Rouhani says Iran could hold referendum on nuclear programme as tensions with US rise

Sara Elizabeth Williams
The president's announcement followed a public dressing down by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pictured in posters, over his handling of the nuclear deal - REX

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani has suggested that the Islamic Republic could hold a public referendum on its nuclear programme, in the wake of rising tensions in the Persian Gulf.

"Article 59 of the Constitution (referendum) is a deadlock breaker ... and could be a problem-solver at any junction," the semi-official news agency ILNA quoted Rouhani as saying late on Saturday.

The statement followed Mr Rouhani’s public dressing-down by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for his handling of the country’s fast-unravelling nuclear deal.

In recent weeks, Mr Rouhani responded to a new round of crippling US economic sanctions against Tehran by threatening to walk away from terms of the 2015 agreement, which the US withdrew from last year. This approach appears to have pushed the country uncomfortably close to military confrontation with the US.

Since US President Donald Trump withdrew, his government has dialled up pressure on Iran by blocking global oil exports and stoking long-simmering tensions in the region.

Citing an unnamed threat against American troops in the Middle East, the US sent warships and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf earlier this month, further escalating the potential for conflict. Tehran has described the US buildup of troops and material as psychological warfare and a political game.

While many in Iran’s leadership have insisted they do not want a war with the US, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s public chastising of the Islamic Republic’s president reflects his more hawkish position.  

Ayatollah Khamenei has long maintained the view that Iranian negotiators surrendered too much in the deal.

Last summer, he said they had “trespassed the red lines that had been set” and that the country owed the little it had thanks to his advice to Mr Rouhani. Without this guidance, the ayatollah said, “we would have given up more.”

Mr Rouhani’s move to put a referendum on the table could help him settle this internal dispute without losing face and provide political cover for whichever path voters backed. 

The Iranian public has been broadly supportive of the nuclear deal and its attendant possibilities for economic growth. The country’s middle classes in particular have been exhausted by years of sanctions and currency depreciation.

But there is also an alternate view that sees a referendum as a device to offer Iranian leadership a pathway back to enrichment.

Iran has held three referendums since its 1979 Islamic revolution, the first to approve the set-up of an Islamic Republic and the second to approve and amend the constitution.

Mr Rouhani said he proposed a third, on the nuclear issue, to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei back in 2004 while negotiating the nuclear deal.