Given how the Arab uprisings have changed the political landscape across the region, at age 73 Ayatollah Khamenei is the Middle East’s longest running (and still employed) autocrat to date. His worldview has remained remarkably constant, and he remains confident that he has been proven right (at least in his own mind) about the United States, the region, and Iran’s place in the world. Ayatollah Khamenei’s reinforced worldview, however, has consequences, and only by analyzing his outlook can we determine where it will lead Iran.
Friday Prayers in Tehran are always big events, especially when Ayatollah Khamenei decides to give a sermon. This is where the political and religious apparatus of Iran can be seen in full view. Greatly akin to the United States’ State of the Union, these sermons make for an excellent forum for the Ayatollah to lecture on the political threats Iran faces from his perspective. Each speech he delivers is meant to clarify a particular point.
It was during such a sermon in 2009 that he threatened the protestors of the Green Movement to return to their homes, stating “If they do not end it then the consequences of this lie with them.” Since the June 2009 presidential elections and the crackdown that ensued, Khamenei believed that Iran has averted and weathered one of the West’s biggest offensives against Iran, a ‘soft-war’ in the form of popular protest inspired by ‘foreign agents.’
The participants of the momentous protests in the summer of 2009 were labeled as ‘Fitenehgaran’ (creators of sedition) in Khamenei’s narrative. This label is extremely telling because the same word, Fitneh, is used in Islamic historiography to describe the battles between Imam Ali (the fourth Caliph/first Imam of Shiism) and the Islamic community in Mecca and Kufa in the mid-7th century. While Imam Ali and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei share a common name, the degree to which Khamenei personally feels like another Imam Ali, a leader who was betrayed and left politically isolated, is up for debate.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Imam Ali as a leader who stood for, and even died for his beliefs conforms to his narrative. Even Friday Prayer-goers know this, as crowds chanted, “We are not the people of Kufa [for] Ali to remain alone” as a sign of loyalty prior to his taking the stage. The metaphor is telling, and reinforces his belief that the Iranian people will not abandon him. This particular feeling is most evident in his analysis of the crackdown in 2009, namely that, “in the political arena, our youth put down the revolt [fitneh] of 88 .”
But we do not only have to rely on 2009 for evidence of a vindicated ideology. Iran has greatly welcomed the political and social changes sweeping across the Arab world and has fought with the United States over the control of its narrative. Seeking to label the uprisings as an “Islamic Awakening,” Ayatollah Khamenei feels vindicated that the policy of ‘exporting the revolution’ (a throw-back to the Khomeini days) has worked, allowing Iran greater rhetorical and political maneuverability that comes with the sacking of U.S. allies given the early Islamist victories in the region.
This point has been so crucial to Iran, that it has created a summit called ‘Global Assembly of Islamic Awakening’ to commemorate it, naming Ali Akbar Velayati, Ayatollah Khamenei’s international affairs advisor, as its Secretary General. The appointment of such a high official like Velayati should indicate where the regime’s priorities are in terms of the trajectory of this conference and its perception of its importance.
Democracy, Media, and the Cyber Struggle
For years, Iran and analysts of Iran have said that if democratic elections occur in the Middle East, regimes, parties, and systems ‘akin to that of Iran would arise’. Iran, who throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s pushed to support the ‘Arab Street’ over Arab governments, feels “vindicated” that its policy is working. Out of those vindicated, it is hard to imagine that the Supreme Leader is not chief amongst them. When democracy is allowed to flourish, the argument goes, the Islamic Republic’s interests are safeguarded more so than those of the United States.
To ensure this, Iran has embarked on a deliberate public relations campaign to remind everyone of the Islamic roots of the Arab Awakening. To Khamenei, there is no other possible or plausible way to explain the spark in places like Tunisia and Egypt than the lasting power and message of the Islamic Revolution. While Western analysts rightly note the diminishing appeal of this ideology, especially post-2009, Khamenei and the Islamic Republic do not perceive it as such. Rather, to Khamenei, it is a confirmation and vindication of a policy that took 30 years to bear fruit. Khamenei’s belief that Iran is the “champion of the downtrodden and dispossessed,” is further enforced via the plethora of media outlets carrying his message.
Press TV, one of Iran’s newer international channels has the following tabs on its Farsi language home page: Iran, Iraq, America, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the World, and the Middle East. Additionally, Iran has launched a new site called Islamic-Awakening.ir to detail the daily struggles for Islam in places like Bahrain and Yemen in order for Iran to control the narrative regionally and even globally. It also is the home country of the domain, barackobama.ir, a disinformation website that slanders the United States (in English) under the auspices of “free flow of information as well as a place to enable Iranians, Americans and other English speaking users to talk about political, cultural, economical and international issues.” Again, it is hard to imagine that any of this would take place without the consent of the Ayatollah.
Iran’s interest in cyberspace as an arena to push its agenda is novel, and quickly developing. Recently “Khamenei tasked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the duty of establishing a Supreme Council of Cyberspace.” Iran is elbowing itself into new areas, learning new methods that indicate a spike in aggressiveness and willingness to push back, even when it comes to hacking and Cyber-War. To the Arab Street however, Ayatollah Khamenei’s messages remains simple and clear; “Today, the Islamic movement in the Muslim world does not know Shia or Sunni; does not distinguish between Shafi’ite or Hanafite or Jafari or Maliki or Hanbali or Zaidi; does not know Arab or Persian or other nationalities; in this great field, all are present. We should try so the enemy may not divide us.”
As a reminder, Iran’s Friday prayer sessions are coupled with a speech called a Khutbah, delivered first in Persian, and then translated into Arabic online. However, in order to reach a broader audience in the Arab world, Khamenei decided to deliver his sermon in Arabic on February 3, 2012. The Arabic Khutbah is broadcast to Iran’s state media, of which the Arabic language station, Al-Alam is more than happy to pick up, so too is the Ayatollah’s website.
But can analyzing the Ayatollah really provide us with insights? The answer is yes, especially when it boils down to the nuclear issue, and is reinforced by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said during a Senate Testimony that, “the decision would be made by the supreme leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis.” Clapper also believes that Iran’s willingness to attack inside the United States has increased and represents a change of ‘calculus’ not just by regime officials, but by ‘Khamenei himself.’ This ‘willingness’ was greatly highlighted by the alleged plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, showing a more ‘risk-tolerant’ Tehran – one with increased confidence of bringing a regional conflict (Iran-Saudi Arabia) onto American soil.
Coupling that with an increasingly zero-sum paradigm of escalating threats, Ayatollah Khamenei took the time to mention Iran’s new policy of “responding to threats with threats,” indicating that Iran had its “own threats which will be implemented at the right time, if necessary.” Additionally, the echoing of public support for groups that confront Israel reared its head again during Friday prayers in Tehran.
Red-teaming and alternative analysis methods would help governments prepare for the worst while attempting to determine Iran’s effects on the region. For the most powerful man in Iran “entrusted with guarding the revolution”, now might seem harder than ever to give up on what he perceives are Iran’s inalienable rights, something U.S. policy should do its best to try and understand.
Iran today seems to be flirting with the process of negotiations, but not the concept of engagement. Due to the numerous missed chances for engagement on both sides, ‘domestic constituencies’ in both countries seem to show little flexibility toward accommodating one another. To help solve this, simple campaign-level foreign policy responses are not going to be enough. The United States needs to find a way to incentivize a change in direction, not only because Khamenei may or may not take it, but also because the United States once again can reaffirm its moral ground and could expand its ‘coalition’ for coercive diplomacy. Presently, Ayatollah Khamenei’s sense of vindication is soaring, but so too is it’s cost to Iran.
*Behnam Ben Taleblu is a graduate of The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He has worked and interned at numerous think tanks, consulting, and communication firms in the greater Washington D.C. area.