But the declared reasons for opposition to these protests are interesting. Piruz Arjmand, the head of the ministry’s music department, told reporters that he feared young Iranians would go abroad to hear concerts if the musicians were not permitted to perform in the country. In this sense, limited permission for artistic expression seems to be aimed at cultural isolation, or at providing access to approved culture in order to limit exposure to culture that is foreign or more threatening to the regime.
And indeed the Culture Ministry does set remarkable limits on the types of expression that it permits, as evidenced by several news outlets’ reporting on the wholesale ban of rap concerts in Iran. Ministry official Hussein Noosh- Abbadi has said of rap, “This kind of Western music is a problem for our traditional music.”
But that same story indicates that Tehran’s efforts to control the types of culture that people have access to are often unsuccessful. Vibe pointed out on Friday that Iran has an active underground rap music, which puts rap in company with a number of other banned underground movements, including Western styles of dance, dog ownership, and Christianity.
The regime’s attempts at cultural isolation have an interesting parallel with the regime’s economic stance, which has been characterized by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “resistance economy” aimed at emphasizing domestic economic activity and non-oil products as a way of limiting the effect of the international sanctions that have been widely described as having crippled the Iranian economy.
It seems increasingly likely that Iran is committed to retaining this economic strategy instead of securing relief from and removal of those economic sanctions with the finalization of an international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. Current negotiations have been described by Khamenei as “useless” and “harmful,” and he described the US as untrustworthy because of its refusal to immediately remove all sanctions at once. In the same remarks, Khamenei opined that no Iranian official would compromise national pride even for the sake of sanctions relief.
This being the case, Iran is poised to remain economically isolated from much of the world, and its budget for the forthcoming year arguably reflects this. It seeks to gain additional revenue through a privatization scheme that is projected to amount to 38 billion dollars, according to Al Monitor. And depending on the details of that privatization, this move may only contribute to conservative and isolationist trends, insofar as the mostly likely beneficiary of privatization is the already powerful and influential Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which owns controlling interests in a wide array of Iranian businesses and industries.
Meanwhile, Al Monitor adds that Iran’s further “resistance economy” strategies will include subsidy reforms and increased taxation, presumably increasing the economic pain for large numbers of ordinary Iranians and effectively keeping them unable to reach economies beyond their borders.
But the efforts to limit its people’s foreign reach, as well as limiting foreign influences on its culture and economy, does not mean that Iran is similarly interested in limiting its own influence in foreign countries. This is already quite clear from its well-known interventionism in Syria and Iraq, and from its ascendant influence on Shiite groups in places like Yemen and Bahrain.
The sectarian nature of that influence is an important part of Iran’s strategy and it was discussed on Friday in an editorial by Majid Rafizadeh at Al Arabiya. In it he focuses on the crisis in Iraq and argues that it represents an opportunity for Iran to either become a “legitimate, credible regional power” with “informed and constructive policies,” or else aggressively pursue regional hegemony.
Rafizadeh goes on to say that Iran’s sectarian policies in Iraq and throughout the region make it clear that the regime is intent upon positioning itself as the sole ruler of Shiite Muslims, and not as a rational and globally-minded actor in the Middle East.