Tehran Working to Obstruct All Forms of Potential US Influence

The supreme leader’s latest remarks were delivered in discussion with a group of Iranian students ahead of a celebration of the November 4 anniversary of the 1979 hostage taking of 52 Americans at the US embassy in Tehran. Although preparing for commemoration of hostile Iranian actions, Khamenei presented Iran as the perennial victim in relations with the US. He declared, “The nature of the US attitude is continuation of the same hostile aims from the past,” adding that the US “will not hesitate” to destroy Iran.

Khamenei also utilized these assertions to justify the continued use of the phrase “death to America” in state-organized demonstrations and official gatherings. The Iranian parliament recently voted that that slogan would remain in use regardless of the recent diplomacy leading to the nuclear agreement and the suspension of US-led economic sanctions.

Khamenei’s commentary on the phrase included the claim that it refers to the policies of the US government and not to the American people. But this claim has seemingly been contradicted by the Islamic Republic’s further recent actions in response to the perceived threat of American “infiltration.” As far as Iranian policy is concerned, it is clear that that infiltration does not refer to legitimate instances of spying or manipulative influence over the Iranian political process, but rather any cultural or economic influence whatsoever, from either governmental or civilian sources in the US.

Because of this, Khamenei recently called for Iranian businesses and citizens to avoid the import or purchase of any American consumer goods, for fear that they would contribute to social harm and degradation of the fundamentalist values of the Islamic Republic. On Tuesday, Arutz Sheva reported that the Iranian government had followed up on these warning by instituting an active blockade of almost all US-made or American-branded goods.

Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, the minister of industry, mining, and trade made the announcement on Saturday via the official Iranian propaganda network Press TV, but this move came only after President Hassan Rouhani signed a letter indicating that he would abide by Khamenei’s directive. Rouhani has been widely described as a relative moderate by Western leaders and media outlets, but the letter is the latest in a series of incidences of his toeing the line set forth by Khamenei and the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The apparently broad-based support for the blockade may open up the door for very aggressive implementation, and indeed it appears that this has already happened. Mashable reported on Tuesday that a KFC restaurant had opened in western Tehran but was only in operation for one day before it was closed down by authorities. The stated reason for the closure was that the décor too closely resembled the American flag and the restaurant could be seen as an example of American influence on Iranian culture. “The U.S. is one of Iran’s major enemies and this will have grave dangers for the country,” said the official statement explaining the decision.

This unbridled fear of American influence has also been cited to explain the arrest and eventual conviction of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist whose articles on Iranian society and culture were well-recognized for their positive tone and their strict obedience to official restrictions on journalistic freedom. Rezaian’s work has been described as being aimed at fostering understanding between the peoples of the United States and Iran, and this project alone may have been sufficient reason for hardliners to accuse him of espionage and cooperation with “hostile governments.”

Rezaian’s conviction came after the July 14 conclusion of nuclear negotiations, and it has since been followed by indications that there a broader crackdown on American professionals is developing. For instance, Reuters reports that an American-Lebanese IT professional who disappeared while attending a conference in Iran was taken captive by Iranian authorities and accused of having “deep ties to the U.S. intelligence and military establishment.”

This revelation comes after the news that Siamak Namazi, a businessman and US-Iranian dual citizen, was arrested in October soon after arriving in Iran to visit family.

On Monday, an editorial in The Guardian explained that an emerging crackdown on activism and objective journalism in Iran is closely tied to the increase in anti-Western rhetoric. That is, the regime tends to portray any targeted foreign nationals as government agents and also to portray any domestic dissent or revolt as being instigated by foreign powers.

Thus, Jason Rezaian has new company in the political wings of Iran’s prisons, not just in the form of other American citizens, but also in the form of other local journalists and writers. Another Reuters report pointed out on Tuesday that Ehsan Mazandarani, the managing director of Farikhtegan newspaper had become the latest journalist to be caught up in this crackdown. The same report points out that this arrest closely coincided with that of Kurdish journalist and human rights activist Isa Saharhkiz, and that it closely followed the sentencing of one filmmaker and two poets to long prison terms based solely on their artistic work.

In addition to each of these cases, Human Rights Watch brought another to the attention of the international activist community on Tuesday when it reported that Mohammad Reza Pourshajari, a journalist and blogger was being illegally held beyond the end of his term of incarceration. In addition to long sentences based on vague charges, this arbitrary additional punishment is commonplace in the Islamic Republic, particularly when utilized to prevent activists from returning to their full range of activities at times when the regime is fearful of potentially strong influence by such voices.