Six days after the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, officials’ conflicting and sometimes outlandish accounts of the incident demonstrates their hopeless befuddlement. In his short message following the assassination, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei made no mention of either the United States or Israel and Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said intelligence services knew beforehand that Fakhrizadeh could be the target of a “terrorist act,” together with the location of the would-be attack. Others speculated that Iranian intelligence agencies had been infiltrated. But they all agreed on one point: the regime has failed to protect one of its most important military and nuclear assets at a location dangerously close to the country’s capital.
What is more, this assassination happened only four months after Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Al Qaeda’s Number 2 man, was gunned down on the streets of Tehran on August 7 by Israeli operatives.
Now the question being asked with increasingly regularity is this: Why are the Iranian people constantly being threatened, bullied and crushed by the regime, while the Supreme Leader and the government that he commands are powerless to face up to their foreign enemies or even protect the lives of those who are supposed to be under their protection?
On Friday, November 27, after Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in Absard, Damavand county, only 74 kilometers east of Tehran, people were waiting for Khamenei’s reaction. In January this year, after General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the expeditionary Quds Force was killed in Iraq by an American drone, the Supreme Leader promised “harsh revenge” for his death. Less than a week later, Iran launched a missile attack against an empty American military base in Iraq but it was quickly followed by the Revolutionary Guards shooting down a passenger plane over Tehran and killing the 176 innocent crew and passengers aboard.
Perhaps this time people expected Khamenei to promise revenge too, but he responded only by calling for an“investigation” and “punishment.” “All relevant administrators must be serious about putting two crucial matters on their agendas: First to investigate this crime and firmly prosecute its perpetrators and its commanders; second, to continue the martyr’s scientific and technological efforts in all the sectors where he was active,” he wrote in his short message.
Political analysts saw this as a retreat by Khamenei, specifically because it is expected that after Joe Biden is sworn in as the president of the United States the doors to negotiations will reopen.
The Iranian parliament followed Khamenei’s lead. First they made a lot of noise about restricting inspectors from the International Atomic Entergy Agency (IAEA) and even suspending Iran’s compliance with the Additional Protocol to Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP) but, two days after Khamenei’s message, parliament gave its “preliminary” approval to the general outline of a watered-down bill for increasing uranium enrichment that also provides for a two-month study of the NTP additional protocols. But even this bill was opposed by the government. Although it was considered unlikely that, after each article in the bill was examined by all members of parliament, it would be sent to the Guardian Council in its that form, it was. In a surprise move on December 2, the Guardian Council ratified the bill. However it did so with the proviso that a number of modifications be introduced. The timetable for the new bill had originally been one month, but the Council demanded that new measures, including refusal to allow IAEA inspections at short notice and resumption of enriched uranium at a purity level of 20 percent, be put in place after two months. However, if the United States agrees to review sanctions or other key aspects of the nuclear deal, and if European countries signed up to the deal fulfilled their obligations under it, these measures will not take effect.
In the same week that the assassination of its top nuclear scientist put the Islamic Republic in the news, other events kept the country in the spotlight too. Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian academic jailed since 2018, was exchanged for three Iranians who had been charged with a terrorist act in Thailand. In the same week, the trial of Assadollah Assadi, the third secretary of the Iranian embassy in Austria, and three other Iranians, started in Belgium. The four are charged with attempting to carry out a terrorist attack and face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
“Harsh Revenge” on Iran’s Civil Society
But, in social media and for political analysts, none of these events could overshadow the failure of the government to protect one of its key officials. Many on social media pointed out that not only is the government helpless to provide people with economic necessities, it cannot even keep its senior officials safe. Instead, they said, it brags about confronting the world outside its borders and it is actually taking “harsh revenge” on Iran’s civil society by taking more repressive measures at home.
Just this last week, the Iranian judiciary issued an ordinance that threatens female lawyers with disbarment if they do not wear hijab in both the courtroom but also when they appear in photographs and videos online. The targets of these threats are primarily human rights lawyers, who have always been the targets of various threats and accusations. It appears that the more the Islamic Republic is unable to secure the livelihood and the safety of its people the more it wants to suffocate its citizens and deny their rights.
Three days before Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, Khamenei broke his quarantine and attended a socially-distanced meeting of the Supreme Economic Coordination Council with the heads of the three branches of government. In the meeting, he talked about people suffering from the distressed economic situation and said the economy was Iran’s “main issue”. But, unsurprisingly, his solution was to refuse to negotiate with the United States; instead, he talked about “neutralizing sanctions and defeating them.”
At the same time, the latest issue of Hezbollah’s Line, the official weekly bulletin published by his office, was entitled “The Anxiety over People’s Livelihood”. It published some of Khamenei’s previous statements that, like before and without suggesting any solution, called for “a surge in production”.
“In both that speech and the message [he gave after Fakhrizadeh’s assassination], he addresses the regime’s top officials,” the journalist Mohammad Javad Akbarin tells IranWire. “In the first he confesses that ‘people are truly in a tight economic situation’ and asks the officials to solve the problem. In the second one he confesses that ‘one of our country’s eminent scientists in the nuclear and defense...has been martyred by brutal mercenaries’ and calls for the punishment of the perpetrators and their commanders. But in both, he himself is absent and does not answer the two basic questions: what is his role in people’s distressed economic situation? What his role in these security failures that repeatedly happen at the highest level? He is the principal policy maker of the regime but does not concede that it is his policies that have brought the country to this level of misery and lack of security.”
Akbarin believes that Khamenei treats Iranian people as if they are laboratory mice. “There is one basic difference between these two issues,” i.e., economic and security concerns. “In case of the economic crisis, he wants officials to ‘go to the heart of the problem’ and ‘seek to overcome the sanctions.’ But exactly where is this ‘heart of the problem’ that they have yet to go to? It appears there is still room for more misery and Khamenei does not mind trying it as long as he is alive. People have been the regime’s lab mice for four decades and he wants to perform tests on them so that, perhaps, it will work in the short time that he has left. It is not Khamenei and the ruling establishment that must pay the price. It is the livelihood of the people that will get more and more meager until it completely disappears.”
According to Akbarin, when it comes to the second issue, the response to international threats, Khamenei is “cautious” because here “it is about the survival of he himself and of his regime. It is no longer the question of ‘resistance economy,’ for which only the people must pay the penalty. Here he pays attention because he himself is involved. In his message after Soleimani’s assassination he wrote: ’a harsh revenge is waiting for the criminals who have his blood and the blood of other martyrs on their hands’. But nothing happened and he saw that a regime that is the product of his policies is too feeble to fulfill his empty threats. Now, in his message after the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, he just asks for the ‘the punishment of the perpetrators and their commanders.’ This is the difference between ‘resistance economy’ and ‘harsh revenge’. People pay for the first one but he might have to pay the price for the second one with his own head.”
“Back Alley Thug”
Akbarin believes that the “feebleness” of the Supreme Leader has brought him to a point where he has become what he has accused his enemies of being. “Feeble leadership means a leadership that can provide neither security nor livelihood,” he says. In 2015 Khamenei used a Persian proverb to describe Obama as a “braggart in front of strangers”, meaning people who do not know him. “Then Obama was gone and he had to deal with Trump. After the November 2019 protests, some of his critics called Khamenei ‘a back alley thug’, a ruffian who uses his blade only against defenseless and unarmed people. Now his record proves that both appellations apply to him.”
Just one year after the November 2019 protests, when hundreds were killed and at a time when domestic conflicts over negotiations with the US and sanctions are increasingly destroying the economy and the livelihoods of the Iranian people, events such as the assassination of the senior nuclear scientist is not a priority for the people. The government might try to arouse their sympathy for a victim of terrorism but when they feel the government’s axe on their necks, in terms of both the economy and when it comes to safety, they cannot find any such sympathy within themselves.
What is seen on social media these days is an example of how the people judge a leader and a government that cannot even ensure their own safety, let alone the safety and prosperity of the country. A veritable “braggart in front of strangers” and a “back alley thug”.
Also in this series:
Weekly Khamenei Report: Animal Farm, Soleimani Style, 20 October 2020
Weekly Khamenei Report: A Spider Caught in its Own Web, 11 November 2020