The text of the April 26 speech was obtained by the state-run Mehr news agency and made public despite its dissenting tone. Carrying the title of marja, Javadi-Amoli is one of the highest religious authorities in Iran, and the theocratic structure of the government virtually insulates such figures from the censorship that defines government policy towards journalists and activists.
This dichotomy can have the effect of creating unlikely sources of political dissent and social justice advocacy, as is the case with this speech. Javadi-Amoli has used it to accuse the government of treating the citizenry like “hirelings,” and to insist that “they should be handled with dignity.”
He gave particular emphasis to economic hardships faced by large segments of the population. “If a people’s pockets are empty, their spines are broken,” he declared. He elaborated by saying that those who are poor cannot resist and he advised that “if we want the people to stand firm, then their pockets must be full.”
Representatives of the Iranian resistance who read the text of the speech questioned the significance of directing it to government officials. “The problem is not that the government doesn’t know how to make the people stand firm,” said a spokesperson. “The problem is that the government wants the people to bend easily.”
The two camps – religious authority and political resistance – thus seem to agree on at least a few points, though they clearly have very different perceptions of the government’s willingness to alter its policies and to work on the people’s behalf.
It is not the first time that Javadi-Amoli has been a source of dissent in spite of his aggressively conservative religious views. Much like international observers of the most recent presidential elections in Iran, Javadi-Amoli expressed initial optimism about the Rouhani administration after being critical of the confrontational leadership style of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
However, this recent speech seems to demonstrate that unlike many of the Western powers, Javadi-Amoli’s optimism was short-lived. This difference gives added significance to Javadi-Amoli’s references to the Iranian nuclear program, which is the focus of so much recent Western optimism.
“Food is not like nuclear energy,” he said. “It takes very little aptitude to produce food.” On this basis, Javad-Amoli accused the current Iranian government of embezzlement and used that as a partial explanation of unmanageable prices of dairy and meat.
Of course, as a Shia cleric, Javadi-Amoli couched his criticism in explicitly religious terms, telling officials of the Islamic Republic, “you must not let your words emanate from Islam even while your mindset is only Iranian.”
Still, many of Javadi-Amoli’s individual remarks have a broader significance that can be understood even by those who do not support the theocratic system of Iranian government. His words are likely to resonate just as well with people who lament their country’s lack of democracy.
“In this country we have everything, but what we do not have is competence and integrity,” he said.