Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali meeting President Hassan Rouhani and a group of his cabinet. (Reuters)

By Firouz Farzani

August 31, 2019

On August 20, the Supreme Leader met with President Hassan Rouhani and a group of Iranian cabinet ministers to discuss cultural matters. The Supreme Leader is reported to have told the politicians, “We do not believe in closing down the cultural sphere in the country.”

So far, so good. Then came the caveat.

“But we are against cultural dereliction.”

He went on to warn officials overseeing the arts – publishing, film and theater – that they should be on the lookout for Western influence. (It was the Supreme Leader, back when he took over in 1989, who first conjured the bogeyman of Western cultural assault.)

This is a clear signal we’re in for a crackdown.

Iranians working in the arts are bracing for a renewed wave of restrictions and censorship. Not that the Supreme Leader has ordered one in so many words, but he’s hinted at it and that’s enough.

Now his over-enthusiastic enforcers will do the rest; poorly paid government employees will fall all over each other crushing creativity wherever they see it. These dangerous toadies will undoubtedly put some artists to jail to prove their Islamic cred (Or – in Christian terms – to prove they’re more Catholic than the Pope).

Certain publishers or film directors, threatened with censorship by various officials, will try to appeal to Khamenei himself. They will plead that certain crude, puritanical decisions be overturned, though their groveling simply underscores the power of the sycophants.

The is the way things have worked ever since Khamenei took over, and not just in the arts.

I remember downtown Tehran in July of 1999 after a wave of student demonstrations. The area around the university dorms was choked with garbage, shattered window glass, and the charred wreckage of burned-out buses.

A few days after the violence ended, the Supreme Leader spoke to an audience of Basijis and other devotees.

Radiating injured humility, the old ham told the crowd, “If they tear up my pictures, do not do anything”. (A reference to furious students who had ripped up posters of the Leader.)

Then the old ham started to cry.

“I have a crippled and feeble body but am ready to sacrifice it for the sake of the revolution,” he sobbed.

Of course, his audience started to cry too, and beat their chests in an orgy of manufactured sympathy. It was a calculated performance, and it did the trick.

Later I interviewed dozens of traumatized students freed from detention. Almost all of them told the same story. Blindfolded in Evin Prison, their interrogators had punched and slapped them.

“You sons of bitches,” they shouted. “You made our beloved Supreme Leader cry.”

Similarly, in June of 2009, the Supreme Leader made a speech after another period of unrest.

Hardliners and Green Movement activists had clashed in the streets around Tehran University. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had indicated support for the reformist Green Movement, was forced to give up leading Friday Prayers due to all the booing by hardline followers of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Then Khamenei appeared — at the Friday prayer venue — and gave what to the uninitiated may have sounded like a mild, even-handed speech.

“…the disputed election results will not be settled by taking to the streets,” he said.

“I have been friends with Mr Hashemi Rafsanjani for 50 years. He has spent his life and his fortune in the service of the Revolution, and indeed was almost martyred. But when it comes to economic policy I support Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s approach.”

I was standing with other academics in front of the main gate of Tehran University, half deafened by the blasting from loud speakers mounted on lampposts.

As the Supreme Leader finished, we looked at one another with concern. This was it. We could decipher the code and we knew the Supreme Leader had just sanctioned a crackdown on Green supporters. Things were about to get nasty.

And they did. Almost immediately, the security forces arrested more than 4000 protesters across the country.

It puts me in mind of an Iranian proverb. “He was sent to fetch the hat and came back with the head.”

Every time the Supreme Leader signals he wants hats, his minions return with the heads of anyone brave enough to challenge this despotic regime.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.