Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is definitely suffering from paranoia: his fears of the mollifying effects of foreign influence, specially Western/capitalist influence, on the revolutionary ideals he stands for infuse his speeches and writings. He is a hardline revolutionary at heart who wants to maintain the status quo and keep the Islamic Revolution as the focus of the daily lives of Iranians. He abides by Khomeini’s “neither East nor West” approach and would rather see Iran isolated and self-reliant in Islamic ideals than opening Iran’s gates to Eastern or Western, non-Islamic, influences.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, for him, his paranoia is justified and the nuclear deal, the resulting lifting of sanctions, the possibilities for foreign investments and trade and the problematic relations with the US, are at the crux of the issue: The nuclear deal was orchestrated by President Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate, democratically elected based on his promises for change, “constructive engagement” with the world and the lifting of sanctions. Furthermore, according to Rouhani and the many polls, the majority of the population in Iran supports the nuclear deal and Rouhani in his endeavors for change.
Khamenei is stuck in a classic case of “catch 22”: If he endorses the deal, he will align himself with Rouhani and a large part of the Iranian population, will realistically allow foreign influence into Iran and weaken his revolutionary goals. If he doesn’t endorse the deal, he will maintain the purity of the revolutionary goals while angering the majority of the Iranians and destroying the credibility of his president and the purity of democratic elections.
Khamenei’s attitude to the nuclear deal reflects this “catch 22” mentality: He hasn’t endorsed nor denounced the deal, hasn’t supported nor restrained hardliner critics of the deal and has maintained his red lines, his anti-“foreign influence” and anti-US stance while passing on the “responsibility” of ratifying the nuclear deal to parliament overruling Rouhani’s call to not involve the Iranian parliament in such a decision.
Khamenei is worried that the enemy, “world arrogance, with America being the complete symbol of it“, will force the Iranian nation to “put aside its revolutionary philosophy until it loses its power”. How will the “enemy” succeed in doing so? “The enemy’s effort to have influence is one of the big threats…an economic and security influence are of course dangerous and have heavy consequences, but a political and cultural influence is a much larger danger and everyone must be careful.” In Khamenei’s mind, the danger of becoming “Westernized” is worse than sanctions or war.
In order to block this influence, Khamenei will either have to scuttle the nuclear deal, and reface the crippling sanctions, or beef up the power of the regime on the Iranian people. Khamenei is justifiably weary of blocking the deal, knowing that this could lead to a massive uprising of the population, so in the meantime, he is working on the second alternative with his cronies at the IRGC: “The path to confront this type of influence is to arm the IRGC with the strong logic of the revolution through increasing its persuasive, logical and expressive strength regarding the Islamic Revolution”, because, without the revolutionary ideals, “we will become weak.”.
Fortunately (for Khamenei), the symbiotic relationship between Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and the IRGC is just what he needs to make sure his nightmare doesn’t come true. The IRGC’s base of power is the Supreme Leader and vice versa and a Westernized influence in Iran will definitely weaken the IRGC as well. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC commander understands this too well: “With all of our ability, we will properly guard the principles, values and achievements of the Islamic Revolution, and we will never allow those opposed to this divine path to pave the way for the enemy.”
But it’s not only the IRGC who supports Khamenei: Iran’s chief of parliament, Ali Larijani, echoed Khamenei’s call to fight the Western influence and called for “more integration and unity in order to eliminate the enemies’ deceptions.” Khamenei has nominally left the decision whether to approve/disprove the nuclear deal to parliament (“it is up to them to decide“) and it is in parliament that Rouhani and his FM Mohammad Javad Zarif are being hammered by paranoid hardliners whose eyes are not only on the deal but on the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Khamenei’s Three Main Problems
Khamenei’s biggest problem is Iran’s younger population: 60% of Iran’s population is under 35 (born after the Islamic Revolution), reportedly well-educated, supports the nuclear deal and, to Khamenei’s obvious distress, quite interested in foreign brands and entities. His fears are stoked by the fear that, as Tehran’s deputy Governor stated, 90% of the Iranian youth is growing away from Islam. These younger Iranians may appreciate Islamic Revolutionary goals but they also appreciate the freedom to live a more comfortable life. They look beyond the borders of Iran through the internet and social media and envision a future which is free of the harsh restrictions of the regime. These Iranians, especially the women, long for basic freedoms that are the mainstay of the West: freedom to work with no religious or gender quotas, to voice criticism and to protest if necessary (criticizing the regime is now deemed a “sin“), to choose what to buy, what to wear, what to do and where to live…Freedom of choice, which is the basis for Western cultures is the biggest “enemy” of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. For them, unemployment, estimated at over 40% for the 15-24 market, is becoming a bigger priority than religion, a fact that Rouhani is in tune with but Khamenei is not.
His next problem is the media in Iran: Although the local media is subjugated to the restrictions of the regime, some media outlets are more liberal than others. Over the years, many liberal media outlet have been shut down or made to toe the line but every once in a while, criticism of the regime and of the revolutionary ideals does get through. Furthermore, although international media outlets in Iran are also subjugated to the same restrictions as their local counterparts, closing down the BBC or CNN in Iran is not a simple matter. Finally, although the internet and satellite TV are both heavily monitored and restricted, a large majority of the Iranian people manage to keep updated of the news in and outside of Iran through independent channels. Fears of the media are rampant in Tehran and 12 MP’s have signed a statement warning that “hundreds of spies have infiltrated media organizations“. The media, quite naturally, is split between the conservative revolutionary ideals spearheaded by Khamenei/IRGC and the moderate ideals represented by Rouhani and his government.
His final problem is greed (Iranian and International): the decades of sanctions have weakened the economy to such a point that foreign investors and their local counterparts can potentially make enormous profits until the market stabilizes. Rouhani is openly encouraging foreign investments and the seemingly endless torrent of foreign trade delegations is a testament to his call. The capitalistic world, which includes everyone including the US/Canada, the EU, regional neighbors as well as Russia and China, want to capitalize on Iran’s economy and ratifying the nuclear deal will formally launch the race to Tehran’s riches. Money, Khamenei understands, is the key to influence and once foreign investors, brands and tourists flood the market, revolutionary goals will feel antiquated and restrictive.
His best bet would be to continue passively blocking the deal while maintaining his support for Rouhani. Once the deal goes through and the sanctions are lifted, he will probably find examples of “foreign influence” which will prove his paranoia right. If he lives long enough, he will probably find, at one time or another, the justification to fight back against the foreign influence at the risk of re-isolating Iran and undoing Rouhani efforts in the past two years. Rouhani will then be blamed for all the ills of the foreign influence and the nuclear deal and Khamenei will proceed to “emasculate” him and oust him out of office.
The possible outcomes of such a clash are endless and depend on the strength and determination of the IRGC, the amount of money invested in Iran, the power plays of the regional giants, the will of the Iranian people to voice and act out their criticism and Khamenei’s mortality. No one truly knows but one thing is certain: the sanctions and the resulting nuclear deal have put the regime, and Khamenei, on the defensive for the first time since 2009 without even one protester hitting the streets. The nuclear deal may not ensure that Iran will never militarize its nuclear program but it has created an atmosphere that might be the undoing of the regime itself, for better or for worst.