Students’ Open Criticism of Khamenei is Latest Sign of Looming Regime Change

the harsh criticisms that had recently been expressed by Iranian students

The currency collapse was only one of “numerous crises” cited by the student in question, Sahar Mehrabi. The AP quoted her as also calling attention to “intensified systematic inequality in social classes, the decline of public trust and an increase in environmental crisis and shantytowns.” Such criticism is significant in part because it underscores the domestic discontent that drove a mass uprising in the months of December and January. At the same time, it points to the widespread conclusion that that uprising and a number of subsequent protests are indicative of a greater level of public commitment to confronting the regime and its highest officials.

The AP report noted that direct criticism of the Iranian Supreme Leader is rare, because the theocratic system of government invests him with ultimate authority in most matters of law and policy, even portraying him as “second only to God.” Accordingly, public expressions of dissent that are deemed “insults” to the supreme leader can be punished with death. The same is true of a range of other political and religious offenses. Thus, in the aftermath of the December-to-January uprising, the Iranian judiciary warned that the death penalty may be awaiting anyone who was determined to be a leader of the protests.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran determined that approximately 50 protesters were shot dead during the uprising, and that 14 were tortured to death afterwards. It also determined that 8,000 people were arrested, though government officials only acknowledged slightly more than half this number. But despite this repression, Iranians in various different localities, representing various different social, ethnic, and economic demographics, have continued to organize protests and labor movements, some of which carried on the provocative slogans that characterized the nationwide uprising.

Those slogans included “death to the dictator” in reference to Khamenei, and “death to Rouhani” in reference to the president, who supposedly represents a more moderate political faction and a rivalry with the supreme leader. But the mass uprising also gave rise to chant that addressed both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions by name and declared “the game is over,” thus implying that neither is seen to be willing or able to address the people’s economic, social, or political grievances.

Khamenei and other leading officials have taken unusual steps toward acknowledging the legitimacy of some of these grievances, as he did in the face of the criticism voiced by students on Monday. According to the AP, he acknowledged shortcomings in the government’s management of the economy, but added that solving these problems is not as easy as the students may think. This can easily be viewed as part of a larger effort to suggest that significant changes are on the way, even if slow and coming, and to dispel the public’s most stringent demands, which seemingly include a complete change of government.

As part of that same effort, regime officials have taken the even more unusual step of acknowledging the role of the leading Iranian Resistance group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, in the planning and organization of recent protests, including the January uprising. This has of course been accompanied by efforts to discourage the people from affiliation with that movement.

The persistence of highly organized protests suggests that the effort is not working, and according to some commentators, reactions to the uprising by highly placed individuals in the Islamic Republic suggest that there is little confidence in the government’s ability to forestall the popular drive for regime change. This was the message offered, for instance, by Michael Rubin in an editorial published by the Washington Examiner on Wednesday.

Rubin quoted the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee as saying that 30 billion dollars had been removed from Iran in the two months following the January uprising. This is a much larger figure than in all comparable periods of recent history, and it leads Rubin to two conclusions. Firstly, he concludes that “Iran’s top officials are trying to squirrel away nest eggs at an unprecedented pace as they prepare for the inevitable,” namely the overthrow of the clerical regime.

Secondly, Rubin argues that the large-scale transfers undermine the regime’s efforts to deny responsibility for the sorts of economic problems that students were complaining about on Monday. “It is common for the Iranian government to blame the outside world for Iran’s economic weakness,” he says in the article. “But the figures bantered about in Persian by Iranian officials themselves suggest that the problem has never been sanctions, but rather graft.”

If the Iranian people generally draw the same conclusion from the new information, it will presumably speed their progress toward “the inevitable” change of government. This is all the more true if the public also regards other domestic factors as growing worse alongside the economic situation. And many human rights organizations have been saying for months or years that human rights violations and political repression have been worsening as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps consolidates power and the world’s attention remains narrowly focused on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Such claims are underscored by each new report on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic, one of which was published on Tuesday by the US State Department. Examining religious discrimination and persecution throughout the world, the report placed particular emphasis on Iran and its trend of executing people on the basis of crimes like “enmity against God” and “proselytizing” for non-Muslim faiths. In summarizing the report, UPI pointed out that Iran has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act since 1999.

In the face of this and other such reports, Supreme Leader Khamenei and other Iranian officials tend not to respond directly to credible accusations of human rights violations, but rather to deflect attention by levying supposedly comparable accusations at the US and other declared enemies of the Islamic Republic. This phenomenon was highlighted by the Independent Journal Review on Thursday when it noted that Khamenei had posted to his official website a fundamentally random list of seven issues related that supposedly pointed to a pattern of American human rights violations. His references to Abu Ghraib prison, the domestic availability of guns, and the controversy over police interactions with African Americans was accompanied by the question, “With this history, does the U.S. have the competence to warn others on human rights issues?”

While such questions might fuel the resentments of any Iranians who are already prone to anti-Americanism, it is unlikely to have much effect on those who have been protesting Iran’s mistreatment and neglect of its own people over the past several months. This is especially true in light of the fact that the Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian institutions have evidently escalated their crackdowns on political dissent in the wake of the January uprising. Many observers have predicted that this trend, alongside the ongoing economic crisis highlighted on Monday by Iranian students, would increase the odds of a resurgence of the previous uprising.

In March, at the time of the Iranian New Year celebration of Nowruz, the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi predicted that Iran would soon be facing “a year full of uprisings.” For supporters of the Resistance movement, recent activities ranging from a nationwide strike by truck drivers to the unusually confrontational tone of student speeches are all indicative of the truth of Mrs. Rajavi’s words.