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Khamenei rejects calls for a more moderate Iranian foreign policy

In a meeting with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s political elite this Tuesday, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made remarks which could give important clues about the regime’s domestic and foreign policy trajectory in the months to come. While the Western media has picked up on some of the foreign policy implications of his comments, important signals to Iran’s domestic actors appear to have been understated in media reports.

In his address to the meeting, Khamenei said that in order for the Islamic Republic to resolve the difficult political and economic situations the regime faces today, it must combine its “ideals” with “reality”. He said that from its inception the Islamic Republic has faced many challenges, and that it has overcome these challenges by joining its ideals with reality. He asserted that any approach that ignored reality and “logical” and “rational” frameworks was pure “fantasy”.

This part of Khamenei’s speech appears to have been a veiled reference to the recent re-emergence of Pragmatists, led by ex-president Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Reformists, led by ex-president Mohammad Khatami, who have called on the regime’s current senior leadership to face “reality” and back down in the face of Western pressure. These moderate forces have cited the termination of the Iran-Iraq War by the Islamic Republic’s founder, supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as being analogous to the situation the regime is facing today with economic sanctions and have called on Khamenei to de-escalate tensions.

In his speech Khamenei rejected the need for compromise, saying that the enemy wanted to portray Iran as weak when in reality it is strong. He maintained that this position of strength, combined with Iran’s desire to achieve its ideals, means that Iran should not back down to Western pressure:

“They openly say that by intensifying pressure and sanctions Iranian officials must be forced to revise their calculations. However, considering reality means that not only must we not revise our calculations, but that [we] must go forward with greater confidence on the path the nation desires.”

He argued that the West’s obsession with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and human rights record are a cover for much more fundamental issues between the West and the regime, but that Iran’s strength and the West’s relative weakness meant that it would be a mistake for the regime to retreat now. Among other things, he said that Israel today is more vulnerable since the Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008) wars, the US has been forced to retreat in defeat from Iraq and is now faced with “huge” and “endless” problems in Afghanistan, and the European Union and Eurozone face economic crisis.

Khamenei stated that acceding to the West’s demands in this situation would be fruitless, because in the past when Iran had shown a greater willingness to compromise the West had taken this as a sign of weakness and become more aggressive:

“During the period when the approach of our officials was to flatter the West, there was an individual who was evil [but] allowed himself to call the Islamic Republic of Iran the Axis of Evil…During the same period, because of the cooperation with the West and concessions, they advanced [their demands] to such an extent that I was forced to personally enter the scene…During this period the West became so aggressive that even when our officials agreed to only maintain three centrifuges, they refused, but today there are 11,000 centrifuges in the country.”

He continued that economic sanctions, which he said were primarily aimed at creating problems for the Iranian people to separate them from the regime, would have to be discontinued by the West because these sanctions went against its long-term interest, especially in the current poor international economic climate.

Turning to Iran’s domestic situation, Khamenei said that “unity” and “solidarity” were one of the best ways for the regime to deal with Western pressure. He said that by refraining from useless conflicts and the public airing of infighting, the regime’s political elite would be contributing to national unity in an important way:

“Accusations between the three branches of government are very harmful [to national unity] and officials must know that these actions create no [positive] image and credibility [for them].”

Editor’s note: While various media sources have discussed the potential foreign policy implications of Khamenei’s speech, few have picked up on two important messages to Iran’s domestic political actors.

As IranPolitik has outlined, regime moderates, led by the Pragmatist Rafsanjani and the Reformist Khatami, have made strong efforts to re-enter Iran’s political stage in the last few months after essentially being purged from the regime’s political elite in the aftermath of the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election. These moderate forces have argued that the Islamic Republic faces grave dangers to its existence from Western pressure, especially economic sanctions, and that they should be allowed to re-enter Iran’s elite politics in order to save the regime by implementing a more moderate foreign policy. Khamenei’s emphasis on Iran’s strength in the face of Western pressure and the failure of Pragmatist and Reformist foreign policies in the past is a rejection of these moderates’ message, perhaps a sign that they will be barred from participating in the upcoming 2013 presidential election.

The second important message appears to be one of domestic unity to the hardline Principalist faction which makes up the majority of the regime’s ruling elite today. With the purging of the Pragmatists and Reformists after 2009, hardliners have begun to turn on each other, and infighting has become especially acrimonious between on the one hand the executive, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the legislature and judiciary on the other hand, led by brothers Ali and Sadegh Larijani respectively. This internal strife among Principalists is especially dangerous at a time when Iran is under enormous Western pressure, and Khamenei may be emphasizing unity and solidarity because he fears that the infighting will get worse as the 2013 election approaches. Khamenei may view disunity as the regime’s political Achilles heel in one of the most perilous periods in the Islamic Republic’s history, and could be attempting to counteract it before it becomes too late.