Forty years of the Iranian Revolution: Referendum on the Islamic Republic

  • Massoumeh Torfeh
  • 2 Apr 2019

Part V: Traitors to the Islamic Republic - this is the fifth in a series of articles that looks at how the Iranian Revolution came to be in 1979, and where it has led Iran over the course of four decades.

Iranian voters cast their ballots in a referendum on the new Islamic constitution in which 18 million voters participated. (Photo by Henri Bureau/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images) ( Henry Bureau / Getty Images )

On April 2, 1979, the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini proclaimed an Islamic republic after the two-day national referendum on establishing a new system to replace the deposed monarchy.

The liberalising classes and secular groups had promised just a “republic” with parliamentary sovereignty.

But Khomeini would not have it: “Those seeking to divorce the word Islamic from the republic in the referendum are traitors,” he said.

Many of the 98 percent who approved it had no ideas what an 'Islamic republic' might look like. Many feared being labelled “traitors” or facing revolutionary reprisals.

That was just a taste of things to come.

Khomeini’s Islamic Republic has survived over forty years, and perhaps beyond expectations, not so much because it has been popular but primarily because it is based on a hierarchical structure of absolute control, led by an unelected Supreme Leader.

It combines several layers of councils below the leader composed of some 150 hardline clerics who approve all his decisions and whose combined power rests above those of the president and the parliament.

The system is secured and enforced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who enjoy far-reaching powers. It remains fiercely revolutionary, anti-American and anti-Israeli with unwavering support for Palestinians, and now with a widening role in the Middle East. These are non-negotiable jewels in its crown.

Iran is widely viewed in the West as a destabilising force in the Middle East, but it boasts its defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq as blocking American meddling in the region. The US administration’s confrontational style has moved Iran closer to Russia and China who offer economic and military support.

“Iranians have participated 12 times in electing presidents … voted for 10 Islamic consultative assemblies, five city councils and five Assemblies of Experts,” boasts Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his 40th-anniversary speech.

True, but he forgot to mention that those were all exclusivist elections stage-managed to include only the candidates of the inner circle of the ruling elite.

The opposition has been relentlessly wiped out starting soon after the revolution when Khomeini began removing from power all liberal and leftist politicians. Then came the eight-year Iraq war and the thousands of extrajudicial executions of 1988, followed by one decade of the alleged “chain murders” of dissident intellectuals.

“Since its inception, this Revolution has never been merciless nor has it ever shed blood,” says Khamenei who was in charge as the president in 1988 and then as the supreme leader from 1989.

Iran had a real chance for reform when Mohammad Khatami won an overwhelming majority for two terms 1997-2005. Soon the reform movement was sidelined, and Khatami silenced for his support of the Green Movement.

In thirty years of leadership Khamenei has always stood with the hardliners and even put aside the late powerful centrist Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who advocated pragmatism.

Khamenei’s recent decision to choose Ibrahim Raissi, as the new chief of the judiciary is the latest example of his disregard for human rights violations. Raissi is accused of having helped oversee the execution of thousands of political prisoners as a deputy prosecutor in Tehran in 1988.

Over the course of last year, Khamenei has reshuffled many senior posts in the judiciary and IRGC. The unprecedented extent of some of these changes indicates his anxiety about the future shape of the Islamic Republic. Several terrorist attacks over the past two years: two in Tehran, one in the southern city of Ahwaz and four on Iran’s borders, have all targeted the IRGC.

The economy is set to experience a downward trajectory as oil exports are expected to fall to half of their 2017-18 levels following the reimposition of US sanctions. By August 2018, Iran’s currency, the Rial, had devalued by 172 percent making life unbearable for a majority of Iranians. 

Young people, who make up of over 60 percent of the population, have lost their short-lived enthusiasm for JCPOA and for its protagonist, the moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

The US administration, openly admitting its desire to push Iran to the brink of regime-change, is taking advantage of that disillusionment and using elaborate communication campaigns to mobilise opposition.

Yet other than threats the US is not offering a clear policy line and it is doubtful if Iranians will fall prey to US designs. They have seen US failures in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

Americans would fail in Iran too if they do not choose the path of talks.

As it stands on its 40th anniversary, the Islamic Republic that Khomeini set up in 1979, will no doubt face serious challenges, some of which could be existential. It boasts unity, but through absolutism, it has fragmented its own ranks.

Any change from within, however, such as the passing away of the supreme leader, or the holding of a referendum to reduce power, could change the alignment of factions and power centres and open new doors.

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