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IRAN: Nobel Peace Laureate Calls for Nuclear Referendum

Omid Memarian

BERKELEY, United States, Apr 25 2007 (IPS) - Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is urging the Iranian government to hold a national referendum on the country&#39s controversial nuclear programme, because it "has a direct impact" on the lives of millions of Iranian citizens.

Since last December, the United Nations Security Council has adopted two resolutions to sanction Iran&#39s nuclear and missile industry and force the Iranian government to suspend enriching uranium. Iran&#39s foreign ministry, meanwhile, has asked the international community to exclude language about suspension of enrichment activities.

In an opinion piece published by Rooz Online Daily, an Iranian Internet news site, Ebadi said "the situation surrounding Iran&#39s nuclear programme is becoming gradually more dangerous. Since it has a direct impact on the economic and social lives of millions of Iranians, the fate of this programme is a matter of concern to all human rights activists in Iran."

Her suggestion is to hold a national referendum to determine what the Iranian people really want when it comes to the nuclear issue. "This referendum must be held and carried out in a legally legitimate way, to ensure its results are credible and unquestionable in foreign and domestic circles," wrote Ebadi, who received the Nobel in recognition of her efforts for democracy and women&#39s and children&#39s rights.

"Currently, the Iranian government does not allow the press and civil society activists to talk about the country&#39s crucial nuclear programme. Ms. Ebadi&#39s suggestion to hold a referendum inadvertently requires the government to open the floor for a public debate," stated a political analyst in Tehran, on the condition of anonymity. "So regardless of whether or not it is held, it allows people to understand the real consequences of Iran&#39s disagreement with the UNSC and marginalization from the outside world."

During the last few years, some Iranian political activists have asked the government to hold a referendum to change the country&#39s Islamic constitution. The authorities have refused to respond and have targeted the promoters of the idea with repression. Many Iranians believe that if the government agreed to a referendum, the people will ask for substantial changes in the constitution.

"The nuclear programme has direct and serious effects on the fate of Iranians. If this is the case, then citizens of Iran have the right to express their position in a legally defensible and transparent environment, and furthermore, to expect that their views are taken into account in choosing the direction of Iran&#39s nuclear policies," wrote Ebadi.

She believes that unlike the suggestions to hold a referendum on choosing a political system or altering the constitution, which have been opposed by the Iranian government, the country&#39s officials should have no logical reasons against holding a national referendum on the nuclear issue.

"If, in a just and transparent environment, the Iranian people vote for the continuation of the government&#39s nuclear policies, then the referendum would completely favour the government, strengthening its negotiating position with respect to the international community&#39s," states the human rights activist.

Her suggestion has generated considerable debate among political activists in Iran. While Mahmoud Shamsolvaezin, a prominent journalist, opposes the government&#39s policy to not inform the public about the consequences of its nuclear policies, he disagrees with a nuclear referendum.

"From a strategic point of view, regardless of who is governing in Tehran, we believe that Iranian national security must not be subjected to a referendum during changes and strategic decisions. An unpredictable outcome could result in the country and its strategic interests becoming hostages of a possibly immature decision of people at a certain point in time," stated Shamsolvaezin in a phone interview from Tehran.

"Let me give you an example. Many of those who voted for (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad two years ago regret their decision, but can they take their votes back? No! The same people who voted for him now regret it, and must face the consequences of their vote," he said.

"On the other hand, whilst Iranian people are slowly realising the full extent of the existing crisis, I oppose censoring information and dissemination venues, and transforming this subject into a holy issue which cannot be criticised under the pretence of &#39creating unity&#39. This is wrong," he added.

"You know that if Iran (the government) starts something and get stumped mid-way, they will leave the public to pay the price. Therefore, I oppose the referendum issue completely," Shamsolvaezin said.

"I think what (Ebadi) has proposed, beyond politics, raises a basic question of analysing the costs and benefits of Iran&#39s nuclear programme," Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science professor at Tehran University, told IPS. "Even in Western democracies, the issue of alternative plans… are not open to public discussion. No country has ever done this for Iran to be the second."

"I believe the Iranian political elite must refrain from using the nuclear issue for their own political agenda, and must perform a cost-benefit analysis of the nuclear plan and decide whether it is logical, and whether the funds spent on the programme, vis-à-vis other programmes and activities, are economically feasible. This is the main question we must pursue," Zibakalam said.

"Despite all their problems and inadequate thinking, our regime has taken a stance of resistance, because from their viewpoint, Iran&#39s national security will be guaranteed through atomic power," said Shamsolvaezin in reference to the government&#39s nuclear policies.

"However, if the nuclear plans endanger Iranian national security entirely, which idiotic government destroys itself to achieve nuclear technology? Nuclear technology is intended to increase the national security, but if it weakens national security and becomes a reason to overthrow (the government), it won&#39t be logical, and the regime knows when to negotiate," he added.

At the time of imminent threats in the Middle East, Ebadi&#39s referendum suggestion is yet another indicator of the intense pressure on freedom of speech in Iran, and the frustration of the Iranian people, who lack information or a clear picture of what&#39s going on in the country. The government has tried to feed the press and public with its version of the truth, using its strong propaganda machine of state-run radio, TV and many religious groups, such as the Islamic Propaganda Organisation.

Last year, when Iran&#39s nuclear dossier went to the UN Security Council, Iran&#39s National Security Council asked the press not to criticise the hardliner government&#39s nuclear policies. President Ahmadinejad has tried to make Iran&#39s nuclear programme a matter of national pride. Iran insists that its nuclear plan is designed for peaceful purposes, while many in the international community, led by the United States, believe that this programme is ultimately directed towards pursuing nuclear weapons.

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