Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei Embraces Active Role in Public Life Amidst Protests and Pressure for Change
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is taking a more active role in public life, attempting to solidify the authority of the Islamic regime in the wake of the most intense protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Khamenei recently pardoned tens of thousands of prisoners, including some involved in the anti-regime protests that were sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman last year. He has also been seen on television praying with girls in colourful Islamic coverings, and attending meetings with Iranian industrialists and entrepreneurs.
Despite these public displays, there are no indications that the 83-year-old cleric is planning to change the theocratic regime that has governed the country for over four decades. Instead, Khamenei appears to be trying to manage his image and address some of the many issues facing Iran.
Last September, protests erupted following the death of Kurdish Iranian Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for not following Islamic dress codes. The protests quickly spread across the country, with Khamenei being the target of much of the anger due to his responsibility for the social restrictions that Amini was accused of contravening, as well as the political repression and stagnant economy in Iran.
The protests lasted for four months before dwindling and being replaced by widespread frustration and anger. The execution of four protesters who had killed or injured security forces only served to amplify the sense of hopelessness.
Those who support the hardline regime say that Khamenei has emerged stronger after the unrest, with pro-regime forces staging rallies this month to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Hardline politician Hamid-Reza Taraghi said that Khamenei would not change the principles of the Islamic republic, even if one million people were out in the streets protesting.
The opposition has called for an end to Khamenei’s absolute power and the creation of a new secular democratic establishment. However, the inability of the protest movement to achieve meaningful change highlights 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, and no popular opposition leader has emerged.
While the regime’s hostility towards the West remains unchanged, reformists have called for a deal with the US to revive the 2015 nuclear accord, which would bring sanctions relief, and for the relaxation of political, social, and cultural restrictions. They have also warned that the regime’s policies will only fuel growing dissent across society.
Former prime minister turned regime critic Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who has been under house arrest for more than a decade, has called for regime change for the first time. This sentiment has resonated with many Iranians, but other reformists close to former president Mohammad Khatami believe that toppling the system will be too costly and have urged the supreme leader to embark on fundamental reforms.
The challenge for Khamenei is to find a balance between managing the country’s challenges and maintaining the regime’s power. Analysts say that his position as the only person with the authority to introduce reforms means that he is the only hope for those who seek change. Nonetheless, with a waning public legitimacy of the regime, hardliners still not realizing the seriousness of the situation, and parliamentary elections early next year, the road ahead for Iran remains uncertain.