Last week we highlighted some of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s important statements during his stop at Bojnourd on his North Khorasan provincial tour, which, among other things, emphasized the Islamic Republic’s pessimism about whether Western economic sanctions would actually be lifted even if Iran made concessions on its nuclear program. This week we bring you Khamenei’s statements from his stop at Shirvan, North Khorasan, where he spoke to a large gathering of people.
His speech, which gave important signals on domestic politics, underscored the importance of national unity and its link to the regime’s political stability. As Principalist faction infighting has steadily increased in the years since the defeat of the Green Movement, this theme has become an increasingly important part of the supreme leader’s discourse. With the threat of war hanging over the Islamic Republic, the currency crisis, and the deteriorating economic situation, the supreme leader’s emphasis on national unity ensuring political stability has reached new heights.
During the speech, Khamenei compared Iran’s current troubles with other crises which he claimed had been induced by foreign enemies, including the civil war with the opposition after the revolution, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), conflict with ethno-linguistic minorities on Iran’s frontiers, the 18th Tir student uprising (1999), and the Green Movement demonstrations (2009-2010). The supreme leader’s historical comparisons of the current situation with past crises facing the regime give a good sense of just how deep Iran’s senior leadership believes the country’s problems are.
Despite these problems, Khamenei said that he was not worried about popular unity and the ability of ordinary people to endure present difficulties. Rather, he said that he was concerned with regime officials who appeared to constantly be at each others’ throats. He seemed particularly worried about the levels that infighting could reach in the next few months leading up to the 2013 Iranian presidential election:
“Until before the elections, and during the elections, the effort of officials should be to maintain the political calm of the country; they must not allow the political atmosphere to become challenging and turbulent; these are part of the things that should be realized by officials, God willing…Sometimes there is talk, unmeasured and misplaced action, [which] can create turbulence in the country’s political atmosphere. They [officials] must be very careful.”
Touching on economic issues and the impact of sanctions in particular, Khamenei invoked Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s spirit, saying that Iran’s enemies “…cannot do a damn thing.” He said that ordinary people’s spirit had not been broken by the sanctions, but that some people within Iran with positions of influence were making it appear so by complaining. He asserted that it was in fact these people who had been broken, and not the ordinary people. He concluded his argument by saying that under the current circumstances, senior officials would be wise to hold back on having many of these debates so publically until the situation improved.
Editor’s note: Khamenei may be Iran’s supreme leader, but his powers have been less than supreme when it comes to being able to contain the infighting within the Principalist faction. In the two years since the decline of the Green Movement there have been many media reports about the supposed conflict between Khamenei and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While strong tensions exist, many of these have been greatly exaggerated. Khamenei has actually been making erstwhile efforts to paper over differences, at least in public, and in so doing has provided significant political cover for Ahmadinejad. For example, it is likely no coincidence that a much publicized public questioning of Ahmadinejad by parliament may now be cancelled following this speech by Khamenei. Under ordinary circumstances, Khamenei may simply have let Ahmadinejad’s Principalist opponents tear him to shreds for a wide range of perceived policy failures and other actions. However Khamenei has been staunchly behind the president, to the point that he recently defended Ahmadinejad against one of the regime’s most important constituencies, the bazaar.
Why has the supreme leader acted in such a way? As the nuclear crisis, currency crisis, and other crises begin to converge around the 2013 election, the regime’s senior leadership may fear some kind of conflagration, this time from within the ruling Principalist faction. While the regime may be able to sustain itself against the threat of war over its nuclear program and withstand economic sanctions, a political crisis around election-time may just be too much for the regime’s rotting foundations to bear.