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President and Supreme Leader Ring In New Year With Divergent Messages

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during President Hassan Rouhani's inauguration in August 2017.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during President Hassan Rouhani's inauguration in August 2017.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani joined fellow Iranians in celebrating Norooz, the Persian New Year, March 20 with divergent New Year’s wishes to the Iranian people.

Khamenei rang in the Persian year of 1397 by extolling the “sweet achievements” of the past year, including participation in the presidential and municipal elections, as well as officially sanctioned demonstrations. He said Iran had successfully “turned regional threats into opportunities” this past year, and promised more support for Iranian businesses in the new year.

Referring to the widespread anti-establishment protests that took place in late December and early January, Khamenei once again attributed the unrest to “enemies’ plans.” He went on to characterize the unrest as “one of the bitter events” of the past year, along with the November 12, 2017 earthquake that left hundreds dead and thousands injured.

During the protests, which spread to nearly 100 Iranian cities, protesters shouted slogans against the leaders of the Islamic Republic, and some even called for the restoration of the monarchy. Iranian authorities responded with a heavy hand, resulting in at least 25 dead and more than 5,000 detained.

Khamenei conceded that the economy and protection of “people’s livelihoods” remain challenges.

Dubbing this year the “year of supporting Iranian products,” Khamenei said “Everyone should endeavor, everyone should work hard, and the pivotal point is national production.”

While Khamenei encouraged hard work as a solution to Iran’s economic woes, many analysts and former senior officials, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have said Iran’s economic problems stem in large part from the involvement in the economy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) perceived as corrupt, especially its dealings with numerous religious and charitable foundations directly controlled by the Supreme Leader.

In his recent open letters to Khamenei, Ahmadinejad has listed eight of these so-called “foundations,” which he says hold 700 trillion rials (roughly $185 billion) in assists but do not publish their financial reports.

In his New Year’s message, President Rouhani promised more transparency and stressed the need for “freedom for young people and their continued access to information.”

The Internet is heavily censored in Iran, and some social media apps like Facebook and Twitter are blocked.

Rouhani insisted his government is committed to “boosting employment, freedom, and happiness for the youth.” He said freedom in cyberspace can help fight corruption.

In recent days, Iran’s conservatives have been pushing for more cyber restrictions, including blocking the popular social media app Telegram.

Rouhani did, however, echo Khamenei’s economic message, and promised a big push against poverty. But even with the minimum wage set to increase this year, the income of the average worker will still be less than half way is needed to sustain a family of four, according to analyses.