Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, announced this week that the Islamic Republic will not be moving forward with the implementation of the UNESCO 2030 plan for sustainable development. The announcement was, by all accounts, redundant.
Although the previous government had outlined a plan for educational policy in 2017 which took into consideration some of UNESCO’s recommendations in that area, the plan was canceled within months following backlash from hardline officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
That reversal was reaffirmed by the Education Ministry in 2019 after Khamenei continued to rail against the plan. In his capacity as chairman of the Council of the Cultural Revolution, Raisi’s latest action was simply to formalize a decision on this matter which had already been made by the executive body.
The repeated rejection of UNESCO 2030 demonstrates just how sensitive an issue it is for the Iranian regime. Khamenei’s criticisms of the document included the claim that it was “anti-Islamic” and that it represented a sort of cultural infiltration of the Islamic Republic.
Such claims are distinctly familiar, having appeared in Khamenei’s criticism of various policies and social phenomena, including purely home-grown protests calling for an end to the theocratic system and the establishment of a democratic alternative.
In the midst of a nationwide uprising in January 2018, the supreme leader overlooked local organizing efforts in favor of insisting that the movement was the product of a “triangle of enemies” including Western and Israeli intelligence services.
Tehran’s commitment to this sort of rhetoric is easy to understand where large-scale protests are concerned. The 2018 uprising represented a direct challenge to the mullahs’ hold on power, which the regime could not legitimize without risking a further surge in popular unrest.
However, Khamenei’s claims of foreign infiltration seemed to have largely fallen on deaf ears in the wake of nationwide protests. A similar uprising took place across an even broader range of localities in November 2019, prompting regime authorities to put less focus on propaganda and to lean more heavily on violent repression.
Approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters were killed in a matter of days following the second uprising’s outbreak, and thousands of others were arrested and threatened with torture in the aftermath.
This is not to say that propaganda or the control of public information ceased to be important at the time of that crackdown, however.
Quite to the contrary, the regime stepped up its restrictions on both traditional and online media both during and after the two uprisings, even going so far as to block internet access in its entirety within areas of particular unrest.
Notably, such measures are directly at odds with UNESCO 2030, which professes that “public access to information and the safety of journalists” have roles to play “in accelerating development opportunities and in promoting good governance and the rule of law.”
This is precisely the sort of humanitarian principle that Iran’s supreme leader, its new president, and other officials are concerned the international community will “impose upon” the country with the UNESCO 2030 plan.
Equally if not more important than the document’s defense of press freedom is its recognition of “gender equality” as one of the document’s top priorities.
This is, of course, something that the Islamic Republic very openly and shamelessly rejects. In recent years, the regime has expanded enforcement of institutional discrimination against women, as evidenced by the increased harassment of women alleged to have violated the country’s forced veiling laws, and especially of those who have publicly protested it.
This trend is expected to continue under the administration of Ebrahim Raisi, who served as judiciary chief for more than two years before being publicly endorsed by the supreme leader and then becoming the only viable candidate in the sham presidential election that Iran held in June.
In fact, experts on Iranian affairs generally anticipate that all of Iran’s malign behaviors will escalate in this new era, potentially leading to new clashes between the regime and the forces behind the 2018 and 2019 uprisings.
Maryam Rajavi, the leader-in-exile for Iran’s main democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization, said in a virtual conference in July that “hostility and enmity between the Iranian regime and society will intensify more than ever before,” once Raisi begins to implement his agenda.
The new president’s announcement regarding UNESCO will now confirm for the whole of that society that his administration’s agenda includes the wholesale rejection of all universal human rights principles and any mode of existence other than the one defined by Tehran’s ultra-hardline interpretation of Shiite Islam.
The Iranian people have already made clear their “hostility and enmity” toward that position, having chanted “death to the dictator” in two nationwide uprisings and “we do not want the Islamic Republic” in even more recent protests.
Of course, the unrest also makes it clear that most Iranians will recognize Raisi’s initiatives as the continuation of much larger trends, which did not meaningfully diminish under the previous administration.
The continuity of Tehran’s hardline ideology was made clear by then-President Hassan Rouhani’s reversal of a plan that was only partially influenced by UNESCO 2030.
It was made even clearer by Khamenei’s prior commentary on the document, which declared that its authors “have no right to comment on the traditions of countries.”
The thinly-veiled subtext of that statement is that Khamenei and all his trusted officials consider the traditions of the Islamic Republic to include suppression of women’s rights, authoritarian control over media and the internet, and a host of other policies and behaviors that are fundamentally at odds with the most basic universal principles of human rights and good governance.
Tehran presumably hopes to suppress public awareness of those principles by preventing “infiltration” by concepts such as UNESCO 2030. But as much as the regime might attempt to deny it, it is clear that the Iranian people are very well aware of what defines life in a modern democratic nation, and are very much committed to realizing that vision within their homeland.