Referendum in Iran: A Constitutional Right, But Would Face Huge Obstacles
Holding a public referendum in Iran on the fate of the Islamic Republic is an idea that has recently been gaining favor among Iranian political activists and civil rights advocates, both inside the country and abroad.
Proponents of a referendum want action on what is perceived as the Islamic Republic’s widespread unpopularity, in order to set the stage for the creation of an alternative political system.
Yet hardline bodies that control the political process in Iran are unlikely to ever consider a referendum that would call into question any aspect of the current political order in the country, despite the fact that referendums have been occasionally used in the Islamic Republic as a tool to allow the public to weigh in on important issues.
In a tweet on April 1, 2021, Saeid Dehghan, a lawyer based in Tehran, noted that in April 2003, the Guardian Council (the ultra-conservative body that vets all legislation for conformity with Iran’s Islamic law, approves candidates for office the legislative process, and rules on constitutional questions) exercised its constitutional powers in a written response to a question about its role in any referendum, stating:
“The parliamentary approval of a request for a referendum under Article 59 of the Constitution must be submitted to the Guardian Council in accordance to Article 94 of the Constitution.”
Control over the holding of any referendum by the Guardian Council effectively ensures no such referendums would be held—irrespective of public support for the idea.
Previous Referendums Used to Solidify Islamic Republic
Iranian authorities themselves have occasionally raised the possibility of holding a referendum to solve difficult political issues, but the last one was held more than 30 years ago to endorse amendments to the 1979 Constitution.
In 1989, Iranians voted in a referendum on changes to the Constitution that were never clearly explained by the authorities. These changes included the elimination of the Leadership Council (a body that would rule the country temporarily if the Supreme Leader, the absolute authority in Iran, died); increasing the powers of the Supreme Leader; changing “velayat faghih” to “velayat motlagheh faghih” (changing “Guardianship of the Jurisprudent,” the theological stance that underpins the authority of the supreme leader, to the “Absolute Guardianship of the Jurisprudent,” strengthening that authority); and granting more authority to the Guardian Council.
Article 59 of the current Constitution states, “In extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the function of the legislature may be exercised through direct recourse to popular vote through a referendum. Any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the [parliament].”
Any request for a referendum on the fate of the Islamic Republic, however, would be exceedingly unlikely to receive a positive response from the authorities. Even in the event of a parliamentary consideration and approval of such a referendum, the request would still require the consent of the hardline Guardian Council.
On March 30 and 31 of 1979, Iranians participated in the first referendum in the country’s history, responding “Yes” or “No” to the question on whether they wanted to change the monarchial system of government in Iran to an Islamic Republic.
While the revolutionary authorities at the time asserted that more than 90 percent of the population voted Yes, over the years many critics have pointed out that there was no clear picture at that time of what an Islamic Republic was going to be. People had experienced the monarchy, were unhappy with it and overthrew it in February 1979. By comparison, the Islamic Republic was an untested concept that was never fully defined before the referendum.
A second referendum was held on December 2 and 3, 1979, to approve a new constitution after it was ratified by the Constitutional Assembly. Then 10 years later, shortly before his death, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, established a council to amend key articles in the 1979 Constitution to solidify the Supreme Leader’s position by giving him absolute authority over the country. On July 28, 1989, it was approved by the majority in the country’s third and last referendum.
A month earlier on June 25, 1989, Parliament passed a law on the mechanics of carrying out a referendum. Article 1 states, “National referendum will be conducted on the basis of regulations in this law in a manner that all sectors of society could declare their opinion in complete freedom regarding any subject put to a general vote in the form of Yes or No.”
The law is based on Article 99 of the Constitution which gives the Guardian Council the authority to “supervise” the process: “The Guardian Council has the responsibility of supervising the elections of the Assembly of Experts for Leadership, the President of the Republic, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, and the direct recourse to popular opinion and referenda.”
Article 36 of the referendum law stipulates that on the basis of Article 59 of the Constitution, “The referendum is proposed by the President or by at least 100 Members of Parliament and carried out after the approval of at least two-thirds of Members of Parliament.”
Guardian Council and Supreme Leader Can Block Any Referendum
The Guardian Council is the key obstacle to any future attempt at holding a referendum. In addition to “supervising” the process, Article 98 of the Constitution gives the body the final authority in interpreting the constitutional questions, in effect ensuring the defeat of any attempts at democratic change.
In the final analysis, the Guardian Council, whose six clerics and six lawyers are staunch supporters of the Supreme Leader, can strike down the wishes of the President, or the people’s representatives in Parliament, if they ever decide a referendum is necessary for the country to move forward.
Moreover, under Article 110 of the Constitution, one of the powers of the Supreme Leader is “Issuing decrees for national referenda” suggesting that even after approval by Parliament and the Guardian Council, a request for a referendum requires his blessing in the form of a “decree” to carry it out.
Article 177 of the Constitution emphasizes the unchanging Islamic nature of the state, blocking any move to reform the political system toward a secular democracy. It states, “The contents of the Articles of the Constitution related to the Islamic character of the political system; the basis of all the rules and regulations according to Islamic criteria; the religious footing; the objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the democratic character of the government; the Velayat al-‘mr the Imamate of Ummah; and the administration of the affairs of the country based on national referenda, official religion of Iran [Islam] and the school [Twelver Ja’fari] are unalterable.”
Read this article in Persian