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Khamenei and Khatami show rare unity on US-made anti-Islam film

As Muslims throughout the Middle East and Islamic world, including in Benghazi, Cairo and Sana, express outrage at the United States government for the existence of a privately-funded amateur film perceived as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed and Islam, the Iranian regime has been quick to get in on the action with its own staged protests around the US interest section at the Swiss embassy in Tehran. This is despite a condemnation of the offending film by secretary of state Hillary Clinton which in part said:

“Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message.”

The message from Iran has been surprisingly consistent across the political spectrum and perhaps even somewhat conciliatory in tone toward the US.  The regime’s interesting response is best illustrated by Iran’s Principalist supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami.

Condemning the “enemies of Islam” for taking “insane and disgusting action” (referring to the film), Khamenei said that “…behind this evil movement are the hostile policies of Zionism, America, and other leaders of the global arrogance.” He argued that if the previous “rings of this chain” (referring to similar incidents such as the Salman Rushdie affair, Denmark cartoon controversy, and koran burning in the US) had not been supported by the West, the situation would not have become as serious as it is today. However, while Khamenei is usually unconditional in his condemnation of the US, on this occasion he gave the American government the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to prove its innocence:

“The first accused in this crime is Zionism and the American government. If American politicians are honest about not being involved in this field, then those who committed this evil crime and their financial backers who saddened the hearts of Muslims should be prosecuted in accordance with the severity of their crime.”

Khatami, though somewhat softer in his tone toward the US, echoed Khamenei in many regards, saying that if actions like Koran burnings in the US had been confronted in a timely manner, the world would not be facing these consequences today:

“This ugly action, whose destructive consequences we are witnessing today, comes from a lack of maturity and fanaticism and easily becomes a tool in the hands of warmongers, forces, and powers who see their illegitimate interests in spreading hate between nations and religions of God.”

Editor’s note: The Islamic Republic of Iran has used cultural issues like the current controversy to score political points in the Muslim world since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, with the most well-known cases being Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and more recently threats against the Iranian artist Shahin Najafi.

However, even as Islamist forces have used the made-in-the-US anti-Islam film to rally thousands against US consulates and embassies in the Middle East, Iran’s criticism has been more muted than in the past and somewhat conciliatory toward the US government. This may tell us at least two things about the dynamics of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics. First the regime’s political establishment, despite very acrimonious infighting, appears to be more or less on the same page on this specific issue. Second, Iran may soon be displaced as the most virulently anti-American force in the Middle East by the newly empowered Sunni Islamists.