Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a speech to military commanders Wednesday did not mention ongoing protests that can pose a serious challenge to his rule.
Khamenei spoke for the second time in a week despite earlier reports that he had a serious health issue and was under observation by doctors. This time the occasion was the 42nd anniversary of Iraq’s sudden invasion of Iran in September 1980 that led to a bloody and destructive 8-year war.
According to what government-controlled media has reported about his speech, Khamenei solely spoke about the “Sacred Defense” as the Islamic Republic calls the Iran-Iraq war and did not utter even one word abou anti-regime protests that started last Friday.
The trigger for the sudden wave of unprecedented unrest was the killing of a 22-year-old woman who received fatal brain injuries in the custody of the dreaded religious police, apparently for her insufficient hijab. Khamenei also ignored the tragic death that led to the current protests.
Many pundits and politicians had been warning for months about increasing discontent amid both economic hardships and a tightening of Islamic lifestyle limitations particularly on women.
The fact that Khamenei did not mention the protests could be a sign that the regime is baffled by the ferocity of the protests and the apparent lack of fear among the people who confronted police, anti-riot forces and Basij paramilitary agents in the streets on Monday and specially on Tuesday.
People posted many videos on social media showing how crowds overpowered government forces and forced them to retreat. In many instances, when the protesters identified a government agent or caught a policeman off guard, they attacked and assaulted them without fear.
For reasons that are not clear the clerical-military regime has so far not used overwhelming military force against protesters that took over streets in more than 40 cities and town Tuesday evening and well into the night.
In November 2019 when people came out to protest a government decision to suddenly raise gasoline prices, the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) almost immediately led military, paramilitary and intelligence agents to mercilessly open fire on the people, killing at least 1,500 in in less than a week .
Since then, the regime has become somewhat weaker because of a long-running economic crisis triggered by United States’ sanctions as well as its own corruption and mismanagement. People’s patience and hopes for an improvement have dwindled and the IRGC has also been weakened by signs of an inability to confront foreign infiltrations.
Its feared intelligence organization was reshuffled in June as saboteurs killed several key members of its secret networks, leaving the all-powerful organization publicly embarrassed.
Some also believe that the regime is holding back because President Ebrahim Raisi is currently in New York, attending the UN General Assembly.
It is possible that the regime finds it hard to act decisively in a dangerous situation and perhaps hopes that the protests would eventually die down. It is also possible that it is preparing for a military crackdown, which can start at any moment.
But Khamenei was much more decisive in 2019, when he gave a speech as the killing was taking place and signaled to his forces to show no mercy, accusing protesters of being foreign agents and hoodlums.
Iran’s 83-year-old ruler also did not mention foreign policy or the nuclear negotiations with the US in his Wednesday speech. He has been conspicuously silent about the matter in recent months as his diplomats have engaged in a long series of talks lasting 17 months, as his other entities are expanding Iran’s nuclear program.