Former Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif has faced criticism for attributing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's alignment with hardliners to actions taken by reformists over two decades ago.

Responding to Zarif's comments, Amir-Hossein Mosalla, chief editor of the reformist Ayat-e Mandegar bi-weekly, tweeted, "How disgraceful was the arrogance in Zarif’s recent remarks, leaked as usual! Blaming radical reformists or those advocating to limit the leader's powers instead of critiquing the dictator responsible for the status quo, is nothing but seeking a share in power?"

The remarks referred to by Mosalla were made at a private meeting with a group of citizens recently an edited recording of which was leaked to IranWire. He alleged that during the 1999 student protests, reformists sought to lead demonstrators towards Khamenei’s residence in Tehran, aiming to topple him.

“Reformists sought elimination in 1999. That is, they said they wanted to change the Constitution [to limit Khamenei’s powers] … Obviously realistic rules apply here, when you seek elimination, when you threaten someone’s existence, he will be driven to threaten your existence,” Zarif said at the meeting.

In a tweet Saturday, Zarif defended himself against critics and claimed that when making the controversial remarks he only meant “a few radical reformists” who he claimed were not even approved of by the “majority of Reformists and Reformists’ leadership”. The former foreign minister who faced constant criticism by hardliners for advocating a nuclear deal with the West, has been in political limbo since he left his post. At the same time, he is disliked by most dissidents in Iran and abroad for having relentlessly defended the regime against charges of human rights violations. They call him “white-washer in-chief” for his role in defending the Khamenei-led system.

Iran’s former foreign minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif speaking during an annual event of the Iranian Political Science Association in Tehran on March 6, 2024

Top reformist politicians and media have not yet publicly reacted to Zarif’s remarks but many including Paris-based reformist activist Taghi Rahmani, whose wife, the Nobel Peace Laureate Narges Mohammadi is in prison for her political beliefs, have taken to social media to respond to Zarif.

“In Zarif’s mind the Iranian people have no place… Khamenei pitched the system against the people,” Rahmani said in a tweet stressing Khamenei’s responsibility in creating the divide between the ruling system and people.

Expatriate political activist Ali Afshari, one of the leaders of the student movement at the time of the attack on Tehran University, alleges that it was the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) that created the rumor at the time that reformists were aiming at deposing Khamenei as Supreme Leader. “[The majority of Reformists and Khatami’s administration] had no role in organizing and managing the protests on Tehran University campus,” he wrote.

Afshari who was arrested after the incident also alleges that IRGC’s intelligence tortured him to accuse President Khatami’s chief of staff, Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, of trying to incite students to chant against Khamenei and to lead protesters towards his residence in downtown Tehran.

Others argue that Khamenei's opposition to reforms stemmed from his fear of losing power, rather than radicalism within the reformist movement, as Zarif suggested.

The protests that began at the campus of Tehran University were sparked by the closure of the reformist newspaper Salam by the hardliner judiciary’s Press Court. Protests spread to several major cities in the following days after riot police, paramilitary Basij and other vigilantes raided the campus on the evening of July 9 with many protesters demanding secular democracy.

The law enforcement was under Khamenei’s own command at the time as he had refused to grant any authority over the police to the reformist government as commander-in-chief of armed forces.

One student was thrown to his death from a rooftop and over two hundred others were seriously injured during the harsh crackdown on students in one night. Over 1,200 were arrested in the following days and several students vanished without a trace.

Following the protests, the press court shut down twenty reformist newspapers in one day and many of Khatami’s allies were persecuted and imprisoned under various pretexts in the coming months.

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