Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is justifiably paranoid about the effects of a “soft war” on Iran. His definition of a “soft war” is based on the level of change instigated by “foreign influences” on the state of Iran, its national ideals and the minds of its population without any military activity. “Foreign influence”, can take on many faces but it can be easily classified into two categories: “Western” business and “Western” culture although in many cases, Western business and Western culture are interchangeable due to the Western focus on capitalism.
Without judging whether a “soft war” on Iran is good or bad or whether Western business and culture are good or bad, since this depends on your perspective, Khamenei is right. A “soft war” which uses money and culture instead of missiles and soldiers can be very effective in destroying, or at least weakening, the regime in Tehran.
On the other hand, such a “war” could save thousands or even millions of lives if the alternative to such a “soft war” is a “hard war”, a war determined by military might. In a world of growing nationalism and fundamentalism (see Donald Trump, Brexit, Vladimir Putin etc..), a “soft war” may be the only logical and humane alternative.
Khamenei’s views on the “soft war”
- Speech at Assembly of Experts, May 26th, 2016: “Our officials and all parts of the establishment should be vigilant about the West’s continued soft war against Iran…the enemies want to weaken the system from inside…By impairing centres of powers in Iran, it will be easy to harm the establishment from inside…The only way to materialise the (1979 Islamic) revolution’s goals is national unity and not to obey the enemy…Iran’s enemies try to influence decision-making centres, alter Iranian officials’ positions and change people’s beliefs…We should be strong and empowered”.
- Speech at the Islamic Student Association, April 19th, 2016: “Right now with the issue of the youth, there is a comprehensive soft war between the Islamic Republic of Iran on one side and America and Zionists and their followers on the other side…Westerners, especially America, want the Iranian youth to be without faith, cowardly, unmotivated, inactive, hopeless, optimistic toward the enemy and pessimistic toward their own commanders”.
- Speech at Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, October 12th, 2015: “The main goal of this well-thought-out and calculated war is to transmute the Islamic Republic of Iran, and change its essence and nature while maintaining its appearance…They (the enemy) seek to influence the people and a wide range of their beliefs, especially [those of] the youth and elite…Our people have some beliefs about the former corrupt and authoritarian regimes, and in the soft war efforts are made to depict this ugly, wicked and black past as a brilliant and beautiful one…(we must ensure that) “the young generation is brought up revolutionary”.
- Speech at Mashhad, March 2014: “Culture is like air, and if this air is poisonous it becomes dangerous for people…Therefore the focus of the enemies on culture is more than in other areas. Why? Because of this big impact that culture has. The target of the enemy’s actions in the field of culture is made up of the faith and beliefs of people…Cultural officials must be aware of cultural infiltration; cultural infiltrations are very dangerous…We do not want to say that all cultural damages are the work of foreigners; no, we are also responsible; different officials, cultural officials, non-cultural officials, insufficient and wrong efforts have had an impact…We cannot forget the presence of the enemy in the cultural field. Today and from the early days of the revolution, propaganda machineries [of the West] made all their efforts in order to make people lose faith in the foundations of this revolution…Freedom – which is a great blessing from God – is itself possessing of rule; without rule, freedom has no meaning…That we see some using arts, using expression, using different tools, using money, make people stray from the path, attack people’s faith, infiltrate people’s Islamic and revolutionary culture, and for us to sit and watch and say “this is freedom”, this kind of freedom exists nowhere in the world”.
OK, you got the gist by now – feel free to Google “Khamenei soft war” to get more insights on Khamenei’s perspective of the “soft war”.
Khamenei’s fears increase post-JCPoA
For years, Khamenei didn’t have to worry about any “soft wars” since Iran was “protected” from foreign influences from the world, not only because Khamenei wanted it that way but, because of the myriad of sanctions Iran was under. But the signing of the JCPoA, the lifting of sanctions and the rush to attract foreign investors into the ailing Iranian economy have opened doors through which the “soft war” can enter into the minds and hearts of the Iranian people.
For a man like Khamenei who remains a “revolutionary” at heart and who strives to maintain the status quo established in the Islamic Revolution in 1979, a revolution against the Western/Capitalist/Colonial/Imperialist/Oppressive forces, Western business/culture is the enemy since it can lead to grass-root changes. From his point of view, he is absolutely right. Were Iranians open to Western business and culture, many might choose to adopt ideals and ways of living which would weaken the power of the regime, its laws and its ideals and, once enough people decide to buy into an alternative to the current regime, a counter-revolution could occur which might undo some or all of the changes which followed the Islamic Revolution on which the regime is based on.
Khamenei’s answer to these foreign influences is to isolate Iranians through a “Resistance Economy” in order to minimize the effects of foreign businesses on the Iranian economy and people and “Revolutionary Islamist” ideals which are meant to minimize the effects of Western culture on the Iranian population.
The “Resistance Economy” is actually quite simple to maintain since it is achieved by simply banning foreign investments, just as Khamenei banned 227 American brands/products, by making the process of investing in Iran a bit more difficult or by taxing imports. Sure, some Iranian business people will feel that they are missing opportunities and many Iranian consumers might feel that they are missing out on owning some products. Such feelings might lead to a thriving black market or local versions of banned products/brands but they usually do not fuel counter revolutions unless they lead to a failing economy.
Maintaining the “Revolutionist Islamist” ideals is trickier to do since it requires the constant oppression of any thought or act which may question these ideals. Here too, a “black market” has already developed through which Iranians tap into Western culture through satellite dishes and the internet. In the process, human rights are trampled on as the freedom to question or criticize the regime and its ideals are stifled. Any Iranian who thinks of or offers an alternative to the Revolutionary Islamist ideals is immediately identified as an enemy of the state for fear that such thoughts might spread and weaken the regime’s base of power. In both cases, walls must be built and guarded.
In both cases, Khamenei uses basic fears and hates in order to motivate the regime to maintain the status quo, thus maintaining the base of power.
Building walls instead of trust
“Soft wars”, just like “hard wars”, are based on solidifying and amplifying the differences between “us” and “them”, “us” being the good/true/just and “them” being the bad/lie/unjust. And just like “hard wars”, the first way to combat “soft wars” is to build walls which separates “us” from “them”. These walls can be physical, legal, bureaucratic or ideological and the higher they are, the higher the persons building the walls feel safe regardless of the greater good of all the people behind the walls. To be fair, Khamenei isn’t the only one pandering this fear of “soft war”: men like Donald Trump and the British leaders of Brexit, to name two relevant examples, want to build walls.
The JCPoA can become a “wall-breaker” because once more Iranians adopt Western brands and Western ideals, the differences between “us” and “them” begin to fade. And it’s not only Khamenei who thinks so…US Secretary of State John Kerry is actually betting on this: “Doing business is one of the best ways to create interests and vested purpose, if you will, in furthering transformation“. It is this “transformation” that Khamenei fears and that drives him to erect higher walls.
But can Khamenei successfully block such a “transformation” over time? Obviously not since a) transformations will always seep through the financial and cultural “black markets” and b) Khamenei will not live forever and his successor may be open to change.
President Hassan Rouhani was elected on a ticket for change and although many of his promised changes remain unfulfilled (many will remain so), his calls for change have been heard by the regime leaders and the hardliners and they don’t like it. This is forcing Rouhani to adapt his calls for change to fit the “Resistance Economy” and the “Islamist Revolutionary” ideals. He, obviously, supports Khamenei’s “Resistance Economy” but points out that it is necessary to “import”, or develop through foreign businesses, expertise and “knowledge bases”. Likewise, he, obviously, supports “Islamist Revolutionary” ideals, but unlike, Khamenei, Rouhani is a pragmatic politician who understands that a) his base of popularity is in the younger and more secular population, as well as women, which is not as “revolutionary” as the regime and b) problems with human rights will deter foreigners from investing in Iran.