Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, January 16, 2015

Guardianship of the people?

The saint of the Iranian Islamic revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, advocated an Islamic government that put the will of the people under the guardianship of a jurist (a well-respected and educated cleric like himself). So, there is a way, under the Iranian constitution, for popular referenda. Is President Rouhani now serious about holding popular votes on policy issues?

Rouhani's reference, at the end of the article, is to bonyads, the so-called charitable foundations that took over businesses of people who left Iran during and after the '79 revolution. The foundations are controlled by powerful clerics and leaders of the Revolutionary Guards. The bonyads provide huge incomes to those who control them.

Iran Leader Suggests Direct Votes on Issues
Iran’s president said Sunday that he might invoke a powerful but neglected tool in his fight with hard-liners, suggesting the possibility of organizing direct referendums that would bypass the institutions the conservatives control and give more of a voice to Iranian voters.

President Hassan Rouhani, speaking during a conference on the country’s economic problems, said that Iranians were entitled to have major issues put to a nationwide vote, as described in the 1979 Constitution…

In the opaque world of Iranian politics his remarks are a clear warning to hard-liners, who control the Parliament, key decision-making councils, the state-run media, the security forces and the intelligence services, but who have a shrinking base of support in the country…

Any popular referendum would be troubling to hard-liners because it would be likely to produce results reflective of the changes in Iranian society. These days, most Iranians are urbanized, according to official figures, and seemingly less interested in the radicalism promoted by some Iranian leaders. Because most Iranians are not allowed to organize themselves, or to form parties or even social groups, their opinions are often muffled by official ideological pronouncements and propaganda…

“The president is threatening the hard-liners that he is not afraid to use such a powerful tool,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government. Mr. Ghorbanpour said that most people supported the president’s desire for change, and that a referendum would reflect that…

While the hard-liners control Parliament, and a referendum would have to be approved by two-thirds of the lawmakers, just by proposing such a measure Mr. Rouhani would put enormous pressure on his opponents.

“If they would say no to a referendum proposed by the government, it would mean they would say flat out no to the people,” Mr. Ghorbanpour said…

In another jab at his rivals, Mr. Rouhani repeated his criticism of organizations controlled by hard-liners that engage in often very lucrative economic activities but refuse to pay taxes.

“Everyone should pay taxes,” Mr. Rouhani said. “This government, without being afraid of anybody or any institution, will tell the story to the people when it is about people’s interests.”


Sue Witmer, who teaches in Pennsylvania, then pointed out two blog entries from RFE/RL that reinforce the messages of the New York Times article.

(Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari.)

Analysts Weigh In On Rohani's Call For Referendums
And as Professor Nader Hashemi, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, explains, the "hysterical reaction" from hard-liners is unsurprising:

"This is not a surprise to me because it shines a spot on the crisis of legitimacy facing the Islamic Republic, specifically its authoritarian and non-democratic nature. The preferences of the Iranian people, specifically the sizeable Iranian youth population and the urban and middle classes, are at odds with the policies of Iranian hardliners. The threat of including their voices in policy decisions (i.e. the threat of democracy) has petrified the Iranian conservative establishment. It is precisely and exactly for this reason that they protesting so vociferously against Rouhani today."...

News Analysis: Rohani Makes His Move
In a remarkable speech on January 4, Hassan Rohani called for taxing huge economic enterprises and conglomerates that currently are exempted from taxation but constitute close to half of Iran's economic turnover. Rohani also criticized the monopolistic nature of these enterprises, calling for an open and competitive economic system.

Who controls these monopolistic enterprises? Mostly, it's the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and clerical circles who have been opposing a nuclear deal, making clear that his message was for them...


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