Khamenei’s Nowruz address highlights Iran’s culture war

This past week Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave his annual address in Mashhad, after having unveiled that the Iranian calendar year of 1393 will henceforth be known as the year of “Economy and Culture with National Determination & Jihadi Management” in his annual Nowruz television address. These names are supposed to give each year one or more themes which highlight the central concerns of the regime. Not surprisingly, the economy once again was front and center in this year’s name, as it has been since 1388 (2009). While many have tried to decode the significance of the repetition of the economic theme, fewer have addressed the cultural theme which is no less important as an indicator of the Iranian hardline establishment’s thinking. And, as we will see, the message may be a shot across the bow for President Hassan Rouhani and his social base who seek cultural and social reforms, among other things.

In his important Mashhad address Khamenei did not merely raise the theme of culture, but in fact emphasized that it is more important than the economy. Culture, Khamenei explained, 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.”

Warning that “Cultural officials must be aware of cultural infiltration; cultural infiltrations are very dangerous,” he nonetheless acknowledged that foreigners could not be blamed for all of Iran’s problems in this domain: “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.” Still, Khamenei came back to foreigners – the West chief among them – as a source of cultural infiltration and decay in Iran: “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.”

Khamenei was at pains to emphasize that protecting Iranian culture did not contradict the notion of freedom because, he contended, freedom is after all a foundation of the revolution. This freedom, he asserted, did not mean a suspension of all of the rules: “Freedom – which is a great blessing from God – is itself possessing of rule; without rule, freedom has no meaning.” The Iranian supreme leader insisted that the regime could not stand idly by against those who want to uproot the faith of the youth of the country in the name of “freedom” which, in this context, he saw as being potentially as dangerous as heroin and other illegal drugs:

“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.”

Khamenei’s next comments have gathered significant media attention – and criticism – in the West. In delineating the relationship between protecting culture and preserving freedom, he used the example of the taboo nature of questioning the Holocaust in Europe to illustrate his point:

“You see that in the European countries no one dares speak of the Holocaust, which is unclear if it is basically true or not, or if it is true, what it was like; giving opinions on the Holocaust, doubt about the Holocaust, is deemed as one of the biggest sins, they prevent it, they arrest that person [who questions the Holocaust], they imprison them, they prosecute them; and simultaneously, they are claimants of freedom. That which is a red-line for them, they will defend it with all their might. How do they expect us to ignore the faith and revolutionary red lines of our country and youths.”

He concluded the broad outlines of the culture aspect of his address by critiquing those who doubt and mock the “spirit of national independence” and who denigrated “Iranian characteristics” and “national pride”, seeing these as reactionary. For Khamenei, such an outlook would shake the foundations of the “faith” and “self-confidence” of the people and promote “hedonism” among them. He concluded that the regime would not stand by idly while this happened in the country.

For the Rouhani administration and his social base, this aspect of the new year message may be like a bucket of cold water on hopes that cultural and social reforms, among other changes sought by them, are on the horizon. Though it is difficult to decode the full implication of this message, if the experience of the Mohammad Khatami era on these matters has taught us anything, Khamenei’s speech may be an ominous sign of things to come for cultural and social reforms. It is no coincidence that Rouhani’s culture and education ministers – two cabinet portfolios which have held the greatest promise for cultural and social reform – have experienced the greatest amount of domestic pressure from hardliners. And, as we never tire of saying, this could be greater evidence of the great divide in Iranian politics today between the domestic and foreign. This means that whatever “heroic flexibility” Khamenei and hardliners may be willing to show in international nuclear negotiations will not necessarily carry over to the domestic front, which may turn out to be one of the great battles of Rouhani’s presidency. That is if he manages to overcome the nuclear crisis first.