Open letters underscore Iranians’ frustration with Khamenei’s rule

As in the days of the shah, open letters perhaps herald the beginning of a new phase in the broad popular opposition against Iran.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Iranian worshippers take part in prayers at the Imam Khomeini Mosque in Tehran with a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the background. (AFP)
A question of time. Iranian worshippers take part in prayers at the Imam Khomeini Mosque in Tehran with a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the background. (AFP)

“One must truly cry tears of blood for the Islamic society, in which even the possibility of someone like me [seizing leadership in it] is raised.” Such were the words of Ali Khamenei, as the Assembly of Experts was trying to find newly deceased Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s successor in its extraordinary June 4, 1989, session.

Khamenei most probably uttered those words in a false show of modesty and did not hesitate in taking the mantle of leadership.

Three decades after he was elected leader of the revolution, many Iranians agree with those statements and say the supreme leader should resign. Even more remarkably, members of the public increasingly express their opinion in open letters.

There is a long history of open letters to political leaders in Iran. Some of the more known include the March 5, 1975, letter of political activist Mozzafar Baghai to the shah in which he criticised the regime’s abolishment of political parties and transformation of Iran into a single party system.

Just as famous is the June 12, 1977, open letter of Iran Freedom Movement leaders Karim Sanjabi, Dariush Forouhar and Shapour Bakhtiar, who urged the shah to abandon his authoritarian rule and submit to the constitution.

The open letters served a specific purpose. In his “The Iranian Revolution in Two Phases,” Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s first prime minister, explained: “We did everything in our power to express the criticism overtly, openly and courageously, so that it no longer was individual or limited to a single group. It should encompass all social strata and viewpoints… and demonstrate solidarity and strength. Based on this theory, disorder and treason were publicly denounced in order to create an explicit position against the shah.”

This tradition has been revived with open letters in recent years. Some of the more remarkable missives include the February 11, 2018, letter in which 15 political activists, based in Iran and abroad, stated: “The cumulative experiences of the past 40 years demonstrate inability of the Islamic Republic to reform itself. By hiding behind religious beliefs and instrumentally using religion… it has become the main obstacle in the path of progress and freedom of the Iranian nation.” To remedy the problems, the authors demanded a “peaceful transition from the Islamic Republic to a secular parliamentary democracy.”

On June 11, 14 political activists published an open letter demanding Khamenei’s resignation, arguing: “As opposed to the first draft of the constitution, there is neither republicanism nor freedom [in Iran].”

On August 11, a third open letter, this time signed by 14 women, all of whom live in Iran, was released in which the signatories demanded Khamenei’s resignation and change of the constitution. The letter concluded: “We… are determined to continue our struggle in a civil and non-violent manner… until we achieve all our demands.”

The authors of the three letters are a diverse group from different social strata and political beliefs but they appear to have reached a similar conclusion concerning the necessity of a regime change as a precondition for change in Iran.

It is also remarkable that many of the signatories, in particular of the latter two letters, are not well-known political activists but appear to be ordinary citizens. Just as important, most of them live in Iran and are aware of legal and other repercussions of their protest. Indeed, there have been reports of the arrest of several signatories.

Open letters do not necessarily threaten the political order in Iran and Khamenei is not likely to resign unless the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps perceives him as a liability rather than an asset. But, as in the days of the shah, open letters perhaps herald the beginning of a new phase in the broad popular opposition against Iran.

Khamenei and Iran should fear people who speak truth to power because they no longer believe they have anything to lose.

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