Khamenei Rails against US “Plots” and Authorities Chime in with Crackdown
The crackdown has resulted in the arrests and prosecutions of growing numbers of journalists, peaceful activists, reformists, dual Iranian-American nationals, and cultural figures.
In an October 12, 2015 speech posted on Khameini’s official website, he warned of “the danger of America’s influence” and of the West’s “carefully planned soft war” designed to change the essence and direction of the Islamic Republic. “What’s important in this soft war is that they want an Islamic Republic only in name, with a religious figure still at its helm, who would pave the way for the Americans, Zionists and powerful world networks.”
Khamenei’s views regarding perceived threats to the Islamic Republic are nothing new. But by ramping up the warnings and repeatedly emphasizing them after the nuclear agreement with world powers, he has made clear how fearful hardliners are that the status quo in Iran—and the political elite’s repressive grip on society—may be more difficult to maintain in a post-nuclear deal context.
The nuclear deal, and the potential it brings for Iran’s re-engagement with the world, holds the prospect of improved relations and interaction with the West. Exposure to Western political and cultural norms, and the influences such exposure may bring, is viewed as a potentially existential threat to the ideological legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and its revolutionary narratives.
Prior to the agreement, hardline officials primarily complained that the U.S. was seeking “regime change.” Now, given the prospect of improved relations with the long-vilified US, they express fears of what they perceive as the West’s creeping influence aimed at gradually changing the nature of the regime. Their efforts to squash any political opening or loosening of cultural restrictions stem from these fears.
The ultraconservative Kayhan newspaper, which often serves as Khameini’s mouthpiece, published a commentary on August 5, 2015, which accused the US of continuing to pursue regime change in Iran, even if by more gradual and internal means, after the signing of the nuclear agreement.
“All analysts and U.S. media pundits, including both opponents and supporters of the Geneva Agreement, unanimously concur on this point that Obama is betting on the transformation of the Iranian government in the next ten years into something different than what it is today,” the Kayhan columnist wrote, and added: “Opponents of the Geneva Agreement in the U.S. believe that this deal will lift pressures on the Islamic Republic, disillusion opponents of the regime and foil White House strategies to overthrow the government – exactly the opposite of what Obama is hoping.”
Claims of foreign-instigated interference have been used to legitimize the intensified suppression of domestic critics of the government, from journalists and artists to peaceful civil and political activists. Political participation has also been more severely restricted; even some loyal factions of the regime have been eliminated from the ever-shrinking inner circle of power.
Based on his recent speeches, Khamenei appears to be most fearful of the social changes transforming the country in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. Talking to a group of supporters on October 5, 2015, Khamenei warned: “We are facing an unannounced, all-out, cultural, ideological, and political attack. You may naturally agree with what I’m saying. But the fact is that you are unaware of what is going on. I know what’s going on. I see what’s happening. The enemy is attacking us with all its cultural and political weapons. They want to weaken our religious and political beliefs, increase discontent inside the country and lure our most active and impactful youth towards their own objectives.”
He expressed similar fears in a speech to a group of Revolutionary Guards on September 16, 2015, stating “The enemy is trying to weaken and infiltrate our cultural beliefs and replace all the things that have kept our society standing. They are spending billions on cultural penetration and influence. They are also trying to impose influence on our political decision-making centers.”
During the nuclear negotiations there was much hope in Iran regarding President Rouhani’s ability to make good on his 2013 election campaign promises to loosen political and cultural restrictions and end the country’s “police atmosphere” if a deal was reached. Instead, fueled by Khamenei’s repeated claims of US-inspired plots to “infiltrate” and undermine the Islamic Republic, the deal has been followed by a hardening of official attitudes and an intensification of repression.
The fears are not only of Western influences after the deal, but also of the strengthening of moderate and reformist factions in Iran, who were the principal architects and supporters of the nuclear negotiations and its potential political beneficiaries, especially with the upcoming Parliamentary elections in Iran in February 2016. Hardliners are loathe to relinquish their dominance in Parliament—or, in the case of the Revolutionary Guards, their privileged economic position in the country.
As such, hardline officials have enthusiastically echoed Khamenei’s sentiments. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati warned in his October 16, 2015, Friday Prayer sermon that what Iran’s enemies wanted next was to turn it into a country where men and women have equal rights and the state recognizes the state of Israel.
Mohammad Javad Karimi Qoddousi, a former Revolutionary Guard and current Member of Iran’s Parliament, wrote an opinion piece in Vatan Emrooz newspaper expressing fears that the Islamic Republic could be “Vaticanized” by turning the position of Supreme Leader into a ceremonial post. “They want to use the right opportunity, such as elections, to throw the final blow against the Islamic Republic by fundamentally rewriting the role of Velayat-e Faghih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, which holds that the ultimate leadership of the state must be held by a leading Islamist jurist) in the Constitution.”
Khamenei’s latest statements also seem to indicate concerns over the direction the Islamic Republic may take after his death. The leader is 76 years old and has been treated for prostate cancer. He recently declared that it would not be enough for the state to be ruled by a cleric if the Islamic Republic becomes void of its revolutionary core.
There are some politicians with revolutionary credentials, however, that are not concerned about change. Ali Motahhari, a conservative MP and son of a prominent Islamic thinker, wrote in a commentary in Shargh newspaper on November 1, 2015: “If the people reject the Islamic State, nothing can be done about it. The Islamic State exists in the presence and with the cooperation of the people… If the majority don’t want the Islamic State, it won’t be able to last.”