An article published on Wednesday focuses attention upon Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recurring use of the concept of public referendum as a political tool for responding to familiar grievances and safeguarding his spurious reputation as a moderate, without taking practical action to address those grievances.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic technically includes provisions for a public referendum to resolve serious economic, social, political, and cultural issues, especially those that remain unresolved by familiar political processes. But as IranWire explains, there are significant restrictions on the application of those rules, including the need for approval by two thirds of the Iranian parliament and the designation of the hardline Guardian Council as the body with the power to oversee such referendums. Add to this the fact that Rouhani’s supposed calls for referendum are opposed by the overwhelming majority of his fellow officials, and it is easy to conclude that those calls are not entirely serious.
As the IranWire article says in its conclusion, “Rouhani has little chance of pushing the idea through” even if he is dedicated to it. But in fact, “he has never pursued the issue in practical terms” despite having floated the idea publicly on multiple occasions. This leads to the conclusion that “the appeal for a referendum is, like so many of his other tactics, just for show.”
In other words, the article accuses the president of paying lip-service to popular sovereignty and the will of the Iranian electorate in order to give the impression of sensitivity to their demands at a time of particular domestic upheaval. During the past several months Iran has been rocked by numerous protests over a range of issues including water scarcity, endemic corruption, and a longstanding economic crisis. And in many cases, these grievances have fed into much more general expressions of contempt for the clerical regime, expressed through slogans like “death to the dictator,” which strongly imply a goal of regime change.
The economic protests may be accelerating in the wake of the re-imposition of formerly suspended US sanctions on Tuesday. And according to another IW article, the broader anti-government protests may be receiving fuel from the global Iranian expatriate community, via social media. That article underscores the fact that the nationwide uprising in December and January, as well as the various scattered protests that occurred between January and July, were recognizably homegrown. But it acknowledges that there were foreign-based calls for protest in July, preceding the latest phase or protests, which began in Isfahan on July 31 and have continued ever since, spreading to upwards of a dozen cities.
The takeaway from this, for IranWire, is that “there is reason to believe that [foreign-based activists’] influence could grow in the future.” But another likely consequence of this story is the growth of efforts by the Iranian regime to attack those activists and the groups they represent, and to cut off the domestic population’s access to their media and other communications.
In June, the Iranian regime’s commitment to attacking foreign-based activists was revealed when European authorities disrupted a plot to blow up the annual rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran near Paris. The NCRI is a coalition of pro-democracy opposition groups led by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which Iranian officials credited with playing a leading role in the domestic planning and organization of the December-to-January uprising.
The Paris plot involved the provision of 500 grams of TATP explosive to two Iranian-Belgian operatives by a high-ranking Iranian diplomat stationed in Vienna.
In response to the unraveling of that plot, the NCRI and its political allies have been urging Western governments to take a more serious approach to monitoring Iran-backed terrorism and disrupting the networks that enable it. This call was echoed from inside Iran by the prominent political prisoner Arash Sadeghi, albeit in response to a different incident.
As the Human Rights Activists News Agency reported, Sadeghi recently wrote an open letter in response to the assassination of Eqbal Moradi a political activist in Iraqi Kurdistan. In it, he highlighted a number of incidents in the Islamic Republic’s long history of assassination and terrorist attacks targeting political dissidents beyond its borders. He went on to say that despite a period of relative silence, this trend appears to be accelerating again, and that “the current Iranian regime will not only increase its human rights violations inside the country, it will also work on eliminating its opponents abroad with more ease,” unless the international community takes pains to stop it.
In the months since Iran’s nationwide uprising, Western countries have been largely silent about the situation, although the White House has floated some ideas for supporting or safeguarding the protesters, including foreign protection for their access to the internet as informational and organizational tools. The obstruction of these resources is frequently among the first measures the Islamic Republic undertakes in response to an outpouring of domestic activism, and this has certainly been the case with regard to the last week’s protests.
The regime’s paranoia regarding social media is sure to be intensified by the apparent fact that expatriate groups are collaborating with the demonstrators. Regime authorities may have hinted at the practical impact of their increased anxiety when, according to HRANA, they ordered the transfer of Alireza Tavakoli, an activist on the popular but now-banned social media platform Telegram, from the regular prison population to a separate ward controlled entirely by the repressive Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Meanwhile, the Center for Human Rights in Iran points to the possibility that Tehran is experimenting with new ways of obstructing Iranians’ access to the resources used by Tavakoli and so many others. According to that report, the state-controlled Telecommunications Company of Iran briefly rerouted Telegram traffic to its own website, thereby making the instant messaging app inaccessible even with circumvention tools but also causing problems for users beyond Iran’s borders and potentially opening the door to closer scrutiny by the US or other nations with a potential interest in expanding the Iranian people’s access to information.