x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Referendum call outrages supreme leader

A call by reformists for a referendum on the legitimacy of the Iranian presidency drew an angry reaction from the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, far right, yesterday reacted angrily to calls for a referendum on the legitmacy of last month's presidential election.
The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, far right, yesterday reacted angrily to calls for a referendum on the legitmacy of last month's presidential election.

A call by reformists yesterday for a referendum on the legitimacy of the Iranian presidency drew an angry reaction from the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the defeated presidential contender Mir Hossein Mousavi called for the release of those arrested in the aftermath of last month's disputed elections.

"The only way out of the current situation is to hold a referendum," Mohammed Khatami, a former president and founder of the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics, was quoted by Iranian news agencies as saying. "People should be asked whether they are happy with the current situation ? If the vast majority of people are happy with the current situation, we will accept it as well." Mr Khatami's call, a reiteration of earlier demands, came on the heels of Friday's speech by the powerful cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also a former president, who said the regime had lost the trust of the public.

Speaking in front of a packed hall at Tehran University, as tens of thousands of opposition protesters chanted anti-regime slogans in the streets, Mr Rafsanjani said: "We could have taken our best step in the history of the Islamic revolution had the election not faced problems. We are in doubt today. Today, we are living in bitter conditions due to what happened after the announcement of the election result."

Analysts say such developments indicate that the movement opposed to last month's election results shows no signs of abating. "There was a fear the [reform movement] would buckle under the enormous pressure put forward by Khamenei and the brutality of the security forces, but they are ensuring that this political fight lasts," said Afshin Molavi, an Iran expert at the Washington, DC-based New America Foundation.

"And they are doing it in a careful and measured way - they are not calling for nationwide strikes and street protests that could be met by brutal counteractions." Massoumeh Torfeh, a research associate specialising in Iranian politics and media at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said the actions of the two former presidents had come as a timely shot in the arm for the opposition camp.

Their calls "will no doubt be welcomed by thousands who have been braving the streets of major cities over the past two weeks suffering beatings, intimidation, and imprisonment", Ms Torfeh said. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tehran and other cities in the aftermath of the June 12 elections for days on end. The campaign against the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has led to Ayatollah Khamenei coming out in support of the incumbent, an unprecedented move in the 30-year history of the Islamic republic, whose constitution states that the supreme leader is politically neutral.

In a televised speech yesterday following the calls for a referendum, he warned against those trying to bring Iran "towards insecurity" and again lashed out at the "meddling" of foreign interests. "The enemies of the Iranian people, via their media, are giving instructions to the troublemakers to cause disorder, destruction and violence, while at the same time insisting they are not interfering in Iranian internal affairs," he said.

"Anyone, no matter their rank or title, will be detested by the people if they lead our society towards insecurity. Our leaders must be vigilant." Analysts say Ayatollah Khamenei's decision to throw his weight behind the hardline Mr Ahmadinejad, as well as his sanctioning of the brutal crackdown on opposition protesters, has undermined his position as the unquestionable leader of the country. "The supreme leader as we know it is dead - his word no longer settles issues," said Patrick Clawson, the deputy director for research and Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's hard to emphasise what a dramatic shift that is."

Mr Mousavi, meanwhile, seemed to take aim yesterday at the supreme leader's mantra of blaming Iran's political crisis on foreign interests when calling for the release of all those arrested after the elections last month. "Isn't it an insult to 40 million voters ? linking detainees to foreign countries?" he was quoted as saying on the reformist Mosharekat website. "Who believes these people, many of them prominent figures, would work with the foreigners to endanger their country's interests?

"Let people freely express their protests and ideas. Our dear ones in prison have no access to lawyers and are under pressure to make confessions." Some observers, however, have dismissed the reform movement as being "more of the same". "Mousavi, Ahmadinejad and Khatami are all products of the structure of the Islamic republic," said Reza Molavi, the executive director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Durham University.

"I don't think Khatami or his call for referendum or Mousavi's call for release of prisoners will make a difference unless the Iranian people can articulate on what they want. "Do we want an Islamic republic or do we want a republic? Now that would be a good referendum." jspollen@thenational.ae