TEHRAN – Iran marked on Monday the 40-year milestone since a referendum in which an overwhelming 98 percent of voters chose to establish the Islamic Republic, a model of government that even at its founding sparked controversy.
On April 1, 1979, or the 12th day of Farvardin, the first month in the Persian calendar, Iranian voters were asked to determine the political future of the nation, just two months after the Islamic Revolution brought an end to the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
According to officials, voter turnout was enormous.
Although the then-prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, expressed his doubts about the referendum and there was a boycott threat from left-wing groups, around 20 million of the 21 registered voters participated in the plebiscite.
Bazargan had asked revolutionary leader and future supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to include the option of a Democratic Republic or Democratic Islamic Republic on the ballot but his proposal was ignored.
For Khomeini, the term democratic was of Western coinage and unnecessary. What Iran needed, according to him, was an Islamic republic.
“Only an Islamic republic, not a word more, not a word less,” said the ayatollah, whose vision is upheld by Iranian authorities to this day, amid growing political discontent in the nation.
This ethos was on full display at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the referendum held at Khomeini’s mausoleum just to the south of the capital, Tehran.
Giving a speech to the hundreds of people gathered at the grandiose monument to the late leader, Iran’s intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi said that, at the time of the vote “millions of people heeded the call of Khomeini to request an Islamic government and to reject the powers in the West.”
Alavi said Khomeini slated the referendum to secure popular backing and to make it “official and legal.”
Many of those present at the mausoleum waved Iran’s national flag, were clad in nationalist colors or held portraits of Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei aloft.
Among them was Ali Rahimi, a 59-yeard-old plumber who voted “yes” to the Islamic Republic four decades ago and maintains his political beliefs to this day.
“If it was a ‘no’ vote, there would be chaos in the country,” he told EFE.
In agreement with Rahimi was Batul Mahdavi Hajji, an 80-year-old member of the Basij, a voluntary group that seeks to uphold the rules of the Islamic Republic, who recalled the sense of national unity she felt on the day she voted in favor of a religious government in Iran.
Iran’s military also used the occasion to issue a statement branding the referendum a “milestone” in Iranian history.
However, there were also those who voted against the creation of the Islamic Republic, many of whom recall the day, and the alleged voting irregularities that occurred, with regret and even bitterness for how it molded Iran in the intervening years.
Radmin, a 61-year-old intellectual who would not give his surname, told EFE that the referendum was a “game” that came about during a delicate and sensitive moment amid fears that Iran could fall victim to a military coup or once again come under the influence of an external force.
“I voted ‘no,’ because an Islamic republic was not what we needed,” he said and added that the referendum was never designed to evaluate the will of the people, but to guarantee the creation of the Islamic Republic.
The professor, who was a member of a leftist party, said the matter could be voted on several times and still the officials at polling stations would fix the result by adding ballots in favor of the Islamic Republic.
In his view, these alleged irregularities were not ordered by the authorities at the time but were carried out by people who thought the “yes” vote would win so that the power belonged to the people.
The referendum paved the way for the election of the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for appointing and dismissing the supreme leader of Iran – to whom it is ultimately answerable.
Shortly after the vote, the Assembly, which is dominated by clerics, was charged with drafting the new constitution blending theocracy and democracy, something that also divided opinion among the religious and secular sections of Iranian society.
Iran is governed by a Shia theocracy.
Although the smaller branch of Islam on a global scale, Shiism is adhered to by the majority of practicing Iranians.