Khamenei throws the gauntlet at the West
By Mahan Abedin
The hosting of an "Islamic Awakening" conference in Tehran over the weekend
provided a suitable occasion for the Islamic Republic to advance its narrative
on the so-called Arab Spring.
Attended by hundreds of intellectuals, spiritual leaders and political
activists from the Islamic world and beyond, and addressed foremost by the
leader of the Islamic Revolution Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei and
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the conference was a major event and can be
viewed as a significant statement of intent.
The inaugural speech by Khamenei is of prime importance in so far as it clearly
and succinctly sets out the Islamic Republic's view on the political upheavals
sweeping across the Arab world
and the extent to which Iran is determined to frame those changes in an Islamic
It is important to examine Khamenei's words in detail as this was his most
important public speech since June 2009, when he addressed Friday Prayers a
week after the disputed presidential elections that triggered unprecedented
demonstrations and riots in Tehran.
The quality of that speech, marked foremost by the subtle and complex messages
it transmitted, enabled the Islamic Republic and its loyalists to
systematically dismantle the political, intellectual and organizational
infrastructure of the country's emerging protest movement, widely referred to
as the Green movement.
Before examining the speech it is worthwhile to outline the foundational
concepts that guide this debate. Khamenei's speeches over the past 21 years,
since he assumed the leadership of the Islamic Republic, are essentially
designed to outline and expand the ideological understanding and framing of key
issues such as economic, social, cultural, political and foreign policies.
These speeches can be considered a statement of intent inasmuch as their
ideological underpinnings are concerned, but they are rarely (if ever)
implemented without sufficient regard for other key considerations, such as
pragmatism and practicability.
In the sphere of foreign policy, Khamenei's speeches are designed foremost to
set out the ideological guidelines and goals that should direct the pursuit of
external relations. While Khamenei's ideological input is an important element
of foreign policy conception in the Islamic Republic - and he has the final say
on all important matters of state - it is crucial to note that Iran's foreign
policy cannot be defined in ideological terms alone.
A detailed assessment of foreign policy formulation and implementation in the
Islamic Republic is beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice to say that a
comprehensive understanding of the same requires a deep study of the
foundational themes of modern Iranian foreign policy since the beginning of the
19th century and the extent to which those themes have been co-opted, adapted
and modified by the discourse of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
An additional layer of research concerns the detailed study of the existing
institutions that are tasked with interpreting, adapting and ultimately
implementing the resulting symbiosis.
To improve understanding of Khamenei's latest speech, it is worthwhile
examining the ideological roots and foundational concepts of Iran's views on
The Islamic Republic's views and discourse on Islamization rest on three
essential planks. First and foremost, at the deepest level of
self-identification Iran's Islamic Revolution draws the roots of its identity
and its perennial driving force from Shi'itism and more specifically the real
or imagined historical experience of Twelver Shi'ite Muslims.
Second, at the intellectual and political levels, the Islamic Revolution
critiques Western modernity not with a view to complete rejection but rather to
highlight the divergence of historical experiences separating the Western
Judeo-Christian realm from the Islamic world. The result is a profound critique
of Western-style secularism, but a qualified acceptance of Western-style
democracy, albeit one stripped of its liberal overtones.
Third, in the external relations sphere, the Islamic Revolution adopts the
vision and politics of pan-Islam and ultimately aspires to the political unity
of the world of Islam.
The third factor is arguably the most important in so far as it directs the
bulk of the Islamic Revolution's energy onto the geopolitical sphere and frames
its world view and policies in direct opposition to that of the prevailing
Western powers. This is a striking point of departure between Iran's Islamic
vision and other notable examples, such as that of the Turks, whose "soft"
Islamists, embodied foremost by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP),
entrench Islamization in the paradigm of deeper democratization and economic
Similar to the Turkish AKP, the reformist wing of the Islamic Republic
prioritizes democratization and the development of civil society and economic
resilience at the expense of foreign policy innovation and radicalism.
But the key point to note is that while the Islamic Republic's reformists have
been successful in embedding their ideas and vision on politics and civil
society in the fabric of Iran's political and intellectual society, their views
and ideas on foreign policy have been judged to be lacking in sufficient
conceptual clarity, and subsequently largely excluded from the decision-making
processes of the country's foreign policy institutions.
The timing of the "Islamic Awakening" conference and Khamenei's speech are
important, as they coincide with the visit of Western leaders to Libya and the
regional tour of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the highlight of
which was his visit to Cairo.
Both events are perceived as a threat by Tehran, albeit to different degrees of
intensity and consequence. British Prime Minister David Cameron's and French
President Nicolas Sarkozy's triumphant visit to Tripoli is widely viewed as a
statement of intent by the major Western powers to directly intervene - through
military force if necessary - in the political processes that are shaping the
convulsions across the Arab world with a view to renewing and consolidating
Western political and economic influence in the region.
Erdogan's whistle-stop tour of the region is viewed in Tehran as an attempt by
Ankara to not only safeguard key Turkish political and economic interests but
also to expound on Turkey's vision of indigenous democracy and economic
development for the region, one that markedly (but not fundamentally) contrasts
with the Western vision.
The Tehran conference also comes at a time of increasing attacks on Iran by key
Western leaders, some of whom, like Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague,
have accused Iran of hypocrisy in its supportive position for the putative Arab
revolutions by highlighting the Iranian government's suppression of the
country's protest movement in 2009 and by drawing attention to Iran's support
for the embattled Syrian regime.
For its part, Iran accuses the West of hypocrisy by drawing attention to
Western countries' longstanding ties to authoritarian Arab leaders (including
Muammar Gaddafi in Libya) and their subsequent opportunistic support for the
Arab Spring. Iran also accuses Western countries of enthusiastically supporting
change and revolution in some countries (Libya) while turning a blind eye to
the suppression of protesters and revolutionaries in others (Bahrain).
In his speech (the full text of which was released by his office and carried by
the major Tehran-based news agencies) Khamenei elaborates on three key factors
pertaining to what Iran views as the Islamic Awakening. These are the
historical roots and ideological identity of the Arab protest movements; the
dangers and threats facing these embryonic revolutionary movements; and his
suggestions, based on the direct experience of Iran's Islamic Revolution, on
ways to counter and neutralize these threats.
In regard to the character of the protest movements, Khamenei links them to the
150-year Islamic revivalist movement in the Muslim world. He distinguishes them
from the immediate post-colonial political changes in countries like Egypt,
Algeria and Libya which were led by small military elites who merely assumed
public support for their actions, by drawing attention to the "mass" nature of
these movements and the fact that they involve millions of people clamoring for
political change. In this sense, majority public support for change is not only
assumed but is visible to the naked eye.
It is in the spirit of celebrating the power of mass movements that Khamenei
strongly condemns the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) military
intervention in Libya and interprets it as a blatant attempt by major Western
powers to gain a foothold in the Arab revolutionary movement with a view to
derailing it in a manner that suits Western ideological, political and economic
By linking mass movements to the 150-year modern quest for Islamic revival,
Khamenei is attempting to define the Arab protest movements as closely as
possible to the model of Iran's Islamic Revolution. This modeling is taken to a
deeper level when Khamenei pontificates on the deepest aspirations of the Arab
According to Khamenei, the protesters are motivated by four core aspirations;
to revive national honor after decades of tyrannical rule often characterized
by subservience to the West; to hold aloft the Islamic standard while pursuing
the quest for authentic social justice and economic development, which
according to Khamenei is only possible within the framework of the Islamic sharia;
to resist American and European political and cultural influence; to join the
battle against Israel which he describes as an "usurping regime" and a "bogus
Zionist government" that the West has implanted in the region in the form of a
Crusader Kingdom to displace an entire people from their historic homeland and
to keep a knife permanently embedded in the body politic of the region.
Khamenei's description of the underlying motivations behind the protest
movements, and presumably his vision of the resulting political effects, is
synonymous with the Islamic Republic's understanding of the most important
mission of Islamization, namely the quest to remake the geopolitical map of the
region with a view to expelling all uninvited or coercive foreign influences,
chiefly the massive American military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Khamenei reveals to his audience that immediately after the victory of the
Iranian Revolution in 1979, the new revolutionary leaders (including himself)
expected Egypt to quickly follow suit in view of that country's potential for
revolutionary change premised on the deep roots of Islamic revivalism in Egypt
and the numerous major Islamic thinkers and leaders produced by that country.
Khamenei explains away the delayed process of revolution in Egypt by claiming
that change is coming at a "suitable" moment. The specific focus on Egypt may
be incidental, reinforced by the reality of that country's central role in Arab
affairs and the common Arab destiny.
However, most likely Khamenei's singling out of Egypt is an expression of the
delayed expectations of Iranian leaders and a direct appeal to pro-Iranian
sentiments within Egypt's vast Islamic movement, embodied foremost by the
The second and third topics, namely the threats posed to the Arab revolutions
and the means to combat these threats, reflect the direct experience of the
Iranian Revolution and the new revolutionary power's struggle against its
internal and external enemies.
Khamenei divides the threats into two broad categories; those that emanate from
within the ranks of the revolutionaries and those that are carefully planned by
the revolution's external enemies.
In regard to the former, Khamenei warns against general complacency about the
progress of the revolution and personal ambition on the part of some tentative
revolutionary leaders. He also warns against moderating the demands and
objectives of the revolution in the face of real or perceived threats or bribes
by the "arrogant" powers, which refers to America and her allies.
In regard to external factors, the Iranian leader identifies the West's quest
to penetrate the revolution at all levels as the most pernicious threat.
Khamenei claims that after the "inevitable" fall of its stooges, the West will
try to keep the "systems" in place and to prevent the fruition of fully-fledged
revolutions that will presumably yield entirely new systems.
In so far as advice on overcoming these threats is concerned, Khamenei warns
his audience that deviation in the revolutionary movement begins at the point
of slogans and declared objectives. At this point, the Iranian leader launches
a direct attack on America, NATO and the "criminal" regimes of the United
Kingdom, France and Italy, which he says at one point occupied and exploited
the very same lands that they now purport to liberate.
Khamenei warns against religious extremism and calls for the recognition and
management of religious differences in the Islamic world. He counsels that
Islamization must not be accompanied by reactionary tendencies and religious
bigotry and chauvinism, which he says are capable of producing "blind"
This is an expression of the fear by Iranian leaders that one of the immediate
effects of the instability caused by the collapse of the Arab order may be to
deepen sectarian divides in the region and escalate existing sectarian
Beyond listing individual threats, Khamenei advises that the greatest task
facing the Arab revolutionaries is designing and building new "systems", which
he argues are the surest guarantee against intellectual and political
contamination by other ideological-political systems, chiefly Western
liberalism and secularism, nationalism and left-wing ideologies.
Finally, he advises that the creation of a unified Islamic umma (community)
and the efflorescence of a new Islamic civilization based on "religion, logic,
science and ethics", should be regarded as the ultimate aims of the
revolutionary movements. The stress on Islamic unity as the ultimate aim is an
attempt to harmonize the long-term political trajectory of the Arab revolutions
with the aspirational dimension of Iranian foreign policy.
Khamenei's speech is a significant event and should be considered by all
concerned as a major statement of intent. Beyond the immediate audience, it is
directed foremost at official Iranian institutions and Islamic Republic
loyalists in the region and beyond and instructs them, in general terms, on how
to interpret the political changes in the Arab world and subsequently how to
adjust their engagement with the actors involved.
It is a direct reaction to the statements and actions of Western leaders in
recent weeks and is designed to intensify the rhetorical war and bring the
profound paradigmatic differences into sharper focus.
Beyond its inspirational and ideological aspects, Khamenei's speech implicitly
engages with key strategic issues, namely anxiety on the part of major
non-Western powers such as China and Russia, and even lesser powers such as
Brazil and India, about the potential for increased Western influence in the
region, especially in the wake of the NATO intervention in Libya.
By placing Iran in direct opposition to Western views and plans, Khamenei
skillfully exploits the rampant anxiety in Moscow and Beijing and increases
these countries' incentive to support Iran in its intensifying diplomatic,
political and potentially military conflict with the West.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.
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