Iran's referendum movement

About the author
Kaveh Ehsani is research scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a member of the editorial boards of Middle East Report and the Tehran-based Goft-o-gu (Dialogue).

In autumn 2004 a number of Iranian activists and opposition figures launched a website calling for support for a referendum to change Iran’s constitution: from an Islamic Republic to a secular polity inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thousands have signed this petition, which has raised considerable debate. I have not signed this petition, even though I do agree with the vital need to bring about fundamental structural changes to the existing system. In my opinion this petition, despite being well-intentioned, is naïve politically, and will prove to be irrelevant in the long run in contributing to the democratisation of the Iranian Republic in a practical way.

Kaveh Ehsani is responding to Mohsen Sazegara’s proposal for a referendum on a new Iranian constitution, “Iran’s road to democracy

See also the articles by Afshin Molavi and Mansour Farhang in openDemocracy’s Iran debate, “Democracy & Iran

For an introduction to the debate, see David Hayes’s “Iran between revolution and democracy

Please post your responses in our discussion forum; and if you can afford it, send openDemocracy a donation so that we can continue to facilitate dialogue among Iranians.

This plan is all tactics and literally no strategy. Suppose millions of Iranians (the website is called www.60000000.com) click the internet link and sign this petition. What then? The notion that the coercive apparatus of the Islamic Republic – the “guardians of the revolution”, the veterans, the “devotees”, families of martyrs – will stand by to see this system’s demise is simply too divorced from Iranian realities.

The claim that civil disobedience will then force the regime’s hand is speculative, since there are daily instances of local riots and upheavals in Iran, but there is no linking organisation to channel discontent into collective demands.

If the regular electoral tallies of the eight years since Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1987 have proven anything, it is that the “conservative” forces in Iran have the solid devotion of 8-12 million supporters. By calling for complete system change (without having built the political and organisational network to back it up) the referendum movement is inviting a brutal crackdown, with no means on the ground to resist it. No undemocratic regime will stand aside and accept regime change, unless actual organised opposition overwhelms it. Electronic signatures on a website will not do.

Changing an unpopular political system will be difficult. It is the task of political leadership to ready and organise the population in practical ways to make it possible. No such network-building has been pursued by those calling for the referendum. It is easy enough to call for signatures for a change; the job of building such political networks is far harder, thankless, and risky.

It is possible that the proponents of the referendum movement have been inspired by the “velvet” revolts of east-central Europe. It may also be the case that they have been encouraged by the aggressive posture of the United States in the region, and its willingness to challenge the Iranian regime on a number of issues. If that is the case, I am afraid this may well prove to be a miscalculation.

The Iranian conservatives, contrary to appearances, are not nearly as “hollowed out” as Eduard Shevardnadze’s or Leonid Kuchma’s regimes. After his loss of power in Georgia, Shevardnadze relocated to his villa on the outskirts of Tbilisi. Even Idi Amin found refuge in Saudi Arabia, when he had to flee Uganda. Where will Ayatollah Khamenei go once he is deposed? Conservative forces in Iran feel they are fighting for their collective physical and existential survival. With no friends or allies on the world, they will fight to the end if cornered.

Foreign intervention in the form of Security Council sanctions or US military strikes will unleash Iranian nationalism, as well as become a pretext for a widespread crackdown on the remaining liberties in Iran. My fear is that a broad but unorganised referendum movement, under present circumstances at least, will only plunge the democratic movement and the country into a worse situation.

The referendum movement’s goal may be more modest: to inspire public activism, in a society where the continuous political struggles of the past eight years have left the population by and large exhausted and highly cynical. If the intent is to prove, yet again, that public opinion is highly critical of the regime, and that the population wants fundamental change, I don’t think the petition for the referendum will add anything new to the dozens of similar petitions, open letters, party platforms and public stances highly critical of the regime that have been coming out with regularity over the past few years.

There is repression in Iran, but the political classes have not been afraid to speak out, despite the high cost. Public opinion does matter in the Islamic Republic, but the ruling conservatives showed in the last parliamentary elections that they are willing to shed any pretence of caring about it, so long as they can assure their own survival. Where does that leave us?

There is no question that Iran is currently facing perhaps some of the most serious challenges to its very survival as a nation-state. Social fragmentation, anomie, a rise of separatisms, delegitimation of political classes and elites and a de facto economic depression alleviated only momentarily by high oil revenues, have created a dangerous potion. The urgent task of Iran’s democratic forces is to build grassroots social and political networks that can mobilise the population into solidarity groups around specific programmes.

The era of mass politics, nebulous sloganeering and magical solutions by revolutionary regime change are over in Iran. This will require on-the-ground, long-term democratic vision and dedicated and risky hard work. I am hopeful that at least a significant segment of the political classes in Iran are increasingly coming around to realising this necessity.