IRAN: Concern over fate of star student who spoke out to Khamenei [Updated]
It was near the end of a meeting Wednesday between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a group of university students when the man who is Iran's highest political and spiritual authority asked if there were any other questions.
What followed was an extraordinarily candid 20-minute speech by the student, later identified as national math Olympiad winner Mahmoud Vahidnia, in which he publicly and explicitly criticized Khamenei for the government's conduct in the unrest that followed Iran's June 12 elections.
Vahidnia, a first-year student of mathematics at Tehran's prestigious Sharif University, spoke without notes.
[UPDATED at 4:30 a.m. PST on Nov. 1: Despite reports of his arrest, reports surfaced that Vahidnia is okay. He told the Persian-language Alef.ir news agency in a report that appeared in the reformist newspaper Sarmayeh on Sunday that rumors of his detention were unfounded.
He also said he made the speech on his own volition. "I had not coordinated with anyone," he told the news agency. "Even my family had no idea what I was going to say."
He added, "On the whole the meeting with the Supreme Leader was constructive."]
He criticized the violence against protesters during the election. He said Khamenei lived in a bubble, unaware of the sentiments against his rule. He critiqued what he described as Iran's "cycle of power" in which entrenched elites in institutions such as the Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts exert what he described as a stranglehold over the nation's political life.
He criticized state broadcasting and the media, saying their unwillingness to criticize Khamenei deepened Iran's divisions.
“Does the state broadcasting really reflect the realities of the country and the whole world, or does it draw an unrealistic caricature of the world?" he said. "Does state broadcasting permit diverse opinions?"
He said he had never seen anyone publicly criticize Khamenei in the media.
"I think if they let criticism against you get published, then simple problems are not overplayed and will not lead to schism and division and hatred," he said, according to reformist websites which recounted the exchange, but also Khamenei's own website (in Farsi).
"When a simple criticism cannot find an environment to be expressed, then gradually it gets tainted with ill intentions," he said.
Sporadic applause punctuated his speech. A live broadcast of the event on television was shut down. A moderator interrupted, saying time was up. Somebody else interjected, addressing Vahidnia. "If criticism were not allowed, you would not be criticizing," he said.
But Khamenei insisted on replying. Though he acknowledged that he appointed the head of state broadcasting, he said it didn't always do what he wanted. He, too, had complaints about the conduct of state broadcasting.
"We have never said not to criticize us," he said. "We have no objection. We welcome criticism.There are lots criticism against me. We take in the criticism, and we understand the criticism.”
Reformist websites said Vahidnia was harassed by security forces at the meeting as the event ended, and many fear that he has been locked up.
On Friday night the Sharif University dormitories erupted with cries of "God is great!" and "Death to the dictator!" in support of their fellow classmate. University activists warned that if any harm comes to the “courageous student" the campus would explode.
-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut
At top, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Credit: Hasan Sarbakhshian / Associated Press
Mahmoud Vahidnia publicly criticized Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during a forum Wednesday. Credit: VOA Persian (above) and BBC Persian via YouTube
Video: Amateur clip said to show classmates of Vahidnia protesting at dormitories Friday night. Credit: YouTube