Unemployment is the cause of all social ills, Iran’s ruler Ali Khamenei told a group of handpicked workers Saturday, while at least nine activists were arrested.

Strikes have spread in Iran this week, with workers in more than 100 businesses and plants demanding better pay and work conditions, as Iran’s economy reels under US sanctions, government mismanagement and corruption.

Khamenei, who is the ultimate authority in deciding about an agreement with the United States over Iran’s nuclear program and end sanctions, emphasized the urgency of boosting employment and ending corruption.

However, under tough financial pressures, due to US oil export sanctions, Khamenei’s call for lowering unemployment remains more of a slogan. The same applies to corruption, when under his watch the Revolutionary Guard and religious foundations have monopolized the economy and overwhelming government control has led to the emergence of embezzlements and nepotism by officials.

“I have reached the conclusion that the cause of most [social] ills is unemployment. Addiction, corruption, crime, divorce, and the destruction of families are related to unemployment,” the 83-year-old autocrat said.

His enumeration of Iran’s deep social problems was also a rare admission by Khamenei, who usually praises the achievements of the Islamic Republic, ruled by him for 34 years of its 44-year existence.

While praising workers as the backbone of the country and insisting that they are loyal to the regime, his security forces Friday arrested at least nine labor and teachers activists.

A group of teacher activists arrested in Iran on April 28, 2023

Several teachers’ union activists were meeting at the home of their spokesman Mohammad Habibi when security agents stormed the residence and arrested them. They were taken to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where most political prisoners are kept.

Habibi himself was arrested April 5, just two months after he was released from a previous detention.

He has been persecuted for years, with agents storming his home in 2017 and confiscating his electronic devices. In recent years, he has been twice terminated from his teaching position under the pretext of “unjustified leaves of absence,” while he was in prison.

Khamenei railed against corruption in his speech, saying that if an official does not have the courage to fight corruption, he also does not have will to stand up to “foreign bullies.”

In another rare admission, he said some workers’ protests were justifiable. “Protests against late payment of wages, protests against wrong privatization…these are helpful in informing the regime and the government,” about the prevailing condition in the country.

Khamenei not only faces labor unrest, but also the wrath of many Iranians who see him as ultimately responsible for rising poverty and more restrictions on individual freedoms. Protesters who occupied the streets in 2022 often shouted harsh slogans and even insults at Khamenei.

His hardliner loyalists who control all three branches of government since 2021 have proven inept in making a dent in the economic crisis and the rising political opposition to the regime. Khamenei must know by now that his regime’s legitimacy has been badly damaged.

In an attempt to show that he is on the side of ordinary people, Khamenei said not paying wages on time “is oppression of workers.” Similarly denying them health insurance and job security are also acts of oppression.

He praised the workers for their loyalty to the regime, but reiterating his usual argument about a foreign conspiracy, he said that “foreign ill-wishers” tried to pit the workers against the regime, “but they stood against that, and this is very important.”

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