By Aida Ghajar
November 20, 2020
In some cultures, the giraffe is a symbol of confusion and indeterminate identity. It has a long neck, but is not a camel. Its skin is covered with dark spots, but it is not a leopard. It has antler-like protuberances on its head, but it is not a deer.
On reviewing the statements of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published over the last week, one is put forcibly in mind of a giraffe. The Supreme Leader says he is looking for a “young revolutionary government” – more than 40 years after the Islamic Revolution took place. He wants the people to look back to the war with Iraq as a model for unity, when that period was one of misery, poverty, sanctions and death for Iran. He still wants to see a “resistance economy” flourish, while still continuously and egregiously wasting Iran’s rich natural and human resources while the economy crumbles around him.
Earlier in November, after the result of the United States presidential election was announced, many looked to Khamenei to respond in a more meaningful fashion than his usual drumbeat against the US. However, not only he did not utter a word about it in the aftermath, but the official bulletin of his office focused instead on the potential for next year’s presidential election in Iran to mobilize “revolutionary forces”.
The latest weekly issue of Hezbollah’s Line is replete with buzzwords that indicate Khamenei is busily laying the groundwork for the Islamic Republic’s 13th presidential election. Some choice headlines included “The Young Revolutionary Government Must Accept its Responsibilities”, “Most of the Progress in This Country is Owed to the Revolution’s Children” and “The Key is Here, not in the White House”.
The term “young revolutionary government” might be familiar to those who have followed Iranian politics for a while. It is the same phrase Khamenei formerly applied to the government of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By repeatedly emphasizing Ahmadinejad’s – relative – youth, he tried to show both implicitly and explicitly that he wanted to open the field up to the new generation. Furthermore, Khamenei often described Ahmadinejad as “revolutionary”.
Of course, Khamenei may not have imagined then that one day this “young revolutionary” would take a dramatic stand against him. Nor that in the end, it would be Khamenei who had to put him back in his place. Their differences began to emerge in 2009, when Khamenei wanted Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s first vice-president and the father of Ahmadinejad’s daughter-in-law, out of the cabinet. Then in 2011, Ahmadinejad forced Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi to resign, but the Supreme Leader reinstated him. The “young revolutionary” then threw a tantrum, staying at home for 11 days straight, during which the cabinet had to run the country’s affairs without him.
Who is Khamenei’s Eligible “Young Revolutionary”?
Sedigheh Vasmaghi, a lawyer, poet and activist and formerly the first spokesperson for Tehran City Council, tells IranWire that “young revolutionary” has a hidden political subtext. The term dates back to the early days of Ahmadinejad’s administration, she says, may have underlying connotations of naivety.
“Khamenei does not say ‘young competent government’,” she points out, “but ‘young revolutionary’: that is to say, an inexperienced upstart who knows how to flatter him. He wants another administration that will be friendly with the Revolutionary Guards and other groups who control the levers of power in Iran: a government that will ally with them on their common interests, but not a government that will represent the people.”
Khamenei’s eligible young man, of course, must be “revolutionary” in mindset. But, Vasmaghi points out, “‘revolutionary’ is now a hopelessly out-of-date concept. As far back as 1979, the monarchy was overthrown, the Islamic Republic was established and the revolution was over. Now the Islamic Republic is an established system of governance. If the leader of this system were smart, he would recognize this, instead of saying we are still living in an unstable and precarious revolutionary period and the Islamic Republic has yet to find its footing.”
Today, Vasmaghi explains, the keyword “revolutionary” is deployed to describe someone who accepts the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist), and simultaneously a reckless individual who is ready to sacrifice the country to preserve the regime. “Today,” she says, “those who are called ‘revolutionary’ are individuals who, unlike genuine revolutionaries, are not willing to pay a price themselves but want the people to pay the price for them. They use Islam as a cover for demagoguery.”
The Supreme Leader often calls himself a “revolutionary” as well. Before the 2013 election that saw Hassan Rouhani ascend to the presidency, he declared at a meeting with army commanders: “I am not a diplomat but a revolutionary.”
Now Rouhani’s premiership is its final months, and the latest issue of Hezbollah’s Line, which looks more like a job advertisement than a news bulletin, has painted a painstaking portrait of what – according to Ali Khamenei – the next administration must look like.
A ‘Model’ of Misery, Poverty and Death
Elsewhere this week, Khamenei harked back to the devastating eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, claiming that key to solving Iran’s economic problems would be to for people to re-take up the role established for them in the “Sacred Defense”: the term used in the Islamic Republic for its actions during the war. Despite all proof to the contrary, Khamenei has always referred to the Iran-Iraq war as an exemplary period in Iran’s modern history.
This week’s bulletin also recalled past statements by Khamenei, in which he attributed piece every “progress” in Iran to “devout elements”. “The active elements [of Iranian society] are the revolution’s children and the others never helped us or did anything for us,” he said in the spring of 1996.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, had had something similar to say following the Iran-Iraq war and three months before his death. “Today we are in no way sorry that they are not standing by us, because they never were on our side,” he declared in his last written message to clergymen. By “they”, Khomeini was referring to the members of the Freedom Movement of Iran: a pro-democracy party that, according to the testimonies and historical documents, had in fact played a crucial role in his victory.
In the 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has been transformed from a rich country to a diminished one both at home and in the eyes of the world – one that, a country that, as Sedigheh Vasmaghi says, has been hemorrhaging its rich natural and human resources ever since the Islamic Republic came to power. This slow bleeding-out is the direct result, she says, of the “totalitarianism” of a Supreme Leader who “interferes in all executive affairs and in all decisions, and has turned all of his institutions into incompetent ones.”
Vasmaghi, who has herself been sentenced to five years in prison in Iran for “propaganda against the regime”, says frankly that elections in Iran have lost their meaning and people “cannot” and “must not” be encouraged to participate in them. “There is nothing on the ballot for the people and it makes no difference whether they participate in the elections or not,” she says. “My vote is precious and I will only vote in a free, honest and fair election: something I cannot imagine in today’s Islamic Republic.”
Now, Khamenei has fired the starting gun in the latest meaningless race for a new “young revolutionary government”. By once again prematurely backing the most naïve, loyal and exploitative candidate that ends up running, Khamenei has shown that he intends to protect his crumbling regime above all else: a regime that is neither revolutionary nor diplomatic, neither a guerilla force nor a credible government — in other words, a perfect example of a giraffe.