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Growing Public Hatred Of Religious Leaders Unnerves Iran Regime

An increase in public protests has sounded the alarm bell for Iranian officials and clerics. But public discontent runs much deeper than discontent over wages and water. There are also signs of nostalgia for the monarchy that ruled the country before the 1979 revolution.

Growing Public Hatred Of Religious Leaders Unnerves Iran Regime

In front of the Jamkaran Mosque in Qom

Recently quoted by Iran's government news agency, IRNA, Taghi Rostamvandi, the country's deputy interior minister, addressed a subject that had long gone unspoken: "People are moving in a direction where the religious government is no longer addressing their problems." He said they may seek the solution to these in a "secular or non-religious system."

Rostamvandi told a Tehran seminar on social problems on Jan. 16 that people's interest in secular models of governance should be taken as "sounding the alarm" for the Islamic Republic.

He referred to an "increased inclination" to protest among Iranians, either through gatherings or through antisocial behavior. "In recent years, with an increase in economic and material pressures, people have gradually run out of patience." Other officials prefer to downplay the gravity of such discontent. A member of parliament for Tabriz, a city in north-western Iran, most recently attributed "93% of all significant protests in the past two years" to labor-related issues. In other words, there was no ideological component to them.

Clerics losing respect

On Jan. 13, a senior jurist from Qom in central Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Hosseini-Bushehri, said that promoting spirituality was a principal goal of the country's 1979 revolution that toppled a Westernizing monarchy. Today, he said, clerics should not be revising that goal "for material problems, and ask, 'why did we have a revolution?'." With the Islamic revolution, he said, "we proved that religion is not separate from politics."

Theology students try not to wear their clerical garb, as people will mock or insult them

But state officials and clerics know of the discontent brewing among Iranians. This awareness is the reason for the ruthless suppression of protests, which happened recently in Isfahan, central Iran, as well as the considerable sums of money being spent on propaganda against protesters and all secularizing or liberal opinions.

Another cleric teaching in Qom, Mohammadtaqi Fazel-Meibodi, recently said "people take a poor view" and "blame the clergy" for their difficulties. He also pointed out that when theology students (tollab in Persian) "go to the market to shop for something... [they] try not to wear their clerical garb, as people will mock or insult them."

More generally, he continued, clerics felt "uncomfortable" wearing their robes in public. People, he said, "mock them in taxis. They blame them for inflation and every other problem."

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praying

Iranian Supreme Leader's Office/ZUMA

Monarchy support

Faezeh Hashemi, a former legislator and daughter of a former Iranian president, said in an interview on Jan. 10 that "right now, we're doing worse things than Israel, America... and anywhere else we may denounce." She told the website Dideban-e iran that given Iran's role in the deaths of half a million Syrians, by backing the sitting president Bashar al-Asad, "we've killed a good many more Muslims than Israel."

More recently, Supreme Leader Khamenei's niece Farideh Moradkhani was arrested on her way home, apparently for praising Iran's final empress, Farah Pahlavi, on her last birthday. Her brother Mahmud Moradkhani told the Prague-based broadcaster Radio Farda that she had not been charged, but authorities had compiled a "thick dossier" of offenses, including defending political detainees.

A good many, if not all, of the protests in recent years began around specific issues like fuel prices, wages or water shortages, and quickly grew into vociferous, anti-regime demonstrations. The authorities often blame this mutation and oft-recurring slogans like "Death to the Dictator" on infiltrators. Perhaps the worst of it for them is the enduring memory of a monarchy the regime was confident it had consigned to history's trash bin.

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