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Challenging Iran's Supreme Leader: Letters To Khamenei

Iranian author and journalist Mohammad Nourizad
Journalist and filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad has repeatedly defied one of Iran's most sacred taboos.

Nourizad, who used to be a columnist for the ultra-hardline "Kayhan" daily which is said to reflect the views of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has now challenged Khamenei in open letters in which he has accused him of mistreating Iranians and isolating the country. Nourizad has recently called on religious and political figures to join his efforts and challenge the Iranian leader in "polite," but frank and open letters.

The call has been answered by a number of Iranians inside and outside the country, including influential Iranian religious scholar Abdolkarim Soroush, who in a December 22 letter warned Khamenei that his rule would be over soon. Some observers believe the unprecedented campaign could deal a blow to Khamenei's stature as the ultimate authority in the country.

Nourizad used to be one of Khamenei's most ardent supporters. In his own words, Nourizad has credited himself with writing more articles praising the supreme leader than any other journalist. The disputed 2009 presidential vote and the crackdown that followed, with Khamenei's blessing, turned Nourizad into one of the supreme leader's staunchest domestic critics.

Nourizad reacted to the repression of citizens protesting against the reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad by posting three letters critical of Khamenei on his blog.

Letters From Prison

In the letters, Nourizad blamed Khamenei for the violence and said he had surrounded himself with "ignorant" friends and advisers.

The letters landed him in jail. He was reportedly beaten and held in solitary confinement but he refused to be silenced. He issued more letters to Khamenei from Tehran's notorious Evin prison, where he went on hunger strike to protest prison conditions.

"Which people do you consider yourself a leader of?" he wrote in one of his letters issued from prison and posted on Iranian websites. "I do not see many people with you. Leadership over a small number of people is not something to be proud of."

Mohammad Nourizad
Mohammad Nourizad
In the past two years Nourizad, who was earlier this year released from jail on furlough, has written 15 open letters to Khamenei. Nourizad says the letters help increase awareness about human rights abuses and repression in the country and also raise expectations.

Nourizad says he's not willing to stop despite the 3 1/2-year prison term, 50 lashes, threats, and pressure by security forces that he has already suffered for his actions. He says he's ready to pay an even greater price.

"Of course I am worried, I'm a human, I have family, I'm concerned about the well-being of my family," Nourizad says. "Being worried is natural but when I look at myself, I realize that I have nothing to lose. I do [what I think it's right] but the concern is here; for example, whenever our bell rings, my children become worried."

Revolutionary Threats

Last week a YouTube video surfaced on an Iranian hard-line website in which Nourizad was accused of writing letters to Khamenei to gain fame. Nourizad said the video included footage of a documentary he was producing about his time in jail. He said the security forces had gained access to the footage by confiscating his personal computer.

Nourizad told RFE/RL's Radio Farda he believes those threatening him are members of the Revolutionary Guard's intelligence unit.

In a recent encounter he said he was warned by two plainclothes agents who stopped his car and told him they would make his wife and children mourn for him. "They entered my car and told me officially: 'We will pulverize you and we will discredit you in 100 websites. Zip your mouth,'" Nourizad said. "They meant don't write anymore. I resisted."

Ali Afshari, a Washington-based political analyst and a former student leader, is among those who have praised Nourizad's initiative.

"The rise of public criticism of the supreme leader has the potential to normalize his position and change the traditionally high punishment for those who protest against him. This will result in lessening the price of criticizing [Khamenei], which would seriously hurt the power structure in Iran," Afshari wrote in a recent analysis posted on Radio Farda's website.

Prominent analyst Reza Alijani, who recently fled Iran, says Nourizad's letters can influence some of his former colleagues within the powerful Revolutionary Guards.

"Generating these letters can have an impact if they are correctly distributed and reach the right audience. At the same time, even now, it enlightens people about the political climate," Alijani says. "It highlights the main problems, pushes boundaries, and this is made possible by courageous and honest people such as Nourizad and others who have done the same."

Breaking Taboos

Nourizad has so far posted -- on Facebook and a website dedicated to his campaign, a dozen letters by journalists and others who, like him, have crossed the line of criticizing the Iranian leader.

A member of the opposition Green Movement writes that, in his view, Khamenei is the loneliest person in Iran and a hated figure.

"If you don't believe me, block the illegitimate income sources of the Revolutionary Guards brothers just for one day," he writes. "You will then see how those who used to wag their tails for you will show you their teeth."

There are other taboo breakers, including a 15-year-old citizen who in his letter asks Khamenei a number of tough questions:

"Dear leader, why are [opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi] under house arrest? Because -- unlike you, who said there was no fraud [in the 2009 vote] -- they said there was vote-rigging?

"Dear leader, why are there hundreds of Iranians in your prisons? Because they have a different opinion than you?

"Mr. Khamenei, why do you filter the websites of those opposed to you?

"How do you justify the ruthless killing of innocent Syrians and your support for Bashar al-Assad?

"Why are there no friends left for us in the world?"

Khamenei has remained publicly silent about the campaign and Nourizad's letters. But despite the silence, Nourizad says he thinks the leader has been reading his numerous complaints.

"Certainly he reads them. When you write a confidential letter to someone, you address only that one person. But when you publish it publicly, that one person becomes one of the tens of thousands, one of the millions" who read the letter," Nourizad says.

Nourizad says that if Khamenei "reads the letters, his responsibility is doubled. If he doesn't read them, then it's a tragedy."

RFE/RL's Radio Farda broadcaster Vahid Pourostad contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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