By Golnaz Esfandiari
January 4, 2021
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei welcomes a group of artists and filmmakers while exchanging pleasantries and cracking a joke about reports a prominent filmmaker had received residency in Canada.
“I hear you’ve been Canada-ized,” Khamenei says to the director in a documentary shown on state TV. He then pokes fun at another man who he says has been active since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, good-naturedly calling him a “taghouti” — someone affiliated with the Pahlavi monarchy, which was ousted in the revolution.
Khamenei is also shown carefully listening to his guests, who are sipping tea and nibbling on cookies. Some participants at the meeting later praise the “warm” and “friendly” atmosphere and claim they were able to speak their minds freely. Another added that meeting Khamenei had given them all hope.
The scenes are part of a propaganda series called Informal that recently aired on state-controlled television and was shown on Iranian news sites.
Informal also includes Khamenei meeting with veterans of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War who reminisce about the tragic conflict and the “martyrs” they served with.
One man — who lost his arms in an explosion — says he was overwhelmed with emotion when Khamenei embraced him.
The creators of Informal say it shows “informal and intimate” weekly meetings that Khamenei has held in recent years with cultural activists, artists, scientists, and others.
Informal is, in fact, very carefully choreographed to portray Khamenei — who has increasingly relied on his feared security apparatus to tighten his grip on power and silence dissenting voices — in a positive light as an all-caring leader for Iranians who understands the difficult issues in their lives.
In the documentary, the uncompromising authoritarian leader who has ruled Iran for more than three decades says he reads reports from average Iranians “every day.”
“Many of the reports [offer] criticism [about various issues] and we follow-up,” Khamenei claims.
“It’s not as if we imagine that we are living in the paradise of the Islamic republic that was created in our minds, no. We definitely have issues in our work [that we must deal with],” he says, claiming that the “problems” and “deviations” in society do not harm the much-criticized clerical establishment as a whole.
Participants in the meetings with Khamenei are reportedly handpicked from among supporters of the Islamic government and those close to the hard-line faction of the establishment, which Khamenei often sides with.
In the propaganda video published ahead of the country’s June 2021 presidential vote, Khamenei also repeats his 2019 call for a young and ideologically committed president to be chosen amid growing media speculation that a “military” official could win the election on the heels of the hard-line takeover of parliament last year.
That victory was largely engineered by the mass disqualification of thousands of hopeful candidates, mainly reformists and moderates.
“God willing, we will move towards putting young people at the top of matters,” Khamenei says in response to a young activist who complains that the youth are not being given a chance in politics.
The videos seem to clearly be an effort to improve the image of Khamenei, whose legitimacy has been significantly damaged in recent years and also to help create a positive legacy for the 82-year-old, who underwent prostate surgery four years ago amid rumors he was in ill-health.
Due to the deadly coronavirus pandemic that has hit Iran especially hard, the Iranian leader has in past months made very few public appearances while conducting most of his meetings with officials via videoconference.
Criticism of Khamenei is a red line in the Islamic republic, yet in recent years a growing number of Iranians have openly challenged him, including anti-government protesters who have set his image on fire and called for his downfall. Other activists have publicly called for him to resign.
The Informal series was broadcast amid increased public distrust with the clerical establishment, which in November 2019 used lethal force against demonstrators, slaughtering hundreds of people, including children.
The dismal state of the country’s economy — which has been crushed by U.S. sanctions reimposed after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear deal — has resulted in increased public discontent.
Following the deadly 2019 crackdown on protests sparked by a sudden, steep rise in the price of gasoline, opposition figure and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi compared Khamenei to the Shah of Iran who was toppled in 1979.
“The killers of the year 1978 were the representatives of a nonreligious regime and the agents and shooters of November 2019 are the representatives of a religious government,” Musavi was quoted as saying by the opposition website Kalame. “Then the commander in chief was the shah and today, here, it is the supreme leader with absolute authority.”
Musavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavad, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi have been under house arrest since 2011 for publicly challenging Khamenei and criticizing human rights abuses after protesting what they said was a fraudulent presidential election.
In a scene in the propaganda series, filmmaker Abdolhassan Barzideh — who appears to be carefully choosing his words — tells Khamenei that he feels the Iranian leader is closer to a certain segment of society.
“Special figures and groups are around you [while] you’re expected to be the leader of all the people,” Barzideh said, adding that “I don’t feel you are sympathetic to each and every one of us and it is not implied that you love all the people.”
It was a rare show of criticism.
“Whether people know it or not, I love each of them and I pray for them,” said Khamenei, whose establishment has jailed scores of critics, activists, human rights defenders, and environmentalists and forced hundreds of others into exile. Khamenei then strangely added that he may be praying for some harder than he does for others.
Iran’s supreme leader has in recent years reached out during election time to those who don’t support the Islamic establishment, imploring them to vote. Iranian authorities want to use elections as a top claim to their legitimacy.
Barzideh told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that he issued the critical comment hoping it would help bring some change.
“If he can’t do something [to bring change] then no one can. That’s why I decided to speak up [during the meeting]. It remains to be seen whether it will be effective or not,” Barzideh said in a telephone interview.
The propaganda documentary was released following the shock execution on December 12 of Ruhollah Zam, the administrator of the popular Amadnews channel that was accused of stirring up violence during protests that started in December 2017.
It also follows the September execution of 27-year-old wrestler Navid Afkari, who was hanged after being convicted of killing a state worker during 2018 protests despite a public and international outcry for officials to halt his execution.