By Ali Ranjipour
August 8, 2020
On July 22, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei unveiled a new word – “distortion.” We have since heard the word used a great deal over the last week. And it seems that it will become one of the most frequent and widely used official expressions in the political literature and media of the Islamic Republic in the coming months.
Key words used by Iran’s Supreme Leader are of political and even economic importance. These words may seem insignificant to some observers and ordinary Iranians, but experience has shown that, in practice, these words become tools of political manipulation, repression and retribution. And some people are able to use these keywords to start thriving businesses, to drive projects and to allocate budgets.
What is meant by distortion?
The Supreme Leader unveiled “distortion” as an “enemy” conspiracy against Iran – alongside others such as “sanctions” – in a televised speech on the occasion of Eid al-Adha last Friday:
“Along with sanctions – listen carefully – there is also a trend of distortion; next to it is a trend of distortion; distortion of facts, subversion of facts; about the realities of our country, and the realities related to our country. This is one of the things they [the enemies] do. The purpose of this distortion is two things, they want to do two things: one is to hurt the morale of the people, and I will explain how they want to hurt the morale of the people; another is giving a false solution to overcome the difficulties of sanctions. This distortion is being done for these two purposes. And they also spending a lot of money to distort the facts.”
“Distortion” and the media
Less than a week after Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech, his official website published an audio clip entitled The Domino of Sanctions and Distortions and an analytical report entitled The Sedition of Distortion.
In just one case, the ISNA news agency has published more than 40 special reports on this subject from the speeches of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic up until August 7. Several commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Friday prayer leaders, various “experts,” judicial officials, members of parliament including the speaker and deputy speaker, Iran’s president, a number of ministers, and almost all officials, during the past week, spoke of “distortion” and its importance and even of its “decryption.”
Politicians of various stripes have also tried to appropriate the word and to turn it into a sledgehammer to be used against their political opponents. Many critics of the government have used this new key word to attack the government, which seeks to pave the way for negotiations with the West by “distorting” reality and by portraying this situation as critical.
Government officials have meanwhile accused their domestic critics of “distorting” the facts about the government’s achievements and even of ignoring the effects of US sanctions on the economy.
President Hassan Rouhani suggested, for instance, that “propaganda about the inefficiency of the government and distorting the great capabilities and achievements of the country is the main axis of the enemies’ psychological war against the Iranian nation” and an example of Ayatollah Khamenei’s warning of “distortion” in action.
Angry members of parliament have said: “Distortion is a tendency that seeks solutions to all problems of the country in the West, [it] is distrustful of domestic power, gives the wrong impression of the resistance economy, proposed false solutions for several years because of the nuclear deal with the west and trade agreements with Europe, and in the end saw nothing but broken promises.”
When the Supreme Leader talks about the distortion of reality: which reality does he mean?
This is not the first time that Ayatollah Khamenei has used the term “distortion”. He has said for years that the “enemy” seeks to “disrupt the calculations” of the Islamic Republic by subverting the way reality is understood in Iran. But what is the reality that the enemy is seeking to distort?
Iran is widely understood to be currently passing through one of the most critical political, social and economic periods of its contemporary history. The scale of Iran’s economic decline over the last three years is unprecedented. The fall in the economic purchasing power of each Iranian, or in other words, per capita GDP in Iran relative to the per capita growth of neighboring countries, is not even comparable to the critical situation during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Domestic purchasing power in Iran has fallen sharply due to recession and inflation. The value of the national currency has reached its lowest point in history.
The political and social situation in Iran is also highly volatile. The frequency of bloody protests across the country is unprecedented compared to any point in the last 40 years – at any point since the Revolution.
Major political figures in Iran are also experiencing more fluctuation and turnover than in the past – political fluidity has become a dominant feature of political life in Iran. People change positions quickly, their status changes, and many of them are thrown out of power.The political arena in Iran is also heavily shaped now by fierce competition over the race to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei – which at times has led to exposes and counter-exposes of organized corruption.
Iran’s Supreme Leader speaks of the “distortion of reality” while former government officials, the judiciary, and a group of former members of parliament have been and are being publicly tried on charges of corruption.
Ayatollah Khamenei may wish that the reality was different, but in the real world, Iran’s economic, political, and social conditions have never been as critical as they are today.
Bad for us, good for others
Khamenei’s words are also used as a tool for some to make money. Experience has shown that keywords such as “sedition,” “resistance economy,” and others, lead to a mass publication of books, articles, and dissertations, all of which parse, analyse and explain what Khamenei’s words mean.
Hossein Bastani, a journalist, has previously published a study reviewing examples of the academic dissertations related to Ayatollah Khamenei’s speeches and language. But beyond the dissertations, the favorite words of the Supreme Leader have sometimes led to the formation of institutions and committees in which individuals are paid to attend meetings, define financial projects and allocate budgets.
It is even possible that “distortion” desks will be formed in some organizations and departments, in which research and executive projects, with specific budgets and financial outlays, will be defined, to follow words and guidance, the most distinctive feature of which is that they have come out of the mouth of Iran’s Supreme Leader.