What’s Really behind Khamenei’s Recent Anti-US Statements?

by Shireen Hunter      

Last week Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that Iran will not allow the United States to try reestablishing its influence in Iran. Taken together with the statement of the hardline managing editor of Keyhan Hussein Shariatmadari insinuating that the religious leader was against the nuclear agreement, this statement raised the question of whether Khamenei was having second thoughts about backing the moderate and reconciliatory policies of his president, Hassan Rouhani.

It has certainly not been easy for Khamenei to agree to the necessary concessions on Iran’s part that helped achieve the recent comprehensive nuclear agreement. Some Iranian commentators have even likened the Leader’s support of the agreement to Ayatollah Khomeini’s drinking from the poisoned chalice when he agreed to the ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War in 1988.This analogy is certainly highly exaggerated. Nevertheless, the two events have one important point in common. They both reflect the failure of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, which potentially damages the credibility of its underpinning ideology.

For example, Iran’s record on economic development has been less than satisfactory. At the time of the revolution in 1979, Iran and South Korea were more or less at the same level economically. Today, South Korea is an economic powerhouse while Iran still lags behind even such countries as Turkey. Even some members of Iran’s political elites have admitted as much. For example, a few years ago, arguing that the Islamic Revolution was designed not to accelerate Iran’s development but rather to establish Islamic rule in the country, the hardline cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi admitted that the country would have developed more had there not been a revolution.

Moreover, for more than a decade now, a majority of Iranians have been convinced that aspects of Iran’s foreign policy, especially its so-called anti-imperialist crusade—which oddly enough has been concerned only with American imperialism and has ignored Soviet, Russian, and now Chinese imperialisms—has been a major cause of Iran’s slow pace of development and recent stagnation. The country’s other problems have derived from Iran’s unnecessary entanglements in Middle East problems such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, at least in the past, did not have direct security implications for Iran.

Most Iranians have reached the inevitable conclusion that the Islamic system, at least as implemented in Iran, has proven inadequate in managing the country’s economic life and its foreign relations. That hardliners frequently accuse critics of the system of trying to prove this inadequacy indicates that even the most ardent supporters of the system are conscious of the implications of Iran’s economic and other problems for the credibility of the system’s ideology and its modus operandi. In turn, a weakening of the system’s ideological credibility has serious implications for the balance of power and interest within the system and in the country at large.

Such developments threaten to undermine Iran’s hardliners and those who for more than two decades have opposed efforts to implement serious economic and political and cultural reforms in the country. Those who would lose out economically from reform are the old-fashioned bazaar types involved only in export–import activities. They do not want the country to industrialize and modernize its economic institutions. Another group is the Revolutionary Guard, whose economic and construction arms have carved out a large part of the economy as their special domain. The Guard does not want the reentry of foreign investors, corporations, and partners, especially from Europea, Japan, and potentially America. Even worse would be the return of the Iranian capitalists, investors, and experts currently living abroad. Another group is the Basij, who has been involved in small-scale economic and reconstruction activities mostly in rural areas and in small towns that have been particularly lucrative for its leaders. Basij leader Sardar Naghdi has frequently said that the nuclear agreement should not mean abandoning either the anti-Imperialist struggle or the push for self-sufficiency and a so-called resistance economy.

Given the difficulty of the Rouhani government in garnering adequate support to reach an agreement with the P5+1 and the risks that the hardline opposition could pose to the agreement, the Iranian leadership feels it must somehow assuage the fears of those whose material interests and personal positions would be threatened if Iran continues on the path of economic and political reform and openness. The Khamenei’s statements should be interpreted not as a weakening of his support for the agreement but as a way of reassuring those elements that fear an undermining of their interests. The anti-American sentiment, long a bellwether of Iranian politics, is simply the rhetorical clothing for such reassurances.

The same logic also applies to the statements made by the speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, and Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati. They have said that Iran will continue to support its regional allies, read Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and that it will not give up its anti-imperialist struggle. These regional allies fear that Iran could adopt a more accommodating policy in the Middle East and thus reduce or even eliminate its support of such allies. Sure reassurances are not entirely unwarranted. Since the fate of the nuclear agreement remains unclear in the US Congress and many in America still talk of a potential military strike against Iran, the latter cannot give up all of its regional levers of influence.

Khamenei’s policy of simultaneously compromising with reformers and reassuring hardliners is understandable. But it does not solve Iran’s fundamental problem. It cannot achieve economic development along with international acceptance and recognition while also pursuing revolutionary goals. This does not mean that Iran should forgo its legitimate security and other interests either regionally or internationally. Nor does it mean that Iran should abandon its efforts to help establish a more just international order. It only means that Iran should try to achieve these goals within the framework of a national rather than revolutionary policy and through established international and diplomatic channels.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.


One Comment

  1. re: “Iran’s foreign policy, especially its so-called anti-imperialist crusade—which oddly enough has been concerned only with American imperialism and has ignored Soviet, Russian, and now Chinese imperialisms—has been a major cause of Iran’s slow pace of development and recent stagnation.”

    There are fundamental differences among the “economic hit-man” and militarized imperialism of the USA; the economic imperialism of China; and Putin’s — well, I wouldn’t label as “imperialism” what Putin is attempting to do; I think he is attempting a renaissance of Russian religious and cultural values ante-Communism, anti-Stalin, as reflected in his talk at the Valdai discussions.

    From my point of view as an American but who appreciates the qualitatively distinct Iranian culture and character, I try to understand Khamenei’s concerns: I share them. Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that a US congressional committee “subvert” Iranian young people by “blasting in” televised Hollywood pop culture films to turn Iranians into mindless consumers. Like American young people. It may be paternalistic for Khamenei to want something better for Iran’s next generation, but it’s hard not to endorse the intention.

    I am willing to be corrected if my assessment is too rosy, but I don’t think either Chinese “imperialism” or relations with Putin’s Russia pose the same threat to Iranian bedrock cultural values.

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