Mahmoud Vahidnia has received an outpouring of support from government opponents for the challenge — unprecedented in a country where insulting supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a crime punishable by prison.
Perhaps most surprising, the young math whiz has so far suffered no repercussions from the confrontation at a question-and-answer session between Khamenei and students at Tehran's Sharif Technical University.
In fact, Iran's clerical leadership appears to be touting the incident as a sign of its tolerance — so much so that some Iranians at first believed the 20-minute exchange was staged by the government, though opposition commentators are now convinced Vahidnia was the real thing.
Details of the encounter were reported on the state news agency IRNA and in a pro-government newspaper, Keyhan, which gave its account with a headline reading, "The revolutionary leader's fatherly response to critical youth." Even Khamenei's official Web site mentioned the incident.
Still some of those in attendance at the Oct. 28 forum say Khamenei appeared taken aback by the questioning and left the meeting early, according to commentary posted on pro-reform Web sites.
The session began with a speech in which Khamenei told the students the "biggest crime" was to question the results of the June 12 presidential election that returned hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Khamenei himself declared Ahmadinejad the victor despite opposition claims of widespread fraud.
After the speech, Vahidnia raised his hand, then for 20 minutes he criticized the Iranian leader over the fierce crackdown on postelection protests, in which the opposition says 69 people were killed and thousands were arrested.
In brief excerpts broadcast on state TV, the thin, bespectacled Vahidnia was shown standing behind a podium, gesturing at times for emphasis.
"I don't know why in this country it's not allowed to make any kind of criticism of you," said the student, wearing a long-sleeved blue polo shirt and appearing calm.
"In the past three to five years that I have been reading newspapers, I have seen no criticism of you, not even by the Assembly of Experts, whose duty is to criticize and supervise the performance of the leader," he said, referring to the clerical body that chooses the country's supreme leader.
Khamenei countered, "We welcome criticism. We never said not to criticize us. ... There's plenty of criticism that I receive," according to accounts in state media and on opposition Web sites.