Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani suggested on Sunday that he could try a rarely-used political tactic to pass a nuclear deal with the United States: a direct referendum with the voters.
As he spoke at a conference on economic issues, he encouraged the government to “put important economic, social and cultural issues to a direct referendum,” The New York Times reports. Many have interpreted this as a reference to a compromise with the U.S. on Iran’s nuclear program, which conservatives in the government oppose.
The option to take a matter to referendum is included in the Islamic Republic’s 1979 Constitution, but while several presidents have proposed referendums, none have ever been carried out. A referendum requires either the approval of the Supreme Leader or a two-thirds parliamentary vote.
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explains that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be the chief obstacle. “My understanding of the Supreme Leader is that he’s not looking for a final agreement,” Khalaji told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Anything less than lifting the old sanctions is not going to be acceptable to him, and that’s not being offered.”
One of Rouhani’s most intriguing lines at the event was “our ideals are not linked to centrifuges but to our heart.” Matthew McInnis, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told TheDCNF that the claim “shows that Rouhani is starting to do push for a broader compromise.” Contrary to Khalaji, McInnis also noted that the Supreme Leader “has been very clear that he is interested in some kind of deal.”
But is a referendum likely to meet the Supreme Leader’s approval, or is its mere mention a sufficient political tool? Khalaji says a real move toward a referendum is “impossible” — Rouhani has suffered numerous setbacks since becoming president, and any attempt at engaging with public opinion is only likely to hurt him: “the people say they want a good deal, but most don’t know the details of what makes a good deal.”
But one thing is sure for the Iranian people: continued economic pressure from Western sanctions and falling oil prices. Iran’s business community is increasingly impatient for a deal, eager to bring foreign investment back into the country. Rouhani recognized this during his speech, demanding greater transparency, especially from economic sectors dominated by the supreme leader’s allies in government.
Given the economic squeeze, McInnis says, “we may have more leverage than we give ourselves credit for.”
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