By H Rastgoo
January 23, 2020
On January 17, Ayatollah Khamenei led Tehran’s Friday prayers after an eight-year absence from this ceremony. However, in his first Friday sermon since 2012, Ayatollah Khamenei surprised many analysts because he refrained from taking any new or significant position on domestic and international issues.
The most strident part of the Leader’s sermon was his position with respect to negotiations with European powers: “We have no qualms about negotiating – not with the US, but with the others.” However, this announcement, which some analysts regarded as an important signal, was not the presentation of a new position. The Ayatollah had stated before, on several occasions, that he did not trust European powers but was not against negotiating with them.
In his recent Friday Prayer sermon, too, Khamenei maintained that three European states party to the 2015 nuclear deal (the JCPOA) “cannot be trusted,” after the United Kingdom, France and Germany triggered a formal dispute-resolution mechanism in the plan, which could lead to the return of UN sanctions against Iran. The Leader said: “You see, they’re just pawns of the US. They’re trying to bring Iran to its knees. The US, which was your master, failed to do so, let alone you tiny ones.” He even compared Western diplomats “who appear at the negotiating table” to the “terrorists of Baghdad airport,” referring to those who killed Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, in Iraq.
Another part of the Leader’s sermon that stood out was his lexical description of the Quds Force, the extraterritorial branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Khamenei called the Quds Force members the “Combatants without Borders,” a term that resembles the familiar names of organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and Doctors Without Borders, thus creating an effective new keyword for search engines, as well as a propaganda hashtag for social media platforms.
The Context of the Leader’s Sermon
The announcement of the Leader’s presence at Tehran’s Friday prayers was made in the midst of widespread public distrust and anti-government protests. This was due to the Islamic Republic being discredited on unprecedented levels after the disclosure of the regime’s systematic efforts to hide the fact that the Ukrainian plane had been downed by IRGC’s surface-to-air missiles.
The public anger about these lies led them to chant a variety of radical slogans against the Leader in a new round of street protests. The disclosure of the Iranian government’s lies was not an unprecedented event. But the false claims of the Iranian regime, and particularly the IRGC, over the crash of the Ukrainian plane were not comparable to the usual cases of government-led lies, because firstly it concerned the lives of 176 civilians, and, secondly, the regime was finally obliged to officially admit that its initial narratives on the plane crash were baseless.
This was not even comparable to the Islamic Republic’s historical confession in 1998 over the “chain murders” of Iranian dissidents. At that time, the conservatives attributed the murders to foreign agencies and opposition groups, but after a while the Ministry of Intelligence issued a statement acknowledging that the assassinations had been committed by Iranian intelligence agents (however, the ministry falsely claimed that these agents were “rogue elements,” and that they had committed the murders without their superiors’ consent). At the time, the conservatives’ initial claims about the perpetrators of the assassinations were proved to be baseless, but these claims had been rejected from the beginning by reformist newspapers and politicians that were close to President Khatami. The 1998 episode was, therefore, absolutely unlike the case of the Ukrainian plane, because the narratives about the crash disseminated by all government authorities and all official media outlets in Iran were completely baseless.
Unconditional Support for the IRGC
Despite the huge public pressure the Islamic Republic was exposed to after the downing of the Ukrainian plane, the Leader made no effort at his Friday sermons to apologize for or explain the government’s lying over the issue. He did not even say a single word indicating that he had recognized that the Islamic Republic might have faced any credibility crisis after the shooting down of the Ukrainian plane.
Instead, Ayatollah Khamenei’s presence at Friday prayers was first and foremost a kind of power projection, the aim of which was gathering as many people as possible at the Leader’s sermon in an effort to neutralize the impact of street protests and anti-Leader slogans following the crash of the Ukrainian plane.
In the context of this power projection, the Leader said “tens of millions” attended the funeral of Ghasem Soleimani, forming “the world’s greatest memorial service.” He glorified the IRGC’s missile attacks on US bases, stating that “slapping the arrogant, bully world power [the US]” was “the IRGC’s powerful blow to the US esteem that cannot be repaired by any means.”
The Leader, in addition to his epic description of Ghasem Soleimani’s funeral, criticized the act of “insulting his photos,” referring to young people who had torn down posters of General Soleimani during a number of recent street protests. Humiliating these protesters, Khamenei stated that “the Iranian people” are “the millions who appeared in the streets” to commemorate Soleimani, and not “a few hundred people who insulted the photos of our glorious, martyr commander.”
In his Friday sermon, Khamenei also made very brief references to the downing of the Ukrainian plane. But not only did the Leader refrain from criticizing IRGC commanders, he did not even make any reference to the early claims by the IRGC about the plane crash, which were proved to be false. In contrast, the Iranian Leader highly praised the IRGC and its actions, and even thanked the Guard commanders for their performance regarding the plane crash tragedy: “There are some ambiguities in this incident. We thank the IRGC commanders who explained to the people [about them].”
Friday Prayers to go Down in History?
The content of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s prayer sermon prompted many analysts to question why the Leader needed to lead Friday Prayers after an eight-year absence.
This question was particularly important because before the Friday prayers ceremony, a massive number of pro-Leader hardline activists and figures had raised public expectations about Ayatollah Khamenei’s sermons. Many of the Leaders supporters had even anticipated that he would make “historic” statements on domestic issues (for instance, against the Rouhani administration), the nuclear deal, or the Islamic Republic’s confrontation with the United States.
The hardliners’ high expectations of the Leader’s sermon were apparent in the massive propaganda that had been spread prior to the Friday prayers ceremony. For instance, they had massively propagated hashtags like “history-making Friday prayers” (in Persian) on social media platforms. A number of hardline figures and activists had even warned that because of the exceptional importance of the sermon, the enemies the Islamic Republic might carry out dramatic, unexpected actions to divert the public’s attention from the Leader’s positions.
Despite the rather ordinary content of the Leader’s recent sermon, one can imagine that the Islamic Republic’s government institutions will still do their best to portray it as a historical event. However, regardless of the amount of propaganda that will be generated about Ayatollah Khamenei’s sermon, his January 17 Friday prayer projected the picture of an old leader that, despite his inflexibility in domestic and international fields, put forward no specific initiative regarding the new type of crises his regime had been facing.
In the end, it would appear that the most important motive for Ayatollah Khamenei’s sermon after an eight-year absence was not taking an exceptionally important stance, but merely a reminder of the Leader’s continuous “presence” on the political scene, despite the intensification of anti-Leader slogans at street protests.