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Dispatch | At Low Point, Leader's Popularity Ebbs

by KAVEH OMID

31 Jan 2012 12:10Comments
13901101164339664_PhotoL.jpg"Agha" subject of Iranians' humor and scorn.

[ news analysis ] Despite appearing to be solidly in control of the Islamic Republic, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now faced with the acerbic tongue of the Iranian population. More than ever -- in the streets, in taxis, in private conversations, and in public expressions -- his words, dictates, and even mannerisms are being criticized and mocked.

To be sure, the Ayatollah -- whom many in the country's political leadership now simply refer to as "Agha," or Sir -- is still deemed fully in charge. But it is precisely his repeated interventions in the running of the country that have earned him the title of dictator and consequent scorn from many Iranians.

While it is difficult to say how prevalent the jokes and derisive comments are across Iranian society, there is no doubt that Khamenei is now targeted much more frequently, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recedes to the background.

This situation is a natural outgrowth of Iran's post-presidential election circumstances. To avoid responsibility for the country's economic and political ills, in the past year, various members of the Majles, including Ali Larijani and Gholamali Haddad-Adel -- the current and former speaker, respectively -- have made clear that it was Agha who wanted Ahmadinejad elected, ordered them to support the president's cabinet, prevented the investigation of financial corruption when Ahmadinejad was mayor of Tehran, and now prevents Ahmadinejad from being questioned and subjected to an impeachment process.

Khamenei has even silenced the criticism that had been voiced by clerics in Qom by reportedly placing listening devices in their offices and homes. Recently, he was seen as arranging for the dismissal of Abdollah Jasbi from his post as chancellor of Islamic Azad University, one of the world's largest higher education systems, with more than 1.5 million students. Jasbi's replacement is Farhad Daneshjoo, whose brother Kamran Daneshjoo is Ahmadinejad's minister of science, technology, and higher education. Jasbi is close to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of Islamic Azad's board, who has so far refused to sign Daneshjoo's letter of appointment. Agha, meanwhile, made clear his involvement by allowing the two Daneshjoo brothers to sit by his side during the ceremony of Arba'in, which commemorates the 40th day of Imam Hossein's martyrdom.

It may seem that everything is going swimmingly for Agha, as public officials keep declaring their allegiance to him and his rule. But his ascent to the position of Supreme Leader, who has the "final word" on every issue, has also been costly, particularly given the popular penchant for wicked humor.

Some jokingly refer to him as Farzaneh Khanoum -- Lady Farzaneh. Farzaneh is a common female name, and the joke is a play of words on the epithet he is customarily accorded on state television: rahbar-e farzaneh -- wise or learned leader.

A retired teacher standing in line to buy bread mischievously uses another name -- Nezaam, a male name that means "system." The Leader's habit of calling critics of his policies and conduct "opponents of the Islamic system" prompts this designation.

The catchphrases Khamenei repeatedly employs in accusing those who oppose him of perfidy are both mocked and appropriated to express solidarity with those opponents. For instance, his not-so-oblique reference to Rafsanjani as an "elite without insight" (nokhbeye bi-basirat), because of the the former president's questioning of the 2009 election results and refusal to see the "sedition" behind the subsequent protests, has now been co-opted by the politically incorrect. "Baz bi-basirat shodi" -- "again you are without insight" -- has been adopted by Tehranis as a jocular, joyful refrain whenever someone says something critical about the way things are being run.

Direct criticisms of the Leader have also become more common. The 20 letters addressed to Khamenei by Mohammad Nourizad, a conservative and former political prisoner, have grown increasingly harsh. In his latest epistles, Nourizad expressly criticizes the corruption in the Revolutionary Guards' leadership and warns Khamenei that he could face a fate similar to that suffered by Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Emad Afrough, another conservative, in an interview with Khabar Online, more politely asked, "Is the leader's support for the [Ahmadinejad] administration based on expediency or truth [merit]?" Afrough went on to say that given the Leader's constitutional position, which situates him above all factions, he should not be making decisions based on political expediency. In an appearance on national television, Afrough further called for legal mechanisms to oversee the Leader's conduct and said that the religious guide (Vali-ye Faghih) can and should be criticized.

The criticism voiced by ordinary Iranians is increasingly uninhibited, at times quite personal and laced with loathing. Khamenei is described as stubborn, obstinate, jealous, and vindictive. He is said to hold permanent grudges against his opponents, including those Iranians who did not accept his choice for president, whom he labels seditionists in virtually every speech he delivers.

Babak, a music teacher who was injured in a post-election protests, calls Khamenei "so cruel that, if he could kill all of us, he would so, he would have no opponents." Marzieh, the daughter of a well-known ayatollah, discusses the way Khamenei has dealt with Rafsanjani as well as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the former presidential candidates who been under house arrest for almost a year: "Mr. Khamenei holds a grudge in his heart against these men both because of the Imam's [Khomeini's] love and support for them and also because in comparison to these three, in particular Hashemi [Rafsanjani] and Mousavi, he is clearly a second-rate individual."

And Khamenei's authoritarian behavior is not the only source of criticism; there is also his support for Ahmadinejad and the president's policies, the bad economic conditions, and the growing external pressures. An economics professor at Allameh Tabatabai University says, "Unrestrained imports, the destruction of the country's productive capacity, inflation, and corruption have made people worried about the future of the nation. Without a doubt, many consider him to be responsible for the situation." He goes on to say that many ordinary people are puzzled over Khamenei's inclination "to take the country toward ruin. The only answer they have is that he is willing to do it because he wants to maintain power."

Some even go as far as to say that the Islamic Republic is no longer important to its ruler. According to dentist Mohammad Reza, "If he was as concerned about the future of the system as Hashemi and [former president Mohammad] Khatami, the Islamic Republic would never be in the situation it is now." A political activist argues that Khamenei's habit of equating himself with the system has led many to perceive that this itself is "treachery to the system."

Meanwhile, Khamenei himself seems aware of how popular expressions of contempt have shifted away from Ahmadinejad and toward him. There has been a significant transformation in the way he is portrayed on television, with many more images being broadcast of him smiling or kindly holding a child. In the wake of the murder of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who worked at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, he did something unprecedented, which was amply covered by the state media. He went to the home of the victim's family to express his condolences. He would appear to have been inspired by an unlikely source: Former president Khatami paid many visits to the families of those who were killed during the post-election protests, while previously Khamenei has exclusively received mourning visitors.

There is also a concerted effort to absolve Khamenei of any responsibility for Iran's economic woes. For instance, on Sunday, a television program aired, The Path Taken, that surveyed various major corruption scandals going back to the Rafsanjani administration and continuing under Khatami and Ahmadinejad, which were attributed to the three presidents ignoring "the directions of the Leader." Ahmad, a journalist, scoffs at the effort. "It is not at all necessary to analyze the uselessness of these moves. It is obvious that they make people angrier. I myself shut the television as soon as I hear his voice or, for sure, see his image and even curse him under my breath."

It is a difficult situation for Khamenei. Although he has managed to force out his former friends and suppress any potential challengers, his decisions as the "guide of the nation" during rocky times are increasingly being called into question. He is seen as constantly sliding from one crisis into another. And his allies, real or nominal, are doing him no favors by repeatedly reminding the public that their actions have been not of their own choosing but rather the Leader's.

This predicament leads a professor of contemporary Iranian history to observe that Khamenei now faces "the fate of all dictators. He is currently the loneliest person in the country." He considers the argument that Khamenei's power rests on support from the Revolutionary Guards no more than a "propagandistic claim."

"If he doesn't change his ways soon," says the professor, "other players in Iran's political arena will reach the conclusion that getting rid of of Mr. Khamenei is the best option both for getting out of the crisis and maintaining the Islamic Republic."

Kaveh Omid is a pen name.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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