TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian university students in a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered harsh criticism of the country’s direction, local media reported Tuesday, an unusually frank discussion showing the concerns many feel over the Trump administration’s pullout from the nuclear deal with Tehran and Iran’s battered economy.
One student in particular offered a list of problems confronting Iran and directly asked Khameni, whom hard-liners view as second only to God, how he would respond to them.
While concerns regularly come up during the annual audiences that Khamenei holds during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, the fact that these criticisms received publicized attention in Iran’s tightly controlled media is telling. Already, farmers and truck drivers have been protesting and on strike in the country.
At Monday’s audience with Khamenei, university student Sahar Mehrabi read a speech in which she recounted the “numerous crises” now facing the country.
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Among them, she listed Iran’s “intensified systematic inequality in social classes, the decline of public trust and the increase in environmental crisis and shantytowns.” She also mentioned high unemployment, the challenges faced by minority groups and the way hard-line element’s within Iran’s judiciary and security system “fabricate security cases in a delusional way” to target activists.
“What answer does Your Excellency have in response to questions, criticisms and protests,” she asked.
In his own speech, Khamenei acknowledged many of the shortcomings, saying that “removing problems is not as easy” as the students expect. He said one solution can be the “injecting of revolutionary, motivated and committed young people into the governmental apparatuses.”
“Growth of the society requires freedom of expression,” Khamenei said.
Khamenei’s Twitter account also acknowledged the criticisms.
The pro-reform Mardomsalari daily newspaper published Mehrabi’s remarks and other websites also carried her full speech, which included a call for deepening democracy in Iran.
Iran is a Shiite theocracy overseen from the top by Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state. However, it also holds regular elections for its presidency and parliament. Its politics include everything from hard-liners who recently set alight a paper American flag on the floor of the parliament in protest over the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, to reformists who want to see change in Iran’s government.
However, bubbling frustrations over the economy and other issues led to nationwide protests in December and January that saw violence and anti-government chants. Khamenei has advocated recognizing peaceful protests.