Civil society activists have called for the Supreme Leader to resign and for an overhaul of the constitution.
On June 12, 14 activists from different political affiliations, from monarchists to republicans, wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei, stating that the Islamic Republic must be rebuilt.
One of the signatories to the letter is Mohammad Hossein Sepehri, a teacher in Khorasan province. He says the Supreme Leader is personally accountable for 40 years of destruction and disaster.
IranWire spoke to Sepehri about the letter, why he and fellow activists are speaking up now, and the future of the Islamic Republic.
How did the idea of writing and publishing this letter come about?
About 50 days ago, during a meeting with friends; we were discussing the current situation and issues. Whenever we tried to find the reason for and roots of the problems, it led to the Supreme Leader or the constitution. We decided to be frank and say what we think. We have seen this constitution in practice for 40 years and it does not work. We also told Mr. Khamenei that he has done whatever he wanted over the course of the last 30 years — he has his own policies, laws, appointees, etc. The only time they named a street after a popular artist, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the Supreme Leader did not like it and ordered the name of the street to be changed again. But now it is time for him to take some responsibility for everything he has done. Whenever the tiniest positive thing happens in the country, all the media outlets point to the Leader for his guidance and intelligence, so he needs to be held accountable for all the destruction as well. He is the main responsible person for the failures everywhere, from the private sector to the nuclear program.
People both inside and outside the country support this letter. Those inside have to deal with some considerations and even self-censor themselves, which is the status quo for all domestic activists. But there are no such considerations for people outside. We decided to use the domestic softer tone to write the letter and have more impact. We tried to moderate any extreme viewpoints, so nobody would have any doubts about signing and supporting it. At first, it was a little similar to the reformists’ statements, but we changed it and eliminated the similarities. Some people stated their support for the letter but changed their minds later. Collecting signatures had its own ups and downs. We observed arrogance and distrust among people — which is another of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s achievements over the last 40 years. People can’t trust each other anymore. So, that change of mind was expected.
For the timing, we also decided not to publish it on state or public holidays. After some hiccups, we decided to publish it on June 12, which is an important day in the history of Iran’s reformists. From the beginning, we were looking for diversity among the signatories, from famous people with years of civic activism on their resume to a simple teacher like me who has been on social media for only a year. Now people from monarchists to republicans have signed the letter.
It’s been 40 years since the establishment of the Islamic Republic and 30 years since Khamenei became Supreme Leader. What do you see as the main problems in Iran today?
In 1979, people were not culturally and politically mature. If they had been, they would have not made that decision. During the last 40 years, this regime did whatever it could, even using supernatural justifications, to keep people culturally and politically illiterate. These people already have the experience of losing their dreams. The first time the dream was lost was after the revolution. The second time was the war with Iraq, and the third was 22 years ago, [and the beginning of] reformism. People had high hopes, especially for the latter. That year people had to choose between bad and worse, and they chose Khatami. His opponent was Mohammad Rayshahri, who lost the election to him. Khatami opened up civil and social freedoms a little, but when he was stopped by the regime, he did not show any sign of resistance. We went so backwards that we ended up with [former president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, who took us back centuries. Then it was time for Hassan Rouhani.
The 1997 presidential election was a choice between bad and worse, but in the 2017 election, the worst candidate was on the reformists’ list. When people go on the streets to shout “no conservatives, no reformists, this is the end,” it shows how disappointed they are. Now people are politically mature enough to see the real problem. They know that they are dealing with a cancer patient who has lost his kidneys and liver. So now if someone says, let’s have surgery to make his nose beautiful, it would be absurd, but that’s the current situation. We should take care of the real problem, which is the constitution. But why don’t people do anything? Because they don’t know what will happen after the Islamic Republic [dissolves]. If you ask people, whether they are illiterate or educated, what will happen six months after the Islamic Republic is gone, no one has an answer. Their only wish is to have a regime that is less corrupt and cares about its people. If you ask them about the political system, however, they don’t know the basic concepts.
Now destruction and crisis is a normal phenomenon for Iranian citizens. When it was announced that 1.23 trillion rials (US$ 29.2 million) had been embezzled, it was forgotten shortly after. Later, the numbers cited were even higher, 30 trillion rials, which turned into an ordinary event. These events are turning into jokes. We use them to make others laugh. We have even lost our sensitivity with respect to murder and other heinous crimes. They sentenced a young man to eight years in prison for a couple of articles on social media. Then they sent him [to the same prison ward as] murderers and rapists, where he was stabbed to death. Everybody heard the news, but it’s just a news headline and nothing more.
Power can be created wherever there is weakness. If the Islamic Republic feels strong it’s because it deems us to be weak citizens. We know they are going to frame us with different criminal cases, but we are not scared this time. The rules of the game have changed. We don’t expect Mr. Khamenei to come and say, I listened to your complaints and regret whatever I’ve done, I’ll resign. This will never happen. If you even think a single person in the government would publicly say “these are our people’s words and concerns,” you’d be delusional.
The letter’s target audience can be split into two groups. First and foremost, the Iranian people. We want them to know that the people who wrote and signed this letter are people like them. I am a simple teacher and nothing more. We’re saying if we can voice our concerns, they’ll be able to do so as well. The second audience is made up of political groups and parties, who need to leave their arrogance behind and think about the national interest. We shall be united and provide our citizens with different alternatives. People will vote and make their decision. Democracy is like rain — when it’s rainy everybody gets some. When there is democracy everybody will be happy, from monarchists to republicans.
Over the last 40 years, at all state events, people shouted: “Death to those who oppose the Supreme Leader.” We want to tell them that we oppose the Supreme Leader and they need to recognize us. The Islamic Republic has to recognize us. We are the ones who say we don’t accept the constitution and deem Mr. Khamenei to be an incapable leader.
In the letter you call for Ali Khamenei to resign. Will all the country’s problems be solved when he resigns? If not, what is the solution?
We don’t have a problem with the person. We don’t want this Supreme Leader gone and have him replaced by another one. The problem is with the [political] structure. We mention the constitutional problems in the letter. The main pillar of the regime is the Supreme Leader, so if we get rid of the pillar there won’t be much left. Some of our friends wanted to include more details about the solutions, but I told them if I want to go from A to B I need a car with no technical problems and enough fuel, with headlights that light up the 100 meters in front of me. If I go steady on the road under these circumstances, I’ll reach my destination. I don’t need to know every turn in advance. We have not talked about the ideal future structure yet. We need to move step by step. This was just the first step.
You and some of the other signatories are teachers. What role do you think Iranian teachers and laborers could have in this movement and in solving these issues?
I think the correct question to ask is: what could the role of the people be? The answer is simple. Don’t be indifferent. My friends told me, you have two children, aged 12 and five. Don’t you worry that something bad could happen to you? I told them if our fathers were responsible citizens, we would not have to be doing this today. If I won’t be a responsible citizen, tomorrow Fariborz and Freidoon will have to go on this same quest. We have civil requests and won’t back down in the face of suppression.
The Islamic Republic is not as powerful as it once was. It’s not the “golden era” of Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic], when, with a single order from him, thousands of people were killed. Sattar Beheshti was murdered in prison [in 2012] and all these years his mom has not rested, trying to avenge her son’s blood. For 10 days in 2017, in more than 100 cities in Iran, people went out to the streets and shouted the most extreme anti-regime slogans. More than 20 people were murdered, and the UN Security Council discussed the situation [in its first meeting in January 2018].
The era of suppression has passed and the regime no longer has the force to suppress. The intelligence agencies are not as terrifying as they once were. There’s not a government anymore, it’s a corrupt regime with even more corrupt intelligence agencies.
The publication of the letter coincides with the 10-year anniversary of the Green Movement. What do you see as the legacy of the Green Movement?
The legacy of that movement is disappointment with reformists and with reform. We did all we could in 1997 so that reformists would win the election. At that time, I was praised for my active role in Khatami’s campaign in Hormozgan. When he took office, he said we should expand the president’s authorities, which made us happy, waiting for a solid change to the constitution. But they were just words. When the reformists won the parliament as well, they also said they could easily change the constitution and have a new referendum. If two-thirds of parliamentarians voted for it, they could change the constitution. But the parliament did nothing. Khatami went to Tehran University and told students: “Talking about changing the constitution is treason.”
They are saying the same things now. Rouhani says the authority of the president is very limited. A parliamentarian, Mahmoud Sadeghi, said not only does the president lack authority, but parliamentarians also suffer from lack of power. [Reformist politician] Mr. Seyyed Mostafa Tajzadeh tweeted about an idea to combine the position of Supreme Leader and the president. When our friends mention these things, I tell them these are jokes and to please not take them seriously. The [people who say these things] are part of the regime and all they want is to get more for themselves. They know better than anyone that if the constitution is scrapped, there won’t be any reformists or conservatives. They’re stuck with this constitution and they don’t want it touched. If they want to change it, the first articles to change would be 176 and 177, which grant the Supreme Leader absolute power — and he will appoint anyone who is in charge of holding him accountable. Where are the people in this constitution? We published the letter now to tell the reformists: Please stop joking, your time is done.