On February 11, President Hassan Rouhani proposed a referendum to heal political divisions during his speech marking the 39th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
“If we have differences, we must refer to Article 59 of the constitution ... which says, in certain cases of passing laws or legislative acts on important social, cultural, economic or political issues, we must send it to a direct vote by the people.”
“If we have differences on two issues, or the factions have differences, or they are fighting, bring the ballot box out and according to Article 59 of the constitution, whatever the people have decided, implement that. Our constitution has this capacity, and we must act within the capacity of our constitution.”
Rouhani, however, did not elaborate on exactly what should be up for a vote. On the following day, 15 intellectuals, activists and artists – including some based in Iran – published an open letter demanding a referendum on Iran’s form of government. Prominent signers included Nobel peace prize-winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, human rights activist Narges Mohammadi (who is currently imprisoned), and film-makers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi. They argued that the government has obsessed over piety while failing to deliver on republican ideals.
Rouhani is not the first leader to float the idea of a public vote. In 2003, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, then chairman of the Expediency Council, suggested holding a referendum on relations with the United States. In 2009, former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, called for a referendum on the legitimacy of the government following a disputed presidential election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term.
The following is the text of the letter by the intellectuals, as published by Tavaana.
Our fellow Iranians:
Four decades have passed since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, a government whose obsession with Islamization has left little room for republican ideals. In these four decades, not only has our people’s suffering gone unabated, but the establishment of a dual life, in which demanding pious pretense bears little relation to true inner needs, has caused untold personal crises and suffering.
Ignorance and incompetence of government officials and institutional corruption has left them incapable of solving the daily problems of our people. Discrimination and astronomical thefts of public resources have aggravated the sense of injustice. The content of so many unjust laws are the source of discrimination and the cause of violence. Instead of implementing even such defective laws, the judiciary is reduced to the executor of the political wishes of those who hold the reins of power.
So many women, lawyers, journalists, teachers, students, workers, and political and social activists have been harassed, arrested, convicted of serious crimes and sent to prison, solely for criticizing officials, enlightening public opinion, inviting the rulers to respect separation of religion from government, or demanding women’s relief from the mandatory veil.
The sum of the experiences of the last 40 years show the impossibility of reforming the Islamic Republic, since by hiding behind divine concepts, instrumental use of religion through deception, lack of transparency, ignoring public opinion, subversion of laws and violation of human rights principals, institutional violation of freedom and the fundamental rights of the nation, total incapability of resolving political, economic, social and cultural crises, and obstructing means of legal supervision and pacific reform, the regime has become the principal obstacle to progress and salvation of the Iranian nation.
It is the opinion of the undersigned that the way to solve these fundamental problems is peaceful transition from the Islamic Republic to a secular parliamentary democracy based on free popular franchise, complete respect for human rights and lifting all institutionalized discriminations, especially complete equality of women, ethnic groups, religions and all matters of cultural, social, political and economic choice.
Relying on the rights of nations to self-determination, we the undersigned demand a referendum, under the supervision of the United Nations, so that the Iranian nation can choose its form of government, thereby discharging its responsibility for its future and alleviating the current crises through collective and effective effort.
Nasreen Sotoudeh, Shirin Ebadi, Narghes Mohammadi, Payam Akhavan, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Sazegara, Mohammad Seifzadeh, Hassan Shariatmadari, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, Abolfazl Ghadiani, Mohsen Kadivar, Kazem Kardavani, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mohammad Maleki, Mohammad Nourizad.