February 21, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 801

Former Iranian Regime Officials Criticize Supreme Leader Khamenei

February 21, 2012 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 801


Two former officials in the Iranian regime recently leveled personal criticism at Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and at his despotic management of the regime. Hossein Alai, former chief of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval forces, warned Khamenei that the suppression of the Green Movement, which he had ordered, would lead the regime to ruin. Emad Afrough, a former senior Majlis member from the conservative bloc, criticized Khamenei's autocracy and the ban against criticizing his decisions. Although both Alai and Afrough emphasized that their criticism came from their concern for the regime, they were ultimately forced to recant, under pressure from regime circles, and to publicly pledge their loyalty to Khamenei.[1] Nevertheless, their statements had public reverberations in the delicate discourse over the legitimacy of criticism against Khamenei.

Emad Afrough: Khamenei Cannot Run the Country Single-Handedly

In a January 15, 2012 late-night interview for Iranian television, former conservative Majlis member Emad Afrough criticized Supreme Leader Khamenei's administration of the regime. He doubted Khamenei's decision-making abilities, claiming that he could not run the country singlehandedly. He asked why it was forbidden to criticize Khamenei's decisions, contrary the stance of the founder of Iran's Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said that a leader could even be impeached for ignoring criticism against him. Afrough said that the makeup of the Assembly of Experts, which is charged with overseeing the Supreme Leader's decisions, was unsuited to the conditions of the modern world, and called for it to be expanded to include professionals and economists, rather than only religious jurists.

Emad Afrough, former member of the Iranian Majlis[2]

Afrough also cautioned against the deepening rift between regime officials and the Iranian people, emphasizing that, notwithstanding his support for the regime, he believed the regime should demonstrate greater restraint and consideration for the rights of the individual. Following are excerpts from the interview:

"The intoxication of power, politics, and the economy has led to a growing gap [between the regime and the people]. I sense danger. If you ask me what the most important issue facing the country is, I would say that it is the growing gap between officialdom and the public. We are witnessing a gradual increase in the gap. The roiling, bustling civil and social life is growing more and more distant from officialdom…

"As I said, I am not criticizing the legitimacy [of the regime]. I'd like to emphasize that. When you asked about theo-democracy, I said it has two aspects: the democratic and the religious aspects. I defend this very strongly. The rule must be in keeping with jurisprudence. I support this absolutely, because God alone has authority over human beings. That being the case, we should have a divine rule, laws, and precepts…

"It is not necessary for us to act in an unrestrained manner and to rule without any consideration for people's rights. Let's not forget that this is the ideology of Imam [Khomeini] and of the Leader [Khamenei] himself. When we talk about "'theo-democracy",' we are saying that the legality of the regime depends upon two factors: the legitimacy of the rulers and their acceptance...

"Imam Khomeini said that if any of us wants to address questions to the leader, he has the right to do so, and the leader should respond to him. If he cannot respond, he is automatically dismissed. We should fix the [entire] mechanism, rather than placing further restrictions on a daily basis… Imam Khomeini talked about three kinds of politics: bestial politics, Satanic politics, and divine and human politics. Bestial politics have to do with livelihood and security needs. Satanic politics have to do with ploys and deceit. As for divine and human politics – these are the politics that our prophets followed. Imam Ali followed them, Imam Khomeini followed them, and the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Khamenei is following them. But there must be guarantees. A country cannot be governed by a single leader. A single person cannot rule a country."[3]

Afrough added: "As for the [Assembly] of Experts... prove to me that only jurisprudents have expertise... Our [Assembly] of Experts should [comprise] knowledgeable people, experts in law, economics, politics, and [in matters pertinent to the modern] world, as well as philosophers... If we want to export our revolution, we must be familiar with the world [around us]. The world is marching in one direction, and it is our duty to follow [this trend] attentively."[4]

Afrough also reiterated his position on February 5, 2012, in an interview with the ILNA news agency, in which he stressed that without criticism against it, the regime cannot run the country.[5]

Hossein Alai: Dictators Surround Themselves with "Lackeys and Sycophants," and Only Consider Criticism After They Are Ousted

On January 9, 2012, Hossein Alai, chief of the IRGC naval forces during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and one of the founding members of the IRGC, published an article in the daily Ettelaat, which is close to Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi Rafsanjani. The article raises questions regarding Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's 1979 ouster by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in allusion to the situation facing current Supreme Leader Khamenei. Alai implicitly compares Khamenei's rule of the country to the Shah's dictatorial rule in terms of Khamenei's uncompromising oppression of his critics, especially members and leaders of the Green Movement, which Alai warns may cost the Supreme Leader his position. Following are excerpts from the article:

Hossein Alai, former IRGC naval forces commander[6]

"...The following are questions that the Shah [might have asked himself] after he fled [Iran], but they can provide an important, useful example for others as well:

"Would the problem [of protests] not have come to an end had I permitted the protestors to hold nonviolent rallies, and had I not accused them of partisanship, and had I not made a show of force against them on the street? Would I not have reached a better result had I ordered my troops not to fire on protestors, but rather to calm them in a rational and intelligent manner?

"Would the situation have forced me to flee the country had I opened the door to negotiation and dialogue, instead of imprisoning some of the [country's] senior figures in their homes, banishing others to remote cities, and incarcerating political activists? Would I have to now [warn of the danger] of foreign elements [i.e. the U.S. and the West] had I not blamed the people of being incited by [those same] foreign elements, thus offending them? Would I not have remained in power longer if, instead of accusing my opponents of undermining national security, I had consented to the existence of opponents, and even legalized their [activities] and granted them rights?

"Naturally, dictators grant themselves the right to rule the people forever, and they do not consider these questions as they sit in their palaces, surrounded by lackeys and sycophants. They prefer to consider these questions [only] after they are forced to flee, like [the late Libyan leader Mu'ammar] Qadhafi, who called his opponents mice and insects..."[7]

Khamenei Associates: Alai – An Enemy Collaborator

In response to these statements, Khamenei's associates attacked Alai, maligning him and accusing him of collaborating with the enemy. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the daily Kayhan, which is close to Khamenei, said that "the collaborator" Alai had published his article in service of the enemies of the regime, noting that it had indeed been well-received by Iran's enemies and by regime opponents.[8] Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi said that Alai's article pleased the enemies and harmed the regime "more than anything that the infidel American enemy could have done to us."[9] Majlis National Security Council Deputy Chairman Mohammad Esmail Kothari said that Alai has been associated with reformist elements since the early days of the revolution.[10] On January 14, 2012, regime supporters held a violent protest outside Alai's home in Tehran. A dozen IRGC officials, including Deputy Commander of the Al-Qods Force, Esmail Qaani, published a letter criticizing Alai.[11] On the same day, the Fars news agency criticized Ettelaat for publishing Alai's article.[12] In addition, slogans were sprayed on the walls of his home, including a death threat.[13]

Slogans spray-painted on Alai's home, including "Death to opponents of the Rule of the Jurisprudent"[14]

Leading Friday prayers in Mashhad, Experts Assembly member Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda attacked Emad Afrough, saying: "On the program [on which Afrough was interviewed], criticism was leveled at the regime, which is completely inappropriate, and... which causes the people to doubt the principles of the Islamic regime."[15] Majlis members called for steps to be taken against the official Iranian broadcasting service IRIB for airing the Afrough interview.[16]

Support for Alai, Afrough Among Moderate Conservatives

Two high-ranking moderate Majlis members, Ahmad Tavakkoli and Ali Motahari, who are associated with the moderate-conservative camp,[17] defended Afrough and Alai. Tavakkoli condemned the attacks on Afrough and called "for responding to his academic comments in an academic discussion." Regarding Alai, he said that although he himself disagreed with Alai's implied comparison between the deposed shah and Supreme Leader Khamenei, the physical attacks against Alai, carried out in the name of defending the Rule of the Jurisprudent, were unwarranted because Alai was, after all, a regime loyalist. He added that threatening his safety and the safety of his family were an unnecessary measure that harmed the prestige of the regime.[18] Ali Motahari likewise condemned the attacks on Alai and his family, and expressed concern for the regime's restriction of freedom of expression.[19]

Gholam-Ali Rajaee, an Iran-Iraq War veteran, defended Alai on his blog. He called him "a source of pride for Iran and Islam," and claimed that circles in the regime "have not yet understood that words should be met with words, rather than with force." He asked: "Does [Supreme] Leader [Khamenei] see himself as being above criticism?... If so, then the red lines in the post-Imam [Khomeini] period have been substantially narrowed... There is no doubt that various segments of society have some criticism for [Supreme] Leader [Khamenei] and even for the conduct of Imam [Khomeini]." He warned that "a society and a regime that cannot tolerate Hossein Alai and his ilk... will become history, and nothing will remain of them."

Rajaee complained that Khamenei's associates consider criticism "an unpardonable crime," even when it comes from officials like Rafsanjani.[20] He called on the regime to open the public arena to criticism, and said that it should praise Alai for his statements, in order to show the Iranian public that there is, indeed, an atmosphere of freedom in the country. Rajaee criticized the regime's narrowmindedness, manifested in recent years by the persecution of intellectuals like Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, who were forced to flee Iran. He also mentioned that the regime had held its own support marches following the election crisis of 2009, and warned it "not to underestimate the sentiments of the people."[21]

Asr-e Iran: Attacking Regime Critics Serves Only Regime Opponents

In an article published January 18, 2012, the moderate-conservative website Asr-e Iran warned that the violent response to Afrough and Alai, whom it called "people from within the regime" and "our men," was damaging and dangerous to the regime, since it helped spread their criticism and showed the world that the regime was weak and could not bear internal criticism. Citing concern for the fate of the regime, the website called upon it to allow more freedom of expression in the media, because this would ultimately strengthen it. Following are excerpts from the article:

"[Criticism of Afrough and Alai] shows that it has become significantly more difficult to hear different voices in our society. If the circumstances of our society [allowed] voicing and receiving [criticism], the response to that criticism would have taken the form of speeches and articles, instead of threats and destruction. Those who criticize the critics in a negative way do [our enemies] a great service by helping to spread [these critics'] ideas and proving them right.

"[In the early days of the revolution,] IRIB allowed complete freedom by letting people like Noureddin Kianouri and Ehsan Tabari [senior officials in the Tudeh communist party], or Farrokh Neghadar [an official in the leftwing Fedayan-e Khalq organization], appear on national television and debate the Ayatollahs [Mohammad] Beheshti and Mesbah-Yazdi. Unfortunately, nowadays, people like Emad Afrough are not tolerated, and his name will probably be added to the unwritten blacklist of people that IRIB officials will never [again] dare invite.

"In the early days of the revolution, had the [authorities] censored people like Kianouri instead of giving them a platform, many in the public would have thought that he and his ilk were being distanced due to the complete logic of their words and would have joined them... When the national media allowed freedom of thought, and let the public judge among various opinions, the people would know right from wrong."

Televised political debate in Iran, 1981[22]

"The wave of threats and destruction that immediately descend upon anyone who deviates from the clichés [i.e. the regime line] is despicable and ill-advised for the regime. The regime, whose slogan is 'Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic,' should grant complete freedom of expression, and respond to ideas raised with [its own] uninhibited criticism...

"Those who express sorrow over every dissenting voice, who punish the speaker in every possible manner, and who turn him into lesson for others do not realize that they are implementing the worst anti-regime propaganda. They give the world the idea that the regime is so weak that it can be harmed by a few words or critical articles, despite the fact that the reality is vastly different."[23]

*Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project


[1] Fars (Iran), January 17, 2012; Tabnak (Iran), January 14, 2012.

[2] (Iran), February 2, 2012.

[3] See MEMRI -TV Clip No. 3276, "Former Iranian MP Emad Afrough in Rare Criticism of Khamenei on Iranian TV: "A Country Cannot Be Governed by a Single Leader," " January 15, 2012,

[4] Fars (Iran), January 17, 2012.

[5] ILNA (Iran), February 5, 2012.

On January 24, 2012, Afrough said that, following his criticism there were plans for critical statements, a demonstration against him was planned to take place outside his home, but that the plans were was ultimately thwarted due to intervention by elements within the regime. ILNA (Iran), January 24, 2012.

[6], November 1, 2011.

[7] Ettelaat (Iran), January 9, 2012.

[8] Kayhan (Iran), January 16, 2012. In response, Alai called on Shariatmadari to respect the public's feelings and to stop calling those who disagreed with him "collaborators." ", January 17, 2012.

[9], January 16, 2012.

[10], January 28, 2012. The conservative website Basir News called Alai a "hyena." ", January 10, 2012.

[11] Sharq (Iran), January 15, 2012.

[12] Fars (Iran), January 14, 2012. On January 17, 2012, Ettelaat published a clarification disclaimer in which it washed its hands of the content of the article, which it claimed that the content of the article claiming that it did not reflect the opinion of the newspaper. daily's opinion. Ettelaat (Iran), January 17, 2012.

[13] Sharq (Iran), January 15, 2012.

[14] Sharq (Iran), January 15, 2012.

[15] IRNA (Iran) January 20, 2012.

[16] (Iran), January 18, 2012. Ali Mozafari, a judiciary official, said that even in cases when there is a contradiction between the law and Khamenei's ruling, one must defer to the latter. ISNA (Iran), February 6, 2012.

[17] It should be mentioned that their nomination to the Majlis was validated after they appealed an initial rejection of candidacy.

[18] Mehr (Iran), January 18, 2012.

[19] Eftab (Iran), January 18, 2012.

[20] Rafsanjani wrote a letter of criticism to Khamenei before the elections. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 524, "Elections in Iran – Part III: Tensions Peak in Final Days of Campaigns", June 11, 2009. Elections in Iran – Part III: Tensions Peak in Final Days of Campaigns

[21], January 22, 2012.

[22] From right to left: Habibollah Peyman (former leader of the Socialist party in Iran), Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, host (name unknown), Noureddin Kianouri, and Farrokh Neghadar. (Iran), January 18, 2012.

[23] (Iran), January 18, 2012.

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