December 21, 2022
Khamenei appears to be pushing for subtle reforms in Iran, but it’s all just a ruse
As protests following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini in police custody persist unabated, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has continued to blame the growing popular calls for wholesale regime change on “enemy plots.” He did so most recently in a speech on November 26, in which he sought to bolster the morale of the Basij—a militia organized and trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—which has played a major role in the brutal crackdown on protestors.
Iran’s Sunni Muslim and ethnic minorities have been repressed particularly heavily. Earlier in November, convoys of IRGC soldiers, armored vehicles, and heavy artillery rolled into several cities in northwestern Kurdistan province, which is also the home of Amini. Helicopters hovered at a low altitude and checkpoints were set up where people’s cell phones were seized and examined for footage of the protests. The death toll in Kurdish cities has risen to double digits, leading Iranian media to refer to Kurdish areas as a war zone.
Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the IRGC army branch, alleged that Kurdish separatist groups based across the border in Iraq were fomenting unrest in Iran. To back up this baseless claim, the IRGC carried out a series of drone and missile attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan in recent weeks.
Human rights organizations report that anti-regime protests are occurring daily across Iran, affecting more than 160 Iranian cities, including all provincial capitals, as well as over 140 college campuses. The death toll has risen to more than five hundred and there have been more than 18,000 arrests since mid-September, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA).
Coupled with the brutal crackdown, the Islamic Republic has made a series of gestures that aim to look conciliatory but appear to be mostly meant for public relations. For example, two reformist newspapers published photos of former president Mohammad Khatami, seemingly ending a decade-long media blackout since the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement. A reformist activist close to Khatami confirmed that the ex-president had written to Khamenei about the protests, advising a change of policies, but said that his advice had been ignored.
Several other reformist figures have met with leading conservative officials, including President Ebrahim Raisi, judiciary chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, and the secretary of the High Council of National Security Ali Shamkhani, seeking to end the cycle of protests and repression.
Khamenei’s influential second son and heir apparent Mojtaba even came out of self-imposed isolation and met with Fatemeh Hashemi, the eldest daughter of the late president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is reportedly a childhood friend (ironically, Fatemeh’s firebrand sister, Faezeh, has been imprisoned since the protests began). State media did not provide details, but, according to the Persian service of Deutsche Welle, Hashemi reportedly told Mojtaba to intervene to improve the situation. Mojtaba reportedly responded that he had no authority to do so despite his widely believed role in the crackdown of the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement.
These meetings appeared intended to show that the regime is looking for a non-violent means to end the protests and that reform of the system is still possible. However, there have been numerous calls both inside and outside Iran for a national referendum on structural change to the clerical-led order. This occurred most notably on November 4 by the Sunni Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, the capital of southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province, which has been another hotbed of brutal crackdowns by security forces since protests began (at least eighty-two were killed on September 30 alone).
Weeks later, on November 16, a conservative member of parliament, Elias Naderan, called for “major structural changes to the system.” The secretary general of the Freedom Movement of Iran, an old liberal party associated with the early 1950s, urged the adoption of a forty-year-old draft constitution adopted after the 1979 revolution to govern Iran during a “transitional period.”
The son of the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, once the designated successor to the leader of the Iranian revolution, only to be put under house arrest for protesting the summary execution of five thousand political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, wrote an open letter to grand ayatollahs in both Iran and Iraq, asking them to raise their collective voices and “seize the opportunity before it is too late…if Iranian rulers want a fundamental solution to our problems they must immediately agree with a referendum because this is what the Iranian people demand.”
However, despite these calls and gestures, there is no evidence that Khamenei will budge. Indeed, the meetings appear to be for propaganda purposes and an attempt to show that reformists—marginalized and removed from influence in recent years—still support the system. If they do, few Iranians care, as evidenced by the chants in the streets calling for an end to the Islamic Republic.
In June of this year, three months before the current round of protests started but at a time when Iranian society was showing clear signs of an upcoming uprising, Khamenei gave a speech in which he made a clear reference to 1981, a year when summary executions of tens of thousands of dissidents started. Earlier this month, two protesters—Mohsen Shekari and Majid Reza Rahnavard—were executed and dozens more are on death row without due process. It seems that the Supreme Leader has been true to his promise and has resurrected the “same God” of the 1980s as he promised to do six months ago.
Khamenei fears that any compromise will lead to regime collapse and his own fall from power. Thus, he has doubled down on Iran’s controversial alliance with fellow autocracies Russia and China and seems to be emulating the bloody survivor of the Syrian protests, Bashar al-Assad, who has continued to rule what is left of Syria after a decade of massacres. Khamenei appears to be willing to risk the disintegration of Iran as long as he remains in power.
The author, who is well-versed in the Iranian political scene, was granted anonymity to share candid observations.
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