Criticizing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is widely seen as among Iran's so-called red lines. Dozens of intellectuals, activists, and politicians have been sidelined, harassed, or jailed for challenging the man who holds the final political and religious say in the Islamic republic.
Yet earlier this week, a female student rose in Khamenei's presence to harshly criticize the state of affairs in the country, including actions by powerful bodies controlled by the Iranian leader that have been cited by critics as major barriers to reform.
Sahar Mehrabi called for "deepening democracy" in Iran in the May 28 speech, delivered at an annual Iftar gathering that Khamenei holds to celebrate the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
Mehrabi offered a list of "numerous crises" facing the country, including increasing social inequality, declining public trust, environmental problems, and discrimination against minorities. She asked Khamenei what he would do to tackle those issues.
She indirectly pointed the finger at the supreme leader, noting that the bodies under his watch are virtually untouchable. "The impossibility of conducting investigations into the work of some of the institutions under the supervision of Your Excellency, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the judiciary, the state broadcaster, and the Mostazafan Foundation" -- a reference to one of Iran's largest foundations -- "is in itself problematic," Mehrabi said.
At the meeting, Khamenei responded that while he appoints the heads of some of those powerful bodies, including the judiciary and the state broadcasters, he does not specifically manage their work. "For example, regarding the state broadcaster, I've always had and still have a critical position vis-a-vis both current and past managements," he said.
Seemingly acknowledging other problems, Khamenei added that "taking all issues into consideration, I believe the Islamic establishment has made progress in the past 40 years in all its ideals."
Mehrabi also echoed some of the positions espoused by relative moderate President Hassan Rohani, criticizing Iran's aggressive Internet censorship, pressure on the press, the arrest of students, what she described as a crackdown on women "under the pretense of guiding them," and the situation of opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, along with reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, who have been under house arrest since 2011 for challenging the Iranian establishment.
"What answer does Your Excellency have in response to questions, criticisms, and protests?" Mehrabi asked.
She suggested that the only way forward is a return to law and the country's constitution "with all its articles." "The solution is to accept the right of the people to determine their fate and to be allowed to participate in their political, social, and economic life," Mehrabi said.
Mehrabi added that no hope lies in the Iranian expat groups calling for regime change in Iran.
Regime Change Needed?
Monarchists and others have intensified their demand for an end to Islamic rule in Iran just as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed a tougher line toward Iran, including by abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers trading curbs on Iran's atomic activities for an easing of international sanctions.
Some analysts interpreted a recent speech by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which he made 12 demands on Tehran, including ending all nuclear enrichment and ending its support for proxy groups, as a return to U.S. calls for regime change in Iran.
Pompeo has said that regime change is not a U.S. aim in Iran.
In her speech, Mehrabi said the answers to Iran's problem lie "within the Islamic republic." "In our view, the solution is the deepening of democracy -- democracy based on all people, all minority, workers, teachers, students, the forgotten layers of society,... and the poor," she said.
Khamenei later added via Twitter: "I [understand] the feelings of that young person who says the situation is very bad. But I don't support her comments at all."
Mehrabi's speech was praised by an editor of the hard-line Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, as "the peak of democracy" in Iran.
Others challenged such a claim, complaining that so long as media outlets are being shuttered, students banned from studies, and state broadcasters made to reflect the views of hard-liners, there cannot be talk of genuine democracy in Iran.
Mehrabi's criticisms came amid frustration over the state of the economy, which sparked nationwide protests in December and January that quickly turned into protests against the Iranian establishment and the 78-year-old Khamenei himself.