Iran: Khamenei and Rouhani Face Off on Culture War

Does President Rouhani have enough power to implement important cultural reforms?

Political structures are the domains of scarce resources of power, wealth, knowledge and social class. Politicians and political groups fight over such resources. The fights are usually settled fairly in democratic societies. But, the fight over such resources in undemocratic nations is strongly limited to small groups of privileged people and senior officials, and does not include a broad cross section of the society.

This is particularly true about the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since its inception in February 1979, the political class has witnessed intense infightings over resources, and Hassan Rouhani’s presidency is no exception. His term began under the worst economic conditions over the past three decades. Deep recession and the economic sanctions that U.S. Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew has called “the most severe in history” have severely limited the government’s resources, and have forced Rouhani to not only cut the national budget, but have also made it possible to reduce the role of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) in the national economy.

Senior IRGC commanders have explicitly criticized the Rouhani administration for not granting large economic projects to the force’s engineering arm, the Khatam-olanbia. In turn, Rouhani accused the IRGC of “demanding its share [of the national resources]” as if it is entitled to it. In response, the IRGC high command declared that Rouhani is pursuing a policy of transforming the IRGC to a “nonrevolutionary and conservative” military force.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and his conservative supporters are angry about the political and cultural developments since the Rouhani administration took office. Thus, they are using the cultural arena to confront the government. The conservatives claim that Rouhani is “Westernized,” and is pursuing elimination of Islam from the public domain and staining the “pure” culture of the Islamic Republic with foreign thoughts and ideas. To see this, consider the following developments:

Founding of cultural command headquarters. In a meeting with the members of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution on December 10 of last year, Khamenei, emphasizing the government’s duty to lead and direct the nation in the cultural domain and “confront the destructive cultural issues,” likened the task to “a gardener protecting beautiful flowers” and said, “uprooting the weeds in a garden allows natural use of water, air and light [by flowers].” Criticizing the government in the same speech, Khamenei defended the founding of the cultural command headquarters by the hardliners.

In a meeting with Iranian artists on January 8, Rouhani responded to Khamenei, saying:

Dividing our artists into Arzeshi and gheir Arzeshi is meaningless [Arzeshi means value-laden, and is referred to someone who adheres to rigid interpretation of Islamic teachings and the supposed goals of the 1979 Revolution favored by the hardliners; gheir Arzeshi means those who oppose such interpretations]… Without freedom art is meaningless, and it is impossible to be creative without liberty… There is a direct link between freedom and art. True art will never be created in an unfree society. We cannot create arts by issuing decrees. In a national-security state art will not bloom, and as [Muhammad] Iqbal [the philosopher and poet in British India] said, ‘when a rigid brainless man takes control, art could not bloom.’ This administration does not intend to continue censorship in order to impede the work of artists. [Even] if we were to watch artists’ work, we must have a group of the elites, intellectuals, artists, and scholars, even religious scholars, to supervise and monitor the work. An artist can monitor another artist’s work, not a bureaucrat who can never do a good job of this. Why should we not ask the experts to monitor arts, books, and cinema? What would be the problem if civic organizations do part of the Ershad’s [Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that currently monitors such things] work? The government does not write books, make movies, compose music, and write poems. The government must simply be a facilitator for the artists and intellectuals. We must trust arts and artists, because viewing them in security terms is the gravest security mistake… If we look at them [and their work] as a security issue, we will forget about the real security issues, and will also deter a true artist that can make us aware of the real threats.

The concerns of the Supreme Leader. On March 6, Khamenei met with the members of the Assembly of Experts (a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and supposedly monitors his performance). They expressed to Khamenei their concerns about the cultural state of the country. Khamenei agreed with them, saying: