A somber revolutionary anniversary in Iran

The 39th anniversary of the revolution in Iran promises to be a somber occasion for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Iran''s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday prayers in Tehran
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday prayers in Tehran September [Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters]

The 39th anniversary of the revolution in Iran promises to be a sombre occasion for the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who was forced to acknowledge the mass discontent in the country as result of the recent protests and received letters from two dissident insiders accusing him of negligence and empire building.

The letters came from two prominent establishment figures from either end of the political spectrum. On the left, Mehdi Karroubi, one of the leaders of the reformist uprising of 2009, in a letter published on January 30, blamed Khamenei for the country’s chaotic political, economic, cultural and social situations. And on the right, the former hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, published a similar letter marking the anniversary of the revolution and held Khamenei responsible for not doing anything about the judiciary which has turned into a “major pillar of oppression” against the Iranian people.

At the same time investigations into the protests that took Iran by surprise six weeks back have put the blame firmly at the door of the establishment with official polls indicating almost 75 percent of the population are unhappy with the situation in the country.

Ayatollah Khamenei has recently admitted that the country has social justice and corruption problems, adding those officials directly responsible “must pay special attention”. But he has not come up with any solutions.

“People’s recent anti-corruption protest across the country is an alarm bell that you should take note of,” Karroubi said in his letter. “You, who have changed almost every pillar of the revolution to your preferred policies, must answer to the public,” he added. 

It is not the first time that Karroubi or Ahmadinejad have spoken out against what they describe as injustice. Nor is the idea of writing letters a novelty. Since the early days of the revolution, several letters of criticism have been written by prominent insiders.

What is important about the recent letters is their harsher than usual tone and the fact that they target the leader. The timing of these two letters is also crucial because it adds momentum to the expressions of discontent during the recent protests, some calling for the downfall of the regime and its leader.

In his letter, Ahmadinejad implied that either direct complicity or ineffectiveness of the leader has led to haphazard judicial decisions and widespread injustice. “They insult and abuse power without fear, they charge and convict without oversight,” he said.

Karroubi, on the other hand, blamed the leader for destroying the foundations of the revolution and making a mockery of the main oversight bodies such as the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts. 

He also accused Khamenei of authorising the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to enter into economic activity, indulge in corruption, get involved with intelligence, culture and politics when it was established to be only a military set up. 

A demand for substantial changes

According to an official poll, the underlying causes of the widespread discontent in the recent protests were social and political. The head of Strategic Analysis Centre, Hessamudin Ashna, said that the polls show 60 percent of the population want reform but another 31 percent want “substantial changes”. 

“The protests should be taken seriously” otherwise “they may have dire consequences,” said Ashna, who is an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani.

Yet inside the establishment there is an ongoing blame game. Rouhani stresses the social and political reasons behind the protests while the hardliners highlight the economic aspect to pressurise the president who is responsible mainly for the economy of the country. 

What both sides are avoiding is that comprehensive reforms are required otherwise there would be more protests: in the same official poll, 37 percent of the respondents said protests are highly likely to be repeated.

Rouhani has put in place development projects for the southern Khuzestan province where protests about confiscation of land, shortage of water and environmental issues have gone on for over a year. He has also initiated an urban housing reconstruction programme to provide housing for young couples. Youth unemployment standing at 25 percent has been seen as one of the major roots of the recent unrest. 

Yet reforming the political and judicial architecture of the establishment can only come from the supreme leader and his reaction has been slack. He has continued to pay more attention to regional issues, angering the protesters. 

The two recent letters and the public pressures for creating change in the body of the Islamic Republic should give President Rouhani the necessary tools he requires to push Khamenei for his proposed reform of the IRGC and the judiciary as well as his anti-corruption “surgery” as demanded by the International Monetary Fund. 

And the protesters’ call for the downfall of the leader should give sufficient impetus for reforms in the Assembly of Experts which has the duty of supervising and disqualifying the leader. As it stands Karroubi is right to refer to it as a “ceremonial council that only praises the Leader”. 

After all, even the hardline Speaker of the Assembly, Ahmad Janati, who is always undermining dissent has said he is concerned about what the future holds for the Islamic Republic. 

If the establishment in Iran wants to avoid further protests and possible civil disobedience the leader needs to take some drastic measures. These must include major reshuffles at the highest levels of the judiciary and the IRGC. 

Otherwise, the next year’s anniversary could be even gloomier.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.