THE BLOG
01/12/2015 02:11 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Rouhani Takes Hardliners Head-On to Bring Iran Out from the Cold

President Hassan Rouhani did the unthinkable. At Iran's first annual National Economy Conference on Sunday, he threatened the country's hardliners with a referendum. "It will be good to, after 36 years, even for once, or even every 10 years if we implement this principle of the Constitution, and put important economic, social and cultural issues to a direct referendum instead of to the Parliament," he said. Rouhani's powerful words were heeded closely, in what became one of the most significant speeches of his presidency.

While President Rouhani didn't hint what the referendum would be for, it's clear it pertains a need for a nuclear deal with the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany): "Our ideals are not linked to centrifuges but to our heart and determination," he continued. "If we show more transparency and say, halt some of the enrichment operation we don't need, does it mean we have let go of our ideals?"

Since the 2013 Joint Plan of Action, the Rouhani administration is in a tug-of-war with hardliners from various echelons of the Iranian government over the country's controversial nuclear program. The hardliners -- members of the Majlis, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), amongst others -- maintain the decades long argument that the West shouldn't be trusted, and now, in order for a nuclear deal to be in place, the United States must lift all sanctions. This is impossible because some sanctions target Iran's human rights violations and state sponsorship of terrorism. Similarly, President Barack Obama can't remove sanctions passed through legislation without Congressional approval. The hardliner argument for sanctions lifting is knowingly unrealistic and puts Rouhani in conundrum. Duly noted from his speech, the Iranian president undoubtedly has had enough with their obstructions.

The Logic of Rouhani

President Rouhani's thinking is in line with former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. During the 1990s, Rafsanjani -- also a pragmatist -- attempted to adopt a China model with a "strategic vision to bring about realignments in Iran's foreign and domestic policies and priorities." Like that of Rouhani, Rafsanjani saw the importance of improving soured ties with its neighbors, relations with Europe, and détente with the United States in order to bring Iran out of isolationism. While Rafsanjani wasn't successful, it's evident that Rouhani has the Supreme Leader's backing, as he wouldn't have brought the threat of public opinion out into the open without the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.

As Iran observer Meir Javedanfard points out:

A referendum presents "Ayatollah Khamenei a ladder to climb down from his current nuclear position. When it comes to face-saving, a referendum would provide the perfect excuse for the supreme leader. Ayatollah Khamenei could say that he didn't want to compromise with the Americans, but as the people demanded otherwise, he had no other choice but to listen, 'as he has always done' or so he could claim."

If it does indeed come down to a referendum, Rouhani would have to evoke Article 59 of the Iranian Constitution. In it, it reads that "[i]n 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. Any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly."

By evoking such threats, Rouhani knows that Iranian lawmakers would have trouble going against a government issued referendum because it'd be going against the will of the people. The hardliners will resist letting the process get to that point. Because of their delaying tactics, a referendum is unlikely to take place soon.

Reality

Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian people's worldview and opinions on domestic issues have changed drastically. The children of the revolution -- those under the age of 30 -- are disillusioned by the broken promises their parents believed. They want change in the form of economic stability and civil liberties. Iran's economy is in shambles due in part to corruption, hyperinflation, tumbling oil prices, and sanctions. The Iranian people want an economic boost. President Rouhani knows he has the full support of the Iranian people when it comes to rejoining the international community and bringing growth through opening up the economy.

President Rouhani also knows that Iran's economic woes are in part the fault of not just sanctions, but corruption and monopolization by the IRGC, who control all aspects of the Iranian economy -- including the black market. In the past decade, sanctions allowed for a nouveau riche to emerge, wealthy elites with ties to the IRGC not that different from the Russian oligarchs after the fall of communism. They are some of the Iranian president's biggest opponents to a nuclear deal, which is why President Rouhani saved parts of his speech specifically for them.

"Our economy will not prosper as long as it is monopolized (by the government). The economy must be rid of monopoly and see competition," he said. "It must be freed of insider speculation, be transparent, all people must be aware of the statistics. If we can bring transparency to our economy, we can fight corruption."

With threats abound for his adversaries, Rouhani didn't falter at the end of his speech. "When talking about problems, I'll speak openly as I fear no one."

The West should take this speech as an indirect sign that Rouhani means business and that a deal over the country's nuclear program is within reach. Iran's hardliners need to be put in their place by being proven wrong. Through patience and determination for a deal, the West can meet the Iranian president half way to defeat his opponents.