Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has commented on the 2022 nationwide protests several times in the past year.
Depending on the protest moods the 84-year-old has either ordered severe repressions, likening this to “cauterising a wound,” or has taken a more conciliatory tone to ease tensions.
His overall policy toward protesters has remained relatively consistent with the past, although he has employed different methods in some instances.
One notable departure from previous approaches was his issuance of a comprehensive, one-off “amnesty” order. However, the extent to which this amnesty has been effectively implemented remains unclear.
On the first anniversary of the protests yesterday Khamenei addressed a select group of people from Sistan and Baluchistan province.
Surprisingly, he made no mention of the events in this province, including the Bloody Friday incident in Zahedan on Sept. 30 last year in which security forces killed over 100 protesters on a single day.
This omission was conspicuous, as it indicated Khamenei’s avoidance of any commentary, positive or negative, about Molavi Abdulhamid, Iran’s top Sunni cleric.
Any statement from him could have been construed as an implicit confirmation of reports suggesting his involvement in efforts to discredit Abdulhamid. In the wake of Bloody Friday authorities arrested several of the 76-year-old cleric’s relatives as well as a group of other Sunni clerics in a bid to exert pressure on Abdulhamid.
Bloody Friday Reaction
Bloody Friday in Zahedan brought about a unique situation, leading to prolonged protests in this province compared to other regions.
The restive city has seen demonstrations almost every Friday since the deadliest day of the nationwide protests.
Khamenei dispatched a delegation to Zahedan which put forward several proposals, including “the release of individuals arrested for non-serious and non-substantial offences,” “taking decisive and zero-tolerance measures against criminals,” “addressing the needs of the injured,” and “granting martyr status to innocent victims, with the Martyr Foundation tasked to handle related cases.”
First Speeches: Intensifying Security Atmosphere
In his initial response to the protests on Oct. 3 last year, the leader of the Islamic Republic came to the defence of the police and Basij security force, characterising them as “oppressed."
He also launched an attack on political figures inside the country who had issued statements regarding the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
In his subsequent address following the protests on Oct. 12 Khamenei granted permission for an intensified security atmosphere and to deal sternly with the protesters.
“Some argue against a security atmosphere, and yes, we concur with that to the extent possible ... however, cultural initiatives have their place, and judicial and security measures have theirs,” he said.
On Nov. 2 Khamenei commented on student participation in the protests, acknowledging, “These are our children, and we have no problem with them. They have entered the scene driven by emotions.”
But in a meeting with the people of Isfahan the Supreme Leader used his harshest rhetoric, referring to the protesters as “wicked or misguided individuals”, adding, “Undoubtedly, this malevolence will end.”
“Those who threaten businessmen or motorists to honk their horns should be punished commensurate with their transgressions,” Khamenei said.
He allocated a substantial portion of his speech to discussing the punishment of the protesters, saying, “The judiciary is robust and, thank God, it is vigorous and should administer appropriate penalties.”
Khamenei added: “Ancient practices involved cauterising wounds that refused to heal. They would heat an iron rod in the fire until it glowed red and then apply it to the wound for healing.”
Shortly after this speech the first protester was executed.
Stance on Hijab
On Jan. 4 Khamenei addressed a group of women introduced by his website as “educated women and distinguished mothers.”
He said that “those who do not strictly adhere to hijab should not be branded as irreligious or counter-revolutionary.”
Approximately three months later, on April 4, he described removing the headscarf as “unlawful in Sharia and politics”, claiming that “enemy spy agencies are exploiting this issue.”
“The enemy approached this matter with a well-defined plan, and we must respond in kind; we should not engage in irregular and unplanned actions,” the Supreme Leader added.
These statements received widespread attention, prompting reactions from some clerics challenging Khamenei’s claim that removing the hijab was “unlawful in Sharia and politics.”
Hossein Yousefi Ashkouri, who received a death sentence in the 2000s for his remarks about the hijab (later reduced to a prison sentence), said that failing to wear the hijab cannot be termed “politically unlawful”.
“In the era of the Islamic Republic everything seems to be out of place. The rulers have used Quranic and legal terminology as instruments to advance their political, governmental, and factional objectives, causing these terms to lose their original meanings,” he told IranWire.
“Whether it’s the Quranic term ‘moharebeh’ [waging war against God] or the mandatory sharia hijab, in whatever context they are intended, none of them relates to the government and the political system,” he added.
Using Media for “Explanation Jihad”
On Jan. 9 Khamenei emphasised the significance of using the media even as he highlighted the need for taking a tough stance against protesters.
The Supreme Leader said countering the “enemy’s propaganda” cannot be achieved through force alone, and stressed the importance of engaging in “explanation jihad.”
Khamenei claimed the protests aimed to undermine the strengths of the Islamic Republic, particularly the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi.
“They sought to target our strengths,” he said. “We indeed have economic challenges and issues related to people’s livelihoods. However, can economic problems be resolved by setting fires to dustbins? Can they be resolved by engaging in street riots?”
On Feb. 15, he said: “At times people claim that the Islamic Republic is at an impasse. If this assertion holds true, a person at an impasse would naturally fall on their own; why then expend so much effort to bring them down?”
On the apparent widespread poisonings of schoolchildren Khamenei said on March 6, “This is a grave and unforgivable crime, and if anyone is found to have been involved in this incident, the perpetrators must face severe punishment.”
In April he revisited the topic of protests and schools, saying, “Riots and unrest, among other things, have an impact on school attendance. The insecurity they create on the streets and elsewhere contributes to one of the blows they inflict upon the country, making schools unsafe.”
Blaming Western Countries
In his Nowruz (Persian New Year) address in March Khamenei made only passing reference to the protests, characterising 2022 as one among many years following the Islamic Revolution, marked by a mix of challenges and achievements.
Not for the first time he attributed the protests to Western countries, claiming that “the opposite of their objectives unfolded on the ground, with the Islamic Republic prevailing over this global conspiracy, demonstrating its strength and resilience.”
Throughout his speeches Khamenei criticised domestic political figures who had addressed the protests in government circles. One of his notable reactions was his dismissal of the notion of a referendum.
On April 18, in a meeting with a group of students, he asked, “Can various issues of the country be subjected to referendums? Where in the world is this done? Must everyone participate in referendums? Can we analyse such problems? What is this?”
This segment of Khamenei’s speech, suggesting that not everyone possesses the ability to analyse complex issues, garnered significant negative attention.
In response state media sought to clarify and justify his remarks.
On June 4, while reiterating the role of Western countries, Khamenei described the protesters as “a mix of a select few people with intentions and a larger group of careless, emotionally-driven individuals, and a faction of troublemakers.”
Khamenei’s latest speech took place among the people of Sistan and Baluchistan province.
The leader of the Islamic Republic said the United States had been attempting to use issues of ethnicity and religion to provoke unrest.
He also referred to women as another focal point for US provocations, dismissing this with the Persian expression “a camel dreaming of a cottonseed”.
In his view this speech marked the conclusion of the protests in 2022. However, he told the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps forces that events of this nature, which he described as extensions of the enemies’ actions, would persist.
While the Supreme Leader continued to publicly denounce the protests and ordered the suppression of demonstrators, he displayed a degree of concern in economic fields.