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Wednesday 21 February 2018

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Iranian President Hassan Rohani delivers a speech during a rally marking the 39th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran on February 11.

A referendum proposed by President Hassan Rohani to heal Iran's divisions has been attacked by his hard-line opponents but provided an opening for establishment critics to go a step further.

More than a dozen Iranian activists and intellectuals from inside the country and abroad quickly seized on the president's tentative calls this week for the plebiscite, to ask for a UN-backed referendum in Iran that would allow for a transition to a new form of government.

The past four decades, signatories said, in an apparent allusion to the leadership since Iran's religiously fueled revolution in 1979, demonstrated that the clerically-backed establishment cannot be reformed and systematic rights violations, corruption, and religious pretexts had become the "main obstacle to the progress and liberation of the Iranian people."

Their explicit criticism of Iran's postrevolutionary constitution and government are especially notable as they come just a month or so after deadly unrest erupted in dozens of Iranian cities before a crackdown and thousands of arrests mostly restored calm in the streets.

But Rohani's second and final term has seen a sharpening of publicly aired differences between the relatively moderate president and hard-liners who hold most of the cards under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all political and religious matters in Iran.

In a speech marking 39th-anniversary celebrations of a revolution to rid the country of the Western-backed shah of Iran, Rohani on February 11 suggested that "if we disagree on some issues, we should refer to Article 59 of the constitution," which talks about a "popular vote through a referendum."

Article 59 states that "In extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the function of the legislature may be exercised through direct recourse to popular vote through a referendum."

It adds that "any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly."

Rohani added, "If [political] factions have differences of opinions on a couple of issues, bring the ballot box and whatever people say, act accordingly."

Hard-Line Pressure

Public responses to the December-January protests underscored cracks in the establishment, with Khamenei emphasizing the alleged role of "foreign enemies" in the unrest and Rohani suggesting that there were grounds for public grievances that Iran's leadership should not ignore.

Since then, Rohani has continued to speak out and pressure appears to have mounted from hard-liners in control of key institutions, including through the reported detention of an environmental official within Rohani's government, Kaveh Madani, according to a reformist lawmaker.

Kaveh Madani
Kaveh Madani

Madani said last year he had returned to Iran "to create hope" and pave the way for the return of other expatriates. He appeared live on Instagram on February 12, saying he was at work and expressing hope that "the issue" of the "real friends of Iran's environment" will be resolved.

The fate of Madani, who is on leave from London's Imperial College, remains unclear.

A spokesman for Iran's powerful Guardians Council, Abbas Khadkhodayi, dismissed Rohani's call for a referendum, which he suggested lacked expertise.

He said the function of Article 59 "is known to all those who know the basic law." Khadkhodayi said it referred to the authority of the parliament, adding that "perhaps the president had mistaken it with another article."

Hossein Sharitmadari, editor of the ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan, described Rohani's proposal as an "insult" to those Iranians who took part in state celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution. "If Rohani had heard the voice of the large crowd in the [February 11] rallies, then proposing a referendum would be meaningless," Shariatmadari was quoted by Iranian media as saying on February 13.

'Secular, Democratic System'

One day after Rohani's speech, 15 prominent activists and intellectuals, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, leading Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi, issued their own call for a referendum organized by the United Nations to clear the path for a new system of government in Iran.

Shirin Ebadi
Shirin Ebadi

Iran's current system, which they accused of systematic rights violations, corruption, and the selective use of religion, has become the "main obstacle to the progress and liberation of the Iranian people," they argued.

"A referendum that would take place under the Iranian Constitution is a consolidation of the status quo," Ebadi, who currently resides in the United States, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "We want a secular and democratic system; the structure of the [current] constitution does not allow such thing."

Eight of the appeal's 15 signatories live in Iran, where officials routinely jail and abuse perceived regime critics and conduct secretive trials in Revolutionary Courts with little public accountability.

The signatories include jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi and a number of former political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh; political activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi; Abolfazl Ghadiani, a member of the reformist Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution party; and former Tehran University chancellor Mohammad Maleki.

"Slowly give him a foot massage, then dry his feet, and now this part: Kiss his feet," the "expert" said. (illustrative photo)

"Even if your husband is a drug addict, if he beats you, just do it and you will see a miracle in your life."

"It" isn't a reference to marriage counseling. Or the help of family or the clergy. Or even prayer.

Instead, this "expert" on Iranian state TV was recommending that a woman give her husband a foot massage, even in the face of domestic abuse.

The statement would lead to a rare apology from official broadcasters.

"Some Friday afternoon when your husband is resting on the couch, put the bucket under his feet," said the woman, advising female viewers to tell their husband that they want to demonstrate their love.

"Slowly give him a foot massage, then dry his feet, and now this part: Kiss his feet," she said, adding that her method relieves stress and prevents stroke and heart attack.

Such treatment -- particularly with rosewater, sea salt, or milk -- will keep husbands "charged" for a month, she said.

The show was aired by a state-controlled broadcaster in the central province of Yazd, southeast of the capital.

It was widely shared by Iranians and other Persian speakers, many of whom mocked the advice on social media.

"Establishment feminists: 'If you want your man to be energized for a month, follow the expert's advice,'" Iranian dissident journalist Isa Saharkhiz, who has spent time in jail following his criticism of the Iranian establishment, tweeted alongside a clip of the show. "State TV expert calls on women to massage their husbands’ feet and kiss them."

By January 30, the Yazd branch of Iranian state TV had issued an implicit apology.

In a statement quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency, the officials in Yazd acknowledged complaints over the "fragmented comments" of an "expert," then pledged themselves "from now on" to "planning and greater attention in content delivery."

"[The comments] of the marriage counselor were so bad that state television apologized. The painful issue is this way of thinking in the 21st century...Scary," Negin Lajevardi tweeted alongside the hashtag #yazd.

State TV in the clerically dominated country regularly comes under heavy criticism from Iranians and politicians for what they see as dull programming, biased news coverage, and obeisance to the views of the hard-line faction of the Iranian establishment.

Such criticism was rekindled during recent antiestablishment protests that rocked the country and resulted in dozens of deaths and thousands of arrests.

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.