Friday, October 30, 2009

Student criticizes Khamenei at official gathering

(photos of Wednesday's event courtesy

A lone student at a gathering of the country's academic elite took the unprecedented step of criticizing Leader Ali Khamenei in his presence on Wednesday morning, according to the Office for the Preservation and Publication of the Works of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and opposition news sites.

The young man, initially called 'a mathematics student at Sharif University and a winner at the International Mathematics Olympiad' by Mowjeh Sabzeh Azadi, made his remarks after the official speakers had completed their speeches and before Khamenei was to make his address. The student has since been identified as Mahmoud Vahidnia. The gathering at Khamenei's complex in north Tehran preceded the 3rd National Conference of Young Elites.

Sharif University students news site reported that Vahidnia has been in the custody of the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards since Thursday evening. The conservative Alef web site, run by Principlist lawmaker and head of the Majlis Research Center Ahmad Tavakoli, claimed yesterday that Vahidnia was not arrested and published an interview with the Sharif University student. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is interesting to note that Alef described Vahidnia as 'a young academic elite who courageously voiced some criticisms.'

Vahidnia spoke for close to 20 minutes despite the protests of some of the spectators. As Khamenei looked on, he critiqued the state radio and television networks; the stifling security climate surrounding the press; the inability to voice criticism against the Supreme Leader; and the power structure in the country embodied by the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, according to Mowjeh Sabzeh Azadi.

The ambience at the gathering suggests that Khamenei did not expect the unscheduled speaker to voice such concerns, but that once the student had begun his criticism it would have been hard to silence him without loss of face in front of hundreds of the nation's academic elites. Khamenei has also played the part of a self-sacrificing innocent on past occasions, most famously at Tehran Friday Prayers, but his magnanimous calls of 'Well, if a few people want to attack me, let them' were always met with the wailing tears of the attendants.

Once he was at the lectern, the Sharif Univrsity student said that the previous speakers who had read from sheets of paper did not represent all the country's elites and that no one had elected them, said an individual who was present at the gathering. The eyewitness said that this first comment was greeted with applause.

Vahidnia denounced state radio-television's skewed coverage of the post-election events and the character assassination of popular figures. He reminded the participants that the head of the state media is named by the Supreme Leader. 'The radio and television networks operate under you and you name the head of the broadcaster. Either the broadcaster is acting this way according to your orders or you are not overseeing it,' said the student, according to the Voice of America. The Sharif University student also regretted the closure of opposition newspapers.

Vahidnia bluntly declared that the Leader should be open to criticism and that Khamenei's entourage had turned him into an idol, according to Mowjeh Sabzeh Azadi. An eyewitness at the event reported that the young man said, 'When you, who are a father figure, treat your opponents in a certain manner, lower-level officials display the kind of behavior that everyone knows about and everyone knows about what occurred in the prisons.'

The student added that the current power structure, including the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, is detrimental to religious democracy.

Though regime and opposition sources diverge on some of the details, the account of the events published by the Office for the Preservation and Publication of the Works of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, the Leader's personal archives, is extraordinary nonetheless.

student returns to seat
'After the last person who was programmed to express his views, the participants awaited the words of the Leader of the Revolution, but he asked the master of ceremonies, "Is there anyone left among the friends who were supposed to speak?"' wrote Khamenei's office. The master of ceremonies responded, 'With your permission, every one of the thousand people here would like to talk,' to great laughter.

At this point, several students stood up and were asked to sit back down by the organizers of the ceremony. 'But the Leader pointed to one of those young people and said, "That gentleman who was standing and was forced to sit down... You go ahead,"' according to Khamenei's office.

'The young student stood up and began speaking. Since the Leader could not hear him, he came to the lectern and, after introducing himself, began his comments. His words had a different tone compared to the previous speeches.'

'Do our radio and television networks present a true picture of the world and our country, or a false and caricature-like picture?' Vahidnia asked. 'Does state radio-television allow different opinions to defend themselves? Opinions which are criticized and even attacked in this same media outlet? Does state radio-television quote individuals and describe events in an honest and fair manner?'

The student then turned to the topic of critiquing the Supreme Leader. 'I have been reading newspapers and magazines in a serious manner for four or five years. In all this time, I cannot remember reading one article which has criticized the Leadership. Critiques of the Leader can be voiced generally or expressed in particular in the Assembly of Experts,' the student said, according to Khamenei's office. 'I feel that if this does not happen, it will lead to discord and spite. For example, a simple critical observation, because it does not find the proper place to express itself, can become malicious and unfair.'

As he had been speaking for a long time, the student asked Khamenei if he could continue, according to the Leader's personal office.

But the eyewitness who was invited to the event said that the Sharif University student had been heckled by a few Basijis throughout his comments and that someone finally handed a piece of paper to Vahidnia. After reading the note, the young man turned to Khamenei and said that he had been told his time had run out and he asked to continue. The Basijis called out a prayer and told the student to 'finish it up.'

Khamenei responded however, 'I would like you to continue. Time had already run out earlier, but you go ahead.'

Vahidnia began speaking about the way security forces had confronted demonstrators after the election. 'If we had more convincing methods and did not employ violence except when necessary, would our regime not endure better? Would our people not be more united? Because I believe that true unity, more than something which is obtained through advice, is the result of the behavior of the people towards the government and the behavior of the government towards the people.'

Once the Sharif University student had finished, several individuals stood up in protest and asked to respond, according to Khamenei's web site. The eyewitness at the event said that the student was applauded enthusiastically.

'His very words show that criticism is possible,' said one participant, according to the ayatollah's office. The Leader said, 'Put this down to the lack of time and show tolerance. God willing, God will give us the capacity to understand properly, see properly, and speak properly.'

'It was now the host's turn, and everyone impatiently awaited the Agha's words or, to better describe it, his reaction,' said Khamenei's office, using the term which means sir or gentleman, and refers to the Leader. According to the eyewitness at the gathering, Khamenei appeared somewhat disconcerted and said that he had not wanted to talk about such issues and that he would have preferred to discuss scientific and academic topics.

'In these student and university events that take place here, when I see some people not express comments that they think I don't like out of regard or respect... I am upset when they are not uttered. I am absolutely not upset when they are uttered,' said Khamenei, according to his office. 'How I wish that the opportunity existed for these things to be said, so that one could bind those pages together and open the book of utterances, so that many truths could come to light.'

The Leader said that he was also dissatisfied with some of the actions of the state radio-television, but that, as ususal, he considered fairness to be the necessary condition for healthy criticism.

But in response to the student's question about the accuracy of the state media's portrayal of the country, Khamenei while agreeing with the criticism, turned it on its head and made the strange observation that, 'The picture is incomplete. There are many noteworthy and great advances that Iranian radio and television do not show. [...] If radio-television could properly reflect the truth in the country, in the same way that the television in this or that western country can portray lies as truth by employing great experience and through artistic exploitation, the young generation would have much greater devotion to its country, its religion, and the regime of the Islamic Republic.'

And Khamenei's response to the coverage of the election was equally equivocal. 'I'm dissatisfied with many of the programs of the [state radio-television.] I was not pleased that, from March and even before, there was television coverage of some of the election campaign trips, comments that were made, demonstrations that took place, and disputes that existed.' Many observers were amazed at the extraordinary openness of the media coverage of the presidential election campaign, which reached a climax with a series of unprecedented and heated debates between the candidates. Khamenei apparently regrets the lack of censorship during those few months.

As for criticism of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei said, 'I didn't say that no one should criticize me. I welcome criticism. And, of course, people do criticize. It is not the place to explain this point. There is criticism, much criticism, not a little criticism. I receive these and understand them.'

A Basiji stood up at this point and cried out that he would like to come up and kiss Khamenei's hand, said the eyewitness at the gathering. Khamenei pulled out his kerchief and left it for him, before disappearing behind the curtain at the rear of the stage. The elite had been told that Khamenei would lead a prayer at the end of the ceremony, but his hasty departure precluded that.

According to Mowjeh Sabzeh Azadi, Vahidnia was confronted by intelligence agents after the ceremony.

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