Iran's foreign minister is being mocked after saying on state TV that Iranians are responsible for choosing the country's path.
Mohammad Javad Zarif was responding to a question about economic hardships facing Iranians in the context of recently reimposed U.S. sanctions and a plunging national currency that has increased the cost of many goods.
Iran has seen sporadic protests since late last year over rising prices, unemployment, and frustration with the country's clerically dominated leadership.
“Maybe our young generation tells themselves that there are so many countries in the world that enjoy good ties with other countries and [think those countries'] people don't face pressure," the moderator asked Zarif in an apparent allusion to sanctions, saying he was asking questions on behalf of young people, on August 26. But when it comes to Iran, the moderator added, the country's foreign ministers frequently cite "international pressure."
Zarif, who played a key role in negotiating Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, responded by suggesting that the reason is that "we have ourselves chosen to live in a different way."
The comments prompted a flurry of angry reactions by Iranians, who listed issues ranging from a sluggish economy, to sanctions, the so-called hijab law that requires women to cover their hair and body in public, and a lack of freedom to express their frustration at life in Iran.
Using the hashtags #I_didnt_choose and #We_didnt_choose, some Iranians challenged Zarif’s interpretation of life in Iran.
“Unfortunately, #I_didnt_choose this way of life wherein for years others like Zarif have been talking, thinking, and deciding on my behalf,” tweeted Iran-based Banafsheh Jamali. “I dare say that 97 percent of the way I live today has not been my choice. Religion, my type of clothing, my way of life, and many other things. And I really hate this way of life."
Echoing such criticism, Tehran-based Shima Tadrisi listed some of the institutionalized discrimination against women in Iran, including regarding divorce and inheritance or prohibitions on women traveling abroad without the permission of a male relative.
“As a woman #I_didnt_choose to be involved in only 16 percent of my country’s economic participation, to be [considered a] second sex, wear the hijab, not be able to stand as a candidate in presidential elections, [be banned] from stadiums,” Tadrisi tweeted.
She added that she didn’t choose to spend the best years of her life or to die under the clerically dominated republic's “backward rules.”
“Mr. Zarif, we aren't even allowed to choose our clothing. One month per year, we are not allowed to drink water in public. What choice?” Shahin Milani tweeted, in references to the dress code and the compulsory observation of strict Islamic practice during the month of Ramadan, when even Iranians who don’t fast can be punished for eating or drinking in public.
Iran has spent decades under U.S. and UN sanctions over issues that include its rights record, alleged support for international terrorism, its missile program, and its disputed efforts to build a nuclear weapons capacity.
U.S. President Donald Trump's recent decision to walk away from the 3-year-old nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), and punish international companies that continue to do business with Iran, has forced many companies to pull out of Iran.
But Tehran-based journalist Masud Kazemi blamed the Iranian establishment for the country’s economic troubles.
“Mr. Islamic Republic, the current economic situation that you have created for the people through your choices is deplorable. These economic conditions have put my personal life on the verge of collapse. Thank you for this 40-year-achievement," Kazemi said, adding that “shame is a virtue.”
“Believe me, #I_didnt_choose international isolation and humiliation of my countrymen waiting in the lines of embassies [for visas],” said reform-minded researcher Hassan Assadi Zeidabadi, who spent several years in prison in Iran in connection with her human rights activities.
Some used the occasion to highlight official discrimination against religious minorities like the Baha’is, who are persecuted because of their faith, which is not recognized in Iran’s Islamic constitution.
Baha’is living in Iran have frequently been banned from higher education, seen their businesses shut down, or otherwise been pressured over their religious beliefs.
“I did not choose to face pressure from your establishment, I did not choose to be expelled from university, I didn’t choose to be deprived from my most basic rights, my father didn’t choose it either, neither did my friends," Atish said via Twitter. "This life has been imposed on us by you and the Islamic establishment."
One user challenged the authorities to hold a referendum on the direction of the country, whose elections are characterized by strict vetting of candidates and other tactics to exclude perceived dissidents.
“I didn’t choose, [and] my father who did expressed regret a hundred times a day. If you don’t agree, organize a referendum [on the future of the Islamic Republic]," user Mori said.
Zarif has been criticized in the past for defending Iran's strict dress code and claiming that Iran does not jail people for their opinions.
President Hassan Rohani earlier this week appeared before parliament to defend his government's economic policies.
A longtime senior member of the ruling establishment, Rohani won the presidency in 2013 and was reelected in 2017 on pledges of reforms that include improved rights for women and an easing of censorship, in addition to more open trade and political relations with the outside world based in part on hopes of relaxed sanctions once a nuclear deal was in place.
Conservatives dominate virtually all elected and unelected branches of Iran's government, and hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say in all political and religious matters.
Khamenei met with Rohani and his cabinet on August 29, according to Reuters, which quoted Iranian state media as urging officials to "work hard day and night to resolve the problems" and make the country "strong in the economic field."