WSJ: A letter-writing campaign to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has shattered a taboo against criticizing the country’s top religious and political authority. The Wall Street Journal
By FARNAZ FASSIHI
A letter-writing campaign to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has shattered a taboo against criticizing the country’s top religious and political authority.
The shift comes ahead of protests that could further challenge the Iranian government in the weeks before elections on March 2. Iran’s opposition Green Movement, student activists and the main reform political parties have called for nationwide demonstrations Tuesday to demand the release of opposition leaders under house arrest and call for democracy.
Ahead of the protests, Tehran and other cities were under heightened security on Monday, with more police checkpoints and disruption of cellphone and Internet service.
For several months, dozens of well-known dissidents and activists as well as ordinary people have written open letters to Mr. Khamenei accusing him of approving prison torture, tolerating corruption, provoking economic hardship and disregarding the law to stay in power.
The letters are typically posted on personal websites and emailed to Persian language websites that report opposition news. A blog dedicated to the appeals called Nameh, or Letters, has posted many of them.
“Even the most optimistic of our countrymen realize that you think of nothing but your own survival in power and to this end you are willing to ruin Iran’s national resources, heritage, ideology and culture,” said a letter to Mr. Khamenei by Mojtabah Vahedi, an exiled adviser of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi and a spokesman for the Green Movement.
The letters have been written by residents of Iran and by expatriates, and in some instances their authors have been jailed, according to Iranian news reports. They have, so far, gone unanswered.
More remarkably, a number of influential and loyal regime insiders—including a cleric, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, a student member of the ultranationalist Basij militia and a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps—have publicly voiced concerns that the revolution under Mr. Khamenei has gone astray.
The letters are extraordinary because they target the heart of the Islamic Republic and hold its leader, not the administration and government, accountable for the regime’s oppressive rule. In the past, the supreme leader has been above public reproach.
Prominent opposition figures have until recently remained focused on reform, but are now gradually concluding that the system as a whole is flawed.
This change could be attributed in part to the influence of successful uprisings in the Arab world, analysts say.
“It’s no longer taboo to talk about Khamenei publicly, in fact it’s a new form of resistance that is desacralizing the Islamic Republic. These are the repercussions of the Arab Spring,” said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University.
The shift appears to extend to the cultlike status of the Islamic Republic’s founder and first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On Feb. 1, Mr. Khomeini’s 1979 return from exile was ceremoniously re-enacted at the airport in Tehran. Soldiers saluted a cardboard image of Mr. Khomeini as it was carried down the stairs from the airplane by two pilots.
The re-enactment prompted a national hysteria of jokes and ridicule calling Mr. Khomeini the “cardboard Imam.”
Iran’s constitution gives the position vali faqih, or Supreme Leader, power and authority akin to being God’s representative on earth. His word is final on state matters, he presides over the armed forces, judiciary and other state institutions, and he is considered by followers to be the foremost Shiite religious authority.
Under Iranian law, insulting the supreme leader carries a potential jail sentence and not believing in his supreme powers is a crime punishable by death.
Mr. Khamenei’s grip on Iran’s levers of power appears to remain firm, after putting down an unusually strong and public challenge by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year. There is little evidence that the masses are expressing dissatisfaction with his rule publicly.
But attitudes among Iran’s elite started to shift in the summer as change swept the Mideast, while Iran sank deeper into repression and economic pain from sanctions.
The letter-writing campaign started in November, when conservative journalist and filmmaker Mohamad Nourizad, who served as a cultural adviser to Mr. Khamenei, called on other dissidents to start writing to the supreme leader, as he had done since 2010, following his own arrest and torture. Soon hundreds of letters began pouring in.
Some are worded politely, addressing Mr. Khamenei as “father” and calling for him to reverse his mistakes before it is too late and apologize to the public and free political prisoners, including opposition leaders.
One of the most shocking cracks in the establishment came when a retired, decorated commander from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces, Rear Adm. Hossein Alaei, published a commentary in an Iranian newspaper in January calling on Iran’s leader to learn from the fate of the Iran’s deposed shah and end the crackdown on opponents.
“The days of authoritative regimes are numbered in the world and dictators can no longer rule so blindly. If the shah had allowed people to have peaceful protests would he have been toppled?” asked Adm. Alaei.
Family members of other IRGC commanders wrote a public letter praising Adm. Alaei for “speaking truth to power,” though many loyalists attacked him, saying he had turned his back on Mr. Khamenei.