The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, attended a meeting with MPs yesterday in which he had many things to say. From over-legislation to the budget deficit, malnutrition in Africa to God Almighty, the 83-year-old offered sweeping opinions on an array of topics in a speech running to 6,884 words in Persian, which probably will have taken around an hour to recite aloud. But despite the wave of public grief and anger that has crashed through Iran over the collapse of the Metropol Tower on Monday, on that matter he had nothing to offer at all.
The disaster in Abadan, Khuzestan has drawn widespread attention to the lack of resources for search and rescue operations, including debris removal equipment, afforted to the Red Crescent and others. The incident itself was blamed to a large extent on corrupt local authorities having allowed the huge commercial complex to be thrown up dangerously, in violation of a litany of safety regulations.
Khamenei's silence spoke volumes. He also failed to address the repeal of subsidies and state-induced food price hikes that pushed desperate Iranians to join anti-government demonstrations this month. Instead, he backed Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf - a shady and corrupt former mayor of Tehran who presided over many illegal housing scandals in the capital - who had been reelected as speaker of parliament, a role that in Iran carries significant power, on the same day.
The insensitivity was staggering. A few hours after Khamenei's official comments were published, people once again took to the streets to protest.
Rubbing Salt in the Wound
Khamenei’s speeches make the news periodically, usually because of what he says, and sometimes because what he does not. His silence on the collapse of the Metropol's Tower 2 was deafening. The Supreme Leader did issue a message of condolence after the 17-storey Plasco building collapsed in 2017 in Tehran, and 10 days later he sent another message praising the firefighters. This time, the political considerations were different.
Khamenei has been silent about other avoidble calamities before, such as the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 by the Revolutionary Guards in January 2020. The Metropol omission was all the more obvious because in the same speech, he waxed lyrical about the ending of the siege of Abadan in the Iran-Iraq war. The border province of Khuzestan was among the worst-hit by air raids in the conflict of 1980 to 1988, and reconstruction was never completed.
Elsewhere in the speech, despite the fact that he regularly claims to avoid involving himself in politics, Khamenei gave a ringing endorsement for the re-election of deeply divisive ex-Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf as speaker of parliament. Without specifying what he meant, he praised the "important work" of the legislature during Ghalibaf's two-year tenure and said it had behaved according to the principles of "the revolution".
Apart from the endless housing scandals and flogging public land to the Revolutionary Guards, the Plasco building disaster had occurred during while Ghalibad was Mayor of Tehran. It led to calls by the reformists on Ghalibaf to resign, which naturally he did not.
The fact that the Metropol collapse took place on Iran's border could be a contributing factor to the Supreme Leader ignoring it. But Khamenei has historically paid attention to events outside of Tehran and the main religious hubs, travelling to far-flung locations struck by earthquakes, for example. and has traveled to places hit by earthquakes.
When Plasco building collapsed, some imagined it as a precursor to the collapse of the Islamic Republic. The same allegry is now being perceived in the wreckage of thge Metropol building. The disaster has variously been held up for comparison with the 1978 Cinema Rex fire in Abadan, when up to 470 people perished in a terrorist attack, and with 9/11 (the Metropol comprised two central towers). The former triggered the 1979 Islamic Revolution, ending monarchic rule in Iran.
Notable Silences by Khamenei
On July 15, 2009, the Caspian Airlines Flight 7908 from Tehran to Yerevan, Armenia, crashed near the village of Jannat Abad outside the city of Qazvin in northwestern Iran. All 153 passengers and 15 crew members were killed. Eight members of Iran’s national junior judo team and two coaches were among the dead.
The crash occurred around a month after the disputed 2009 presidential election that waved Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into a second term, and sparked a wave of sustained pro-democracy protests. Then, too, Khamenei’s silence about this accident enraged people all the more.
Ten years later, Khamenei reacted to the downing of the Ukrainian Flight 752 in the same manner. A few days after the incident, he delivered a lengthy speech about a missile attack outside Iran in retaliation for the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani on January 3. But he made no mention of the downing of Flight 752 that same week.
Perhaps to remedy the oversight, a few hours later Khamenei issued a short message that made things even worse. In that missive, he glibly suggested an equivalence between the victims of the plane disaster and people killed in the crush during funeral ceremonies for Ghasem Soleiomani. "The painful and the sad incident of the death of a group of our dear countrymen during the farewell ceremonies for our outstanding martyr and also the disastrous of the crash of the passenger plane and the death of Iranian and non-Iranian passengers," he wrote, "are the two sad moments of this day."
Silence on Ending Subsidies
In his speech, the Supreme Leader also skirted recent protests over the end of food subsidies. By contrast in 2019 he had actually backed the 300 increase in gas prices that led to Iran's bloody nationwide November protests, calling on security forces to "do their duty". Then, as usual, he described the protesters as being divided into "ordinary people" and "thugs", perhaps unaware that many of the disruptive "thugs" were dispatched to the scene by his own security forces.
This time, it seems that for now at least, the Supreme Leader wishes to completely drown out the end of subsidies and the subsequent protests on one hand, and the causes of the Metropol disaster on the other. As of now, the 2022 protests have not spread as far as they did in November 2019 - in part due to more effective stifling of the free flow of information online - and so he may not feel obliged to say anything.
Don't Mention the War (Instigator)
In his speech on May 25, the Supreme Leader also talked about the war in Ukraine. Once again, however, he opted not to name Russia as a - one might say quite important - connected party tothe conflict. On March 1, in his first official comment on the invasion, he similarly made no mention of Russia or Vladimir Putin. Instead he blamed it on the US and “the West”.
Also without mentioning Russia’s nuclear threats over the war in Ukraine, and without a shred of irony, Khamenei remarked: “Hostile rivalries between powers, the exchange of threats between nuclear powers, increasing military activities and the existence of war in Europe, which is one of the most war-stricken regions in the world, the spread of a new disease, and the shortage of food supplies at a global level, are all factors that have brought about special circumstances in the world.”
What Nuclear Talks?
In his speech, the Supreme Leader made no mention of the talks to revive the JCPOA. Nor indeed other pressing foreign relations issues of the day. In the context of the ongoing tussle between Iran and Israel, he mentioned only the assassination of IRGC Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, asking God for the best treatment of his soul.
Khamenei is staying silent on the crucial matter of the JCPOA at a time when negotiations have stalled. This is in part because the Biden administration has now finalized a decision not to de-designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity. A few hours after Khamenei’s speech, Robert Malley, US Special Representative for Iran, acknowledged that prospects of restoring the agreement were now“tenuous at best”. “If Iran maintains demands that we go beyond the scope of the JCPOA, we will continue to reject them and there will be no deal,” he said.
Whitewashing Ghalibaf, Yet Again
Hours before Khamenei’s meeting with MPs, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf was duly elected speaker of parliament for the third year straight, even though some had predicted that he would lose his position after the so-called “Shopping-Gate” scandal. A few weeks ago, the beleagered ex-mayor and his family were pictured at Imam Khomeini Airport returning from a lavish shopping trip in Istanbul with some 20 pieces of luggage, including baby clothes, a bed and a pram for Ghalibaf’s as-yet unborn grandchild.
Even before this scandal, a leaked audio file had dealt a further blow to Ghalibaf’s already toxic reputation. The audio file, first published by Radio Farda on February 10, was a recording of a secret meeting in 2018 between General Mohammad Ali Jafari, former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, and Sadegh Zolghadr-Nia, his deputy for economic affairs. In the clip, the two talked about corrupt dealings between the Quds Force, the IRGC Cooperation Foundation and Tehran municipality. They explicitly name General Soleimani and Ghalibaf, who was then mayor, as being directly involved in the corruption.
On February 17, in response to the leaked tape, Khamenei accused the media of “mudslinging” and defended both the sainted Soleimani and the IRGC against the corruption charges, effectively ordering a reporting blackout. This naturally was to Ghalibaf's benefit.
Nobody expected Khamenei to explicitly talk about “Shopping-Gate”. But several times over he praised the acts of the current legislature under Ghalibaf's stewardship for being "revolutionary". “Some individuals did not like this description," he said, "but it was true, because the people elected the MPs for this parliament whose slogans and orientations were revolutionary."
The Supreme Leader also praised the “harmony” between the three branches after his appointment, thinly disguised as an election, of Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency. “One of the problems of this country [before] was disharmony among the three branches of the government."
For now at least, what is evident from Khamenei's omissions is that he does not want to see any disruption to this imagined "harmony". In the end, it may not be up to him.