Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has embraced a more active role in public life as he seeks to shore up the authority of the Iranian regime after the most intense demonstrations since the Islamic revolution.
The supreme leader and the republic’s ultimate decision maker took the significant step in early February of pardoning tens of thousands of prisoners, including some of those involved in the anti-regime protests sparked by the death last year of a 22-year-old woman, which have now subsided.
Another side has been on show this month as he appeared on television praying with a group of girls dressed in colourful Islamic coverings. Other interventions in state affairs have featured him attending meetings with Iranian industrialists and entrepreneurs.
Despite the change of emphasis, there are no signs that Iran’s clerical leader, 83, is preparing to change the theocratic regime that has governed the country since the 1979 revolution. Instead, it shows an attempt to manage his image and be seen to address some of the many issues facing Iran.
The most significant protests in years began in September following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish Iranian who was arrested for not properly adhering to Islamic dress codes. It triggered demonstrations that quickly grew in size and spread across the country, with Khamenei attracting particular ire as the person most responsible for the social restrictions that Amini was judged to have contravened, as well as a deep unhappiness at Iran’s political repression and stagnant economy.
The protest movement lasted for four months before dying down, to be replaced by anger and frustration. The execution of four protesters for killing or injuring security forces only fuelled the sense of hopelessness.
Hardliners, who blame western and regional adversaries for fomenting the unrest, say the supreme leader has emerged stronger. Pro-regime forces staged their own rallies this month to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution.
“The opposition fooled some immature young people . . . [and] the supreme leader pardoned them,” hardline politician Hamid-Reza Taraghi said of the protesters and the decision to free them. He insisted Khamenei would not change the principles of the Islamic republic.
“Even if one million people were out in the streets protesting . . . they’re still a minority. This is a system with deep roots inside the country and across the Middle East which cannot be uprooted,” he added.
The country’s opposition has called for an end to the “absolute” power wielded by Khamenei, based on the constitution, and the creation of a new secular democratic establishment. But the inability of the protest movement to deliver meaningful change underscores the difficulties in dealing with a system that has vast, multi-layered security and economic networks of loyalists.
None of the regime’s critics have presented a viable alternative to the current system, nor has any popular opposition leader come to the fore. “The system feels very lucky that no credible alternative has emerged even in these protests,” said one reformist analyst.
People walk through a commercial area of Tehran on TuesdayRegime hostility towards the west is unchanged and there are no signs that Tehran will offer concessions over its nuclear programme, even as its economy buckles under waves of US sanctions. The sale of attack drones to Russia used in the war against Ukraine is also unlikely to change while hardliners dominate all arms of the state.
Reformists, who have no senior government positions but retain links with the regime, have warned that such policies will only fuel the dissent they say is growing across society. They have called on the regime to reach a deal with the US to revive the 2015 nuclear accord, which would bring sanctions relief, as well as voicing demands for media freedoms, an independent judiciary and the relaxation of political, social and cultural restrictions.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist former vice-president, suggested in a recent interview with local media that the regime would eventually agree to “modest” reforms as there was no other choice. But the opposition say half-measures will not be enough to satisfy the middle class who led the pro-democracy protests.
Former prime minister turned regime critic Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who has been under house arrest for more than a decade, said in a statement this month that he no longer had faith in any constitutional reforms. He has instead for the first time called for regime change. While his words have resonated with many Iranians, other reformists close to former president Mohammad Khatami believe that toppling the system will unleash powerful, destructive forces and so prove too costly.
They have urged the supreme leader to embark on fundamental reforms. Yet even that will not be enough for some. “We’ve been fooled enough,” said Maliheh, 44, a nurse and single parent. “The Islamic republic should go — full stop! I see no future for myself or my son in this country anymore.”
Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst, said such hopelessness and a waning popular legitimacy of the regime had become a huge challenge, with many hardliners still not realising the seriousness of the situation. Parliamentary elections early next year will test public opinion.
“Society has lost its hope but state television is still spreading hatred and hardliners . . . fan this grim outlook,” Laylaz said. In this situation, Khamenei was the “only hope” for those who wanted reforms, as he was the only one with the authority to introduce them.
Source » ft