On Friday, Reuters picked up on reporting in Iranian state media which noted that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had once again voiced criticism of President Hassan Rouhani’s handling of the nation’s economy following the nuclear agreement that went into effect at the beginning of last year. The supreme leader’s remarks appeared to specifically highlight the ongoing struggles of the Iranian people, who are experiencing poverty at a rate of at least nine percent and likely much higher.
“Of course the government has taken remarkable steps but if the resistance economy had been implemented fully and widely, we could witness a tangible difference in people's lives,” Khamenei was quoted as saying. In previous months, he had already called for the renewal of his own “resistance economy” plan, which involves domestic development aimed at making the nation more capable of weather the storm of international economic sanctions, as distinguished from Rouhani’s plan of reaching out to Western powers in order to alleviate those sanctions.
Khamenei’s recommendations thus serve a dual purpose. In the first place, they further undermine the prospects for further rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and the West. And secondly, they defray blame for economic woes away from the supreme leader’s office and its hardline affiliates, putting it instead onto the Rouhani administration, which faces a contentious reelection bid in May.
But recently released intelligence strongly suggests that the supreme leader and hardline authorities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bear a great deal of responsibility for the economic struggles of Iranian citizens, as a result of the systematic misappropriation both of budgetary funds and financial resources earned through Iran’s private sector. On Wednesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran held a panel discussion coinciding with the release of an e-book titled, The Rise of the Revolutionary Guards’ Financial Empire.
In both the discussion and the document, the leading Iranian opposition group explained that a recent push toward widespread privatization of the Iranian economy has actually resulted in the private acquisition of more than half of the country’s gross domestic product by front companies and other affiliates of the IRGC and the supreme leader himself.
The Washington Times reported upon some of the findings presented in that document, emphasizing the fact that the regime is using these privately acquired assets to channel billions of dollars into regional terrorism, paramilitary activities, and weapons development. The article notes that the intelligence gathered by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran found that approximately 100 billion dollars was being spent annually just on salaries for militant fighters in the Syrian Civil War.
The Washington Times credits the NCRI with presenting a clear warning to Western businesses and policymakers. And the document itself says, “Foreign investors cannot in practical terms avoid entanglement by affiliation in the Iranian regime's behavior, including its support for terrorism, continued aggressive policies towards regional countries, manufacture and testing of ballistic missiles, and systematic egregious human rights violations inside Iran.”
To critics of Iran’s clerical regime, this entanglement is worrying in its own right because of Tehran’s traditional behavior. And it is made more worrying by the fact that the above-mentioned ballistic missile program is being used alongside other types of weapons as a tool of explicit anti-Western propaganda.
This fact was highlighted once again on Friday when the Associated Press reported that General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the IRGC’s aerospace division, had boasted of the successful testing of another ballistic missile. The launch was aimed at naval targets and took place amidst three days of large-scale training exercises by the Iranian Navy, which is separate from the naval forces of the IRGC.
The IRGC conducted its own naval operations the previous week, and both demonstrations were accompanied by boastful rhetoric about readiness for war with proclaimed enemies including the United States. In a separate example of the same propaganda trends, Iran also premiered an animated film depicting a military officer modeled after IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani leading a small number of Iranian vessels in destroying a much larger American fleet.
In January, the IRGC conducted the test launch of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile barely a week after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Such tests take place in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to refrain from work on weapons that could carry a nuclear warhead, but a half dozen other such launches had been carried out before Trump was inaugurated but after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.
The January incident was apparently the immediate impetus for a statement by the Trump administration putting Iran on notice over its provocative behavior. But various observers including US Navy officers have declared that that behavior remains unchanged, and that the IRGC continues to act unprofessionally and confrontationally in the region. Last weekend, for instance, several fast-attack vessels belonging to the IRGC positioned themselves about 600 yards away from a US Navy surveillance ship and three British vessels, compelling them to change course.
The AP reported on Friday that Iranian officials had since made exactly the opposite claim about the incident: that the American and British vessels had changed course specifically to approach the Iranian boats. But considering that this is at odds with the accounts of various other Iranian-initiated close-encounters, it seems to suggest an effort on Tehran’s part to justify its missile tests and defiant rhetoric, by suggesting that the US is the more aggressive party.
Assuming that this particular Iranian claim is indeed a deceptive one, it is certainly not the only one of its kind. The ongoing propaganda campaign also appears to involve an effort to present Iran as being much better positioned than it is for global conflict. This is suggested by the aforementioned film and the statements accompanying military demonstrations and missile tests. But the tendency is perhaps much more clearly on display in allegedly false Iranian claims of advanced weapons development.
The National Interest recently pointed to this phenomenon as it concerns the Qaher F-313 fighter jet, which is supposedly equivalent to an American F-35 stealth fighter, and which Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan claimed was ready for operational testing. In fact, independent analyses of photographs of the craft are broadly in agreement that it is merely a non-functional mockup, and a poorly structured one, at that.
Similar claims have been made about other Iranian weapons and equipment, including drones supposedly cloned from captured American technology. Other military hardware unveiled by the Iranian Army and the Revolutionary Guards has been shown to be little more than outmoded technology affixed with purely cosmetic upgrades. But to the extent that the regime is able to use its tightly controlled state media to present these so-called developments to a domestic audience, it may evoke a more war-ready image of Iran than is defensible in reality.
What’s more, this messaging dovetails with Supreme Leader Khamenei’s statements on the Iranian economy, insofar as it suggests Iran is capable of greater-than-expected domestic military development, while also concealing the fact that much of the country’s military allotment is being spent in foreign territory like Syria and Yemen instead of on advanced domestic development, whether military or civilian.