Ayatollah Khamenei as Fearful, Unapologetic, and Defiant as Ever

As past experiences suggest, Ayatollah Khamenei only leads Friday prayers at a moment of crisis. The last time he delivered a Friday prayer sermon was eight years ago, on the 33rd anniversary of the country’s revolution.

Iran was experiencing a sever crisis back in 2012, with conflicts over Iran’s nuclear program at its core . There was this report by the IAEA pointing to Iran’s sudden doubling of the number of centrifuges installed deep under a mountain near the city of Qom, as well as the concerning suspicious activities in Parchin site.

To address international concerns and find a  solution to the predicament of Iran’s nuclear program, there were three rounds of talks in Turkey, Iraq and Russia, described by Hillary Clinton as “perhaps a last chance to demonstrate a way forward” to satisfy the west.

It was in 2012 that the US promoted substantive sanctions (in addition to the ones already in place since the 1979 revolution) to tighten the rope around the neck of Iran’s economy in a hope of forcing the mullahs to give up their nuclear ambitions. As a result of US pressures, the EU joined the US bandwagon by imposing an oil embargo on Iran and freezing  Iran’s Central Bank’s assets. In another action, EU disconnected all Iranian banks from the world’s hub of electronic financial transactions, SWIFT. EU sanctions even targeted Sharif, Iran’s best technical university.

There was a lot of war talk too, underwritten by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to drag the US into a war with Iran over its nuclear program.

There was also the crisis over the devaluation of Iranian currency (rial), particularly when the value of the rial fell off by 50% in one month.

Furthermore, Iran’ s human rights record was strongly condemned by the United Nations in 2012; thus, putting more political pressure on the regime. UN actions included a sharp criticism of Iran’s rights record by the UN’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee, and a call by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Iran to release prominent human rights activists from detention. In addition, there was a rebuke at the General Assembly, which condemned human rights violations including “arbitrary detentions, the persecutions of minorities, efforts to interfere with the freedom of expression, and inhumane conditions in Iran’s prison system where torture and cruel punishments have been used.”

Last but not the least was the growing popular discontent and frustration at the regime as a result of the worsening economic conditions and political repression leading to series of mass protests in urban areas, largely fueled and encouraged by the 2011 “Arab Spring”.

It was under such circumstances that Ayatollah Khamenei delivered his Friday sermon in 2012. According to the Guardian, during his speech, he “called Israel a “cancerous tumour” and vowed to support anyone confronting it. He also warned against any US strikes on Iran over its nuclear program, saying the US would be damaged “10 times over”.

Focusing on the conspiracies of foreign enemies, particularly US and Israel, as the sole cause of Iran and regional problems and invoking Iranian national and religious sentiments to stand up and resist foreign powers and their domestic allies, have always been supreme leader’s strategy to suppress dissent, divert attentions from domestic shortcomings, and consolidate his grip on power.

Current conditions which have necessitated the Ayatollah to address internal/external foes and friends during Friday prayers, while sharing many similarities with the events of 2012, particularly with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and economic conditions, are more serious than before. That is why the regime walked a long mile to bring as many people as they could to this week’s prayers to show the world that Iranians are still united behind the supreme leader and his policies despite the tragic plane incident and the growing radical/antagonistic protests in recent weeks. They advertised it in Iran’s national radio and television for days, they insured every individual attending the event, they arranged for a fare-free public transportation on this day, and they hauled people by bus from suburban towns to Tehran Mosalla Mosque.  

What qualifies the current situation as critical as ever though are the US assassination by drone of Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian attack on US targets in Iraq, the “accidental” shoot down of a Ukrainian airliner, the growing anti-regime protests, European powers decision to invoke Iran deal dispute mechanism, and, last but not the least, the unprecedented and bone-braking US economic sanctions that have plunged Iran’s economy into a situation never experienced before, even at the heights of the Iran-Iraq war of the 80s.

In his sermon, Khamenei asserted :  “the Iranian people love and want resistance to the world powers and no capitulation,”  western powers use  the plane crash to question our military forces which he said “maintained the security” of the people and our borders, Iran’s missile attack on bases housing US troops in Iraq was  “a slap to a world power, ” Soleimani’s assassination had saddened Iran as much as it made its enemies happy, and that Western countries are too weak to “bring Iranians to their knees.”

On the sensitive issue of the downing of the Ukrainian plane, without offering any apologies  to the families of the victims of this tragedy, he said it was a “bitter accident” that “burned through our heart.” However, he emphasized that this incident must not overshadow the “great martyrdom and sacrifice” of Soleimani.

As some analysts have noted, while describing the downing of the plane ”as a tragedy and expressing condolences to the primarily Iranian victims and their families, Khamenei otherwise stuck to the hardest of hard lines, ruling out any new talks with the Trump administration, which he derided as a bunch of clowns”  who only pretend to support the Iranian people” To the latter, Trump immediately and angrily responded escalating the war of words as well as  tensions between the two leaders: “The so-called “Supreme Leader” of Iran, who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say about the United States and Europe. Their economy is crashing, and their people are suffering. He should be very careful with his words!”

Khamenei did not concede anything to the demands of the protesters to punish those responsible for killing of 176 people, 147 of whom held Iranian citizenship. On the contrary, he only offered thanks and bowed in respect to those mourning parents who did not echo the voices of Iran’s enemies and stood up against their conspiracies by supporting the regime. Furthermore, he surprisingly asked the commanders of IRGC not to follow up on the investigation of those responsible for shooting down the plane. Instead, he directed them to make serious efforts to prevent such mistakes ever happening again.

Another important aspect of his sermon on January 17 was that he closed the door on changing any parts of Iran regime’s central domestic and foreign policies viz., repression at home, “export of the revolution” abroad. It appears that neither Trump nor Khamenei are willing to give up their own vision of the Middle East region. Hence, while the chess game between the two sides continues at the cost of the people of the region, the Trump administration seems to have been much more successful in cornering the regime in the ring and throwing devastating economic and political punches at them.

While in public Khamenei has always been defiant against the United States, behind the scenes he has shown some flexibility in dealing with them -e.g., the JCPOA.  However, the US assassination of Soleimani, has been a significant blow to any possibility of any rapprochements between Iran and US in the near future.  Futhermore, it seems highly improbable that the mullahs would surrender to Mr. Trump’s policy of “Maximum Pressure.”

To conclude, Ayatollah Khamenei, as expected, failed to acknowledge that the people attending his January 17 sermon do not represent the whole of Iran. He did not say anything about the worsening economic conditions, growing people’s discontent and their socioeconomic suffering, the devastating flood in Sistan and Bluchestan province, and the violent repression of the protesters. He did not offer any viable solutions to ease domestic and international tensions either, except repeating  his old slogan and policy of “no compromise, no surrender, down with USA.” In fact, pointing to the millions of Iranians who took to the streets to commemorate “Martyr Soleimani”, Ayatollah Khamenei said the Iranian nation showed that it supports resistance.  Was this the reason behind Rohani suddenly leaving the Friday prayer with an angry face? https://youtu.be/APVY_yuq6V0

–khashayar

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