.

Analysts say a hard-line protest in late December likely lit the fuse for the nationwide demonstrations that swept across some 75 cities. While initially focused on the economy, the protests quickly turned anti-government. At least 25 people were killed in clashes surrounding the demonstrations and nearly 5,000 reportedly were arrested.

In the time since, Rohani has suggested having a referendum, without specifying what exactly would be voted on.

“If factions have differences, there is no need to fight, bring it to the ballot,” Rohani said in a speech in February. “Do whatever the people say.”

Such words don’t come lightly. There have been only two referendums since the Islamic Revolution. A 1979 referendum installed Iran’s Islamic republic. A 1989 constitutional referendum eliminated the post of prime minister, created Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and made other changes.

A letter signed by 15 prominent Iranians published a day after Rohani’s speech called for a referendum on whether Iran should become a secular parliamentary democracy. The letter was signed by Iranians living in the country and abroad, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.

“The sum of the experiences of the last 40 years show the impossibility of reforming the Islamic Republic, since by hiding behind divine concepts… the regime has become the principal obstacle to progress and salvation of the Iranian nation,” read the letter, which was posted online.

However, even among moderates in Iran’s clerical establishment, there seems to be little interest in such far-reaching changes, which would spell the end of the Islamic Republic. Hardliners, who dominate the country’s security services, are adamantly opposed.

“I am telling the anti-Islamic government network, the anti-Iranians and those runaway counter-revolutionaries… their wish for a public referendum will never come true,” Tehran Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said on February 15, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

(The Associated Press)