Khamanei and the Western Culture Clash

The demand by Iran’s supreme leader that his country avoid contact with the West is being driven by his political and economic battles with President Rohani.

Russia's President Putin, left, who arrived to attend the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, meets with Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, November 23, 2015.
Reuters

“Anyone who takes university students, men and women together, to Europe under the cover of student delegations is without a doubt betraying the setting that is supposed to serve those students, as well as the coming generations,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated several months ago. And true to his beliefs about contact with Western culture being a threat to the Islamic revolution, Khamenei repeated this sentiment two weeks ago, at meeting with the heads of his country’s universities.

The ayatollah took to task those who favor concerts featuring Western music and co-ed gatherings, and justify them as necessary keep Iranian students happy.

“Being happy is good, but at what cost? At the cost of mixed performances? What benefit has the West gained from mixing genders other than sexual crimes?” asked Khamenei, adding that instead, students should be encouraged to delve into religion and the culture of the Iranian Islamic republic.

On the surface, there is nothing new in the demands of the ayatollah, who has stood firm against any expression of affinity for or admiration of Western culture. However, there is also an element of domestic politics involved here: Khamenei’s main complaint is directed at Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who is actually encouraging student delegations to go abroad and who doesn’t believe that classical music concerts harm the cultural fabric of the country.

The supreme leader’s anger was probably not so much sparked by ideological differences, but rather by the decision of the Iranian science ministry to withdraw more than 860 illegally granted scholarships provided a year ago to senior government officials. Khamenei called the decision unethical and illegal.

The exchange of accusations between the offices of the supreme leader and the president don’t appear to be having an impact on President Rohani. Over the past three months, he has avoided the meetings of the council that is empowered to examine the constitutionality of laws passed by parliament. Most of the council’s members are Khamenei appointees.

Reports from Iran add that Rohani is boycotting the council meetings in protest of the approval in July of a five-year plan that calls for the country’s defense budget to balloon to $40 billion. Although that budget would still be dwarfed by Saudi Arabia’s budget of more than $80 billion, it represents a more than 50-percent jump in defense spending compared to last year and is a blow to Rohani’s development plans.

It is the council, most of whose members are ideological rivals of Rohani, that developed the multiyear plan. Most of them also opposed the nuclear agreement that the Iranian government worked out with the world’s major powers.

From their standpoint, the disproportionate increase in defense spending kills two birds with one stone: It enables them to present the council as an responsible entity, looking after the country’s defense interests after they were ostensibly harmed by Rohani with the signing of the international nuclear agreement. It also hinders the president in his ability to advance economic reforms that could help him and his supporters in the parliamentary elections scheduled for next February. Rohani can’t oppose the five-year plan per se, which was approved by Khamenei, but at least he can stay away from council meetings.

Implementation of the terms of the nuclear accord, which has already overcome all possible political hurdles in Iran, is well underway on the Iranian side. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said Iran is even ahead of the schedule spelled out in the agreement and has already dismantled more than 4,500 centrifuges at sites at Natanz and Fordo. The Iranians still have another 10,000 or so to go to meet the maximum number specified by the agreement of 6,100 centrifuges, of which 5,100 can enrich uranium.

At the current pace, Iran is on schedule to finish this process by January 12, permitting it then to ask for the lifting of most of the economic sanctions against the country. The speed with which all this is being done also appears to be tied to the elections, because it will demonstrate Iran’s new economic power and show that Rohani is making good on his promises from the 2013 election campaign that put him in office.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is also rushing to reap the benefits of the nuclear accord. He is visiting Iran this week to attend a natural gas exporters’ conference and to meet with Rohani. Russia was given permission to bid on the construction of a subway system for Tehran, and may also sell the Iranians 100 civilian Sukhoi aircraft in a $30-billion transaction.

Secular Russia, which along with Great Britain briefly occupied Iran in 1941, is now a desired ally of the Iranians. Interestingly enough, Russian culture doesn’t seem to frighten the Iranians as much as Western-style concerts and coed student gatherings in Europe do. Perhaps it’s not culture that threatens Khamenei, but rather the national collective memory that still maintains the United States' image as the pretentious and arrogant occupier.