Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is worried that the JCPoA will allow the US to “infiltrate” and “influence” the Iranian people in such a manner as to even endanger the regime and the values of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei may be paranoid but he is right: It is hard to hold an anti-American revolutionary stance and eat at KFC, drive a Chevrolet, use an iPhone and wear Abercrombie & Fitch.
Will Khamenei hold true to his call to ban everything American? Will President Hassan Rouhani fight Khamenei on this issue? Will the Iranians accept their Supreme Leader’s wish? “Yes”, “maybe” and “nobody knows” (respectively).
Banning Satan’s Brands
This week’s call to oust Coke and Pepsi from Iran follows the closing down of KFChalal, a regional rip-off of KFC with a smiling Colonel Sanders and the classic red and white brand colors, for being “too American”. The fact that there are numerous rip-offs of KFC in Iran such as Super Star Fried Chicken, Kabooky Fried Chicken, Karen Fried Chicken, ZFC, BFC etc… didn’t make a difference: Watching the line-up of Iranian customers in the just-launched KFChalal restaurants must have struck a strident chord in Khamenei’s troubled mind. Banning American brands from the Iranian market will also help Khamenei save himself from the embarrassment of watching local Iranian companies who have ripped off American brands (Mash Donald’s, Pizza Hat etc…) get sued by the American original brands.
It’s much easier to simply say, much like the “Soup Nazi” from the Seinfeld series: “No Coke for you!”
Unfortunately (for him) these worries are creating some new and frustrating problems: It might be OK to block American brands from entering the market in the future (what the Iranians “don’t know” that they are missing can’t “hurt them”) but it will be much harder to justify banning brands such as Coca Cola and Pepsi which have been sold in the Iranian markets for decades.
The Perils of the JCPoA
While the West was worried that the JCPoA would be powerless in preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear bomb, Khamenei had worries of his own. The long awaited JCPoA paradoxically placed Khamenei in a tight position: as long as there were sanctions and no nuclear deal, Iranians remained isolated and grudgingly accepted the fact that they could not enjoy Western products and brands and, at best, would have to make do with Iranian rip-offs of the global brands. But even before the deal was signed, trade delegations from the West (specially from the EU) “invaded” Tehran with prospects of making big bucks in a market that had been “starved” for over three decades. This prospect might have made the Iranian people happy, especially the younger and wealthier ones, but Khamenei could only see one thing: The Islamic Revolution was in danger of losing its Purist Revolutionary Islamic values and its bite (Anti-American sentiment).
Immediately following the ratification of the JCPoA, Khamenei began rumbling about the threat of “infiltration” from the US and amplified his anti-America campaign. Hardliners in Iran who were dismayed at the prospect of implementing a nuclear deal which had crossed numerous “red lines” that Khamenei had outlined, joined his campaign to maintain America as the all-encompassing “Great Satan”. The “Death to America” chants were echoed even in parliament. Realistically, Khamenei isn’t really as worried about US policies as he is worried about US capitalistic and secular culture – what he deems the “Soft War“.
Khamenei Takes Control
In a bold but dangerous move, he pushed President Hassan Rouhani, who has been toiling over a nuclear deal with the West for over two and a half years, to the back stage, renegotiated retroactively the JCPoA, took over the implementation of the nuclear deal and Iran’s foreign policy and banned any further discussions or contact with the US. Furthermore, within days, the IRGC arrested 5 journalists under suspicion of having ties with “anti-revolutionary media” and maintaining networks to serve “US infiltration”. Rouhani objected to the crackdown, complaining that the IRGC was “misusing” Khamenei’s “terminology” of “infiltration” but to no avail. Khamenei’s take-over of the nuclear deal and foreign policy, the IRGC crackdown and Rouhani’s failed objections are significantly marginalizing Rouhani in the politics of the regime.
In his renewed position at front-stage, Khamenei is probably hoping that the JCPoA will be breached by the US, which will pave the way for Iran to manage its nuclear program away from prying eyes and enjoy the possibility of sanction-less trade with Tehran’s new found friends (China, Russia and the EU), knowing that the possibility of slap-back sanctions is as minimal as the possibility of a military conflict with the US. Until then, he is trying to tear apart the deal and blame the US for all the woes in Iran, just as he has done for the past three and half decades.
The Problems of Banning Coke
To be honest, there is much warranted criticism of American culture all over the world (criticism even by Americans themselves). American culture which at one time exemplified the freedom of choice and entrepreneurship evolved to include capitalistic exploitation of the masses and the never ending race for the new, the updated and the fashionable. On all these points, including the freedom of choice, the American culture is incompatible with Khamenei’s vision of Iran.
But, and this is a big “but”, by banning American goods, he is in danger of antagonizing the Iranian people. A few months ago, Iranian authorities confiscated t-shirts with US/UK flags on them. Now they will have to confiscate Coke and Pepsi cans.
Perhaps Khamenei is right about the erosive influence of American culture on Iranians post-JCPoA. But will he have enough power to reshape the expectations of Iranians who have suffered from sanctions for so long and who view the JCPoA as an answer to their prayers? And more importantly, will Rouhani stand by and let Khamenei undo his “constructive engagement” with the West and watch passively as his election promises to the Iranian people are buried under Khamenei’s fears?