Khamenei’s Big Strategic Mistake

The result is that Khamenei and Rouhani have been waging a cultural war against each other.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is determined to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and improve Iran’s economy. He’s relying on President Hassan Rouhani to make it happen. But Khamenei is unwilling to allow the necessary social and political background for achieving his goals—a democratic political system that respects human rights of the Iranian people.

With the election of Rouhani in June 2013, and given the promises that he had made during his campaign, a hopeful environment began to develop in Iran. Most people were waiting impatiently for dramatic changes. But Khamenei has resisted major changes in the domestic affairs. Instead, he is determined to show that, when it comes to opening up the political system and granting people their rights, Rouhani’s election has not changed anything. The result is that he and Rouhani have been waging a cultural war against each other.

Khamenei is determined to prevent any reforms of the type that former President Mohammad Khatami tried to put in place. More importantly, he remains terrified by the Green Movement. He believes that the Movement was “sedition,” and used this to crack down on the dissidents and supporters of the Movement.

When the violent crackdown on the Green Movement began, hundreds of political activists, journalists, human rights advocates and others either immigrated to other countries or were simply forced to flee Iran. Rouhani’s election and his invitation to the exiles to return home created some hope. But Khamenei does not want them to return to Iran, and to achieve this goal he has taken a four-pronged offensive.

One is the announcement by the judiciary, controlled by him, that if the exiles return they will be put on trial and imprisoned. Second, and to emphasize the first, two people were recently incarcerated. One was journalist Saraj Mirdamadi who returned to Iran, was arrested on May 20 and after a show trial was given a sentence of six years in prison. The second one was Sajedeh Arab Sorkhi, whose Feyzollah Arab Sorkhi was active in the Green Movement and was jailed for 50 months. The young Arab Sorkhi was put on trial in absentia and was given a one-year sentence. After she returned to Iran, she was incarcerated on July 16. Several prominent exiles have been “convicted” in absentia and given long jail sentences, in order to deter them from returning to Iran. Others who have returned to Iran and have been arrested are under pressure to speak on national television and to “repent.” If they refuse, they are barred from leaving Iran.

Khamenei is also concerned about Rouhani’s attempt to give more freedom to the universities, which have always been the hotbeds of opposition to the ruling elite. His fervent wish is to continue the national security state under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which the universities were severely repressed. Rouhani’s Minister of Research, Science and Technology, Reza Faraji Dana, who oversees the universities, took several steps to open up the repressive political environment at universities, replacing presidents and chancellors of many universities, and allowing many students and faculty who had been expelled to return. Hence, Khamenei’s office coordinated a move in the Majles [parliament] to impeach Faraji Dana. He was sacked on August 21 by a vote of 145 to 110.

Before the impeachment, many conservative and reactionary clerics, as well as the mass media controlled by the hardliners, attacked Faraji Dana—fiercely. They claimed that he had appointed the “seditionists”—supporters of the Green Movement - to important positions, and accused him of putting them in control.

In a speech on August 17 to the student branch of the Basij militia, the paramilitary force controlled by the hardliners, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, Khamenei’s senior adviser and father-in-law of Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, said, “It has been a while since the Supreme Leader identified a great threat to the Islamic Revolution. He has warned senior officials several times. So, the Basij university students must be alert and prevent anyone from doing anything that might disturb the tranquility in our universities.” After Faraji Dana’s impeachment, Haddad Adel said, “Impeachment is over, but we will still be vigilant about the seditionists.”

And, the day after Faraji Dana was impeached and sacked, the daily Kayhan, a mouthpiece of the hardliners, declared, “Majles broke the sedition’s horn.”

Sadegh Larijani, the conservative judiciary chief said on August 20 that “finishing off the Green Movement” is “an important achievement” of the judiciary, adding, “If Rouhani accepts the existence of the sedition, he should not appoint its supporters [to important posts],” and, “Some people [meaning Rouhani] may say that the sedition is in the past, but its influence still persists.” He pointed out that the Green Movement’s leaders [former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of the Majles Mehdi Karroubi] still insist on their positions, and thus such people should not be in a senior position.