As indicated by Thursday’s meeting, Khamenei continues to present the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as an instance of Iranian victory over the country’s American adversaries. However, Khamenei has been personally inconsistent in his reception of the JCPOA, suggesting only begrudging endorsement of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s pursuit of negotiations with the West. In the immediate aftermath of the agreement, the supreme leader warned other Iranian officials to be on guard against political, economic, and cultural “infiltration” that might result from the apparent diplomatic opening.
His comments to the Assembly repeated these sorts of warnings and associated conspiracy theories about the efforts of “enemies” to “weaken the system from inside.” However, he also said that it was not Tehran but Washington that had made concessions with the completion of the nuclear agreement.
Khamenei went on to say that the other side of the negotiations did not want to allow Iran to retain any nuclear enrichment capabilities whatsoever, but that it was forced to do so. “Actually, the Americans didn’t make this concession but we took it in light of our own power,” Khamenei boasted.
Such commentary serves to present much the same Iranian self-image that has been presented by propaganda coming out of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as the supreme leader’s office. In January, it was reported that Khamenei had given the country’s highest military awards to the IRGC officers involved in an incident earlier that month in which 10 American sailors were captured after mistakenly straying into Iranian territorial waters. Images and video of the incident were broadcast for weeks afterward by IRGC-affiliated and Iranian state media, in stories portraying it as a significant victory over American forces.
This in turn reiterates the claims made by a variety of other public statements by IRGC officers and other Iranian officials, claiming for instance that Iran could sink an American aircraft carrier in less than a minute, or that Iran’s naval strength is sufficient to close off the Strait of Hormuz in response to American “threats.” Few, if any of these claims are taken seriously by independent military analysts. Yet the target of such broadcasts is presumably not an international audience but an Iranian one, the latter being heavily censored and tightly controlled by the country’s clerical regime.
That being the case, statements like Khamenei’s serve not only to project an image of Iranian strength but also to send the message that the country and its foreign policies remain firmly in the hands of hardliners like the supreme leader himself, who has final authority in all Iranian affairs. The likely persistence of that hardline dominance was also highlighted by recent developments in the clerical body that Khamenei was addressing on Thursday.
It was reported earlier in the weak that Ahmad Jannati had been elected to head the Assembly of Experts, which will be tasked with selecting Khamenei’s replacement when he dies or steps down. Jannati has been widely described as perhaps the most virulently anti-Western Iranian cleric, and an extreme hardliner in other respects as well. He also serves on the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates for high office, and he has publicly insisted that the first criteria for such vetting should be absolute fealty to the supreme leader.
In light of Khamenei’s speech to the Assembly, it is clear that a major aspect of such fealty must be commitment to what Khamenei described as a “soft war” between the Islamic Republic and the US. “The only way to materialize the [1979 Islamic] revolution’s goals is national unity and not to obey the enemy,” the supreme leader declared, according to Reuters.
But it has often been said that Iran’s overwhelmingly young population is also highly pro-democratic and pro-Western. The increase in rhetoric coming out of the supreme leader’s office has coincided with an increase in the repression of civil and political activists, and other individuals or groups that are judged to present a challenge to the regime’s governing ideology. The details of this crackdown have been widely reported in Iran News Update, and it suggests deep divisions between the hardline government and Iranian civil society.
Even supposing that there were no challenges from within, it would certainly take more than internal unity for Tehran to challenge the US on its supposed “soft war.” Critics of recent Western policy toward Iran might argue that the nuclear agreement has somewhat helped Iran in this regard. Indeed, many of those critics’ statements have rather directly paralleled Khamenei’s claims about the US having made major concessions on its demands regarding the Iranian nuclear program. These critics, however, indicate that this is merely a consequence of weak policy, and not a response to Iranian “might.”
However, there criticisms also tend to express concern that Iran’s overall strength has grown in the wake of the nuclear deal, because of relief from economic sanctions and the opening of economic interchange between Iran and much of the world, including major European powers. However, analysis of the effects of the nuclear deal has frequently emphasized the fact that many foreign entities are still keeping their distance from the Islamic Republic.
The Financial Times reported on Thursday that Iran was well on the way to recovering its oil output to pre-sanctions levels, but also that Western markets had not yet been convinced by Iranian attempts to attract investors through promises of more favorable contracts, which have not yet been publicly revealed.
Despite claims about his country’s extraordinary strength, Supreme Leader Khamenei has attached much significance to the slow pace of economic recovery following the nuclear deal, and has blamed the US for effectively scaring away would-be investors with unspoken threats of additional sanctions. The reasons for European caution are more nuanced than this but the effect is the same and includes diminished prospects for the Islamic Republic to gain economic and political allies in its efforts to push back against US power and influence.
Meanwhile, there are signs that Iran is also struggling to hold onto some of its existing allies. This possibility has been apparent with regard to Russia since a partial ceasefire in the Syrian Civil War caused some Russian forces to disengage against the wishes of their Iranian allies. Now, the Jerusalem Post reports that Russia has further demonstrated an interest in resolving the Syrian crisis, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is a major adversary to the Islamic Republic.
Such a meeting can certainly be expected to entail discussions of GCC concerns about rising Iranian influence in the broader Middle East. Those concerns have led to Saudi Arabia and its allies challenging Iran directly, for instance through proxy conflicts in places like Yemen, and often against the advice of Washington. Khamenei’s remarks to the Assembly of Experts apparently did not address how the country’s prospects in such outright conflicts compare to its supposed victories in a “soft war.”