Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority, made the comments three days after President Hassan Rouhani said the economy can’t grow while the nation is isolated. Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, won the presidency last year after campaigning on pledges to improve Iran’s diplomatic ties and end sanctions imposed on the economy.
“If world powers set as a condition for lifting sanctions something that your honor won’t permit, what would you do?” Khamenei said. “For sure, no official in the country would agree to it.”
Rouhani may call a referendum on the issue in an effort to outflank hard-liners, analysts suggest.
After being subjected to relentless attacks by conservatives for months, Iran’s president has lashed out at his critics. In a remarkable speech on January 4, Rouhani called for taxing huge economic enterprises and conglomerates that currently are exempted from taxation but constitute close to half of Iran’s economic turnover, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports.
Any popular referendum would be troubling to hard-liners because it would be likely to produce results reflective of the changes in Iranian society, Thomas Erdbrink reports for The New York Times:
These days, most Iranians are urbanized, according to official figures, and seemingly less interested in the radicalism promoted by some Iranian leaders. Because most Iranians are not allowed to organize themselves, or to form parties or even social groups, their opinions are often muffled by official ideological pronouncements and propaganda.
“The president is threatening the hard-liners that he is not afraid to use such a powerful tool,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government. Mr. Ghorbanpour said that most people supported the president’s desire for change, and that a referendum would reflect that.
“If hard-liners, for instance, want to disagree with a nuclear deal, Mr. Rouhani could call for a referendum, putting a potential deal before a nationwide vote,” he said.
But hardliners close to the powerful Revolutionary Guards and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been nervous about the prospects of a nuclear deal, as well as the possibility of a rapprochement with the US and a rise in Mr Rouhani’s popularity. Some analysts think Mr Rouhani’s mysterious suggestion is nothing more than a political tactic to put pressure on his rivals, the BBC reports.
“Calling for a referendum is impractical propaganda used as leverage in infighting between factions,” says Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “A referendum needs freedom of speech for those both in favour and against.”
And as Professor Nader Hashemi, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, explains to RFE/RL, the “hysterical reaction” from hard-liners is unsurprising:
“This is not a surprise to me because it shines a spot on the crisis of legitimacy facing the Islamic Republic, specifically its authoritarian and non-democratic nature. The preferences of the Iranian people, specifically the sizeable Iranian youth population and the urban and middle classes, are at odds with the policies of Iranian hardliners. The threat of including their voices in policy decisions (i.e. the threat of democracy) has petrified the Iranian conservative establishment. It is precisely and exactly for this reason that they protesting so vociferously against Rouhani today.”
Rouhani made clear that he sees the settlement of the nuclear talks, and the end of the sanctions, as the first step in rejoining the international community, Slate’s Fred Kaplan reports:
“By God, by Lord,” he said, “it is impossible: The country cannot have sustained [economic] growth when isolated.”
He also rejected the idea that negotiations with other nations should be governed by passions or ideology—a key premise among hard-liners, who see the United States as the Great Satan and therefore deem any diplomatic discourse as courting evil. Though stressing that he wasn’t advocating a “retreat from our ideas and principles,” he noted that, in “today’s world, the main debate is about interest; every country is after its own interest. Threats, opportunities, and mutual interests, or specific interests—these are the basis of foreign policy.”
Raymond Tanter writes: Past instances of reaching out to “moderates” in revolutionary regimes like Cuba and Iran has proven that epiphanies are a fool’s errand. And failing to take advantage of the strong negotiating position of the United States with the global economic environment hurting both rogue regimes does not make for a sound American policy, as congressional hearings are bound to show, he notes in Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government (HT: FPI).