The 'Great Satan' and the Even Greater Iranian Paradox

Recent Iranian actions suggest it wants to ‘punish’ America more than it is afraid that U.S. hamburgers and movies will corrupt Iranians.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A woman walks past KFC Halal in Tehran after it was closed by Iranian police on November 3, 2015.
A woman walks past KFC Halal in Tehran after it was closed by Iranian police on November 3, 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, offered his own interpretation to the Iranian motto that most defines its foreign policy since the Islamic Revolution in 1979: “The slogan ‘Death to America’ is backed by reason and wisdom; and it goes without saying that the slogan does not mean death to the American nation; this slogan means death to the U.S.’ policies, death to arrogance,” he was quoted as saying by Iran’s PressTV earlier this week.

Khamenei explained to students that “America” is an ideology, that it is arrogant and patronizing, and Iran must fight all this. Khamenei was meeting with Iranian students ahead of the anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. Member of Parliament Ahmad Tavakkoli had an even more enlightening interpretation: “‘Death to America’ is the slogan of the entire Iranian people. We must strengthen our power until we can force America to retreat or change its nature,” he said. An official government spokesman said Iran will continue to adhere to its hatred of the United States.

The reason these leaders felt the need to suddenly come out with such declarations and explanations is that they were forced, for the first time, to offer their opinions on the paradox caused by the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers last summer. On the one hand, there is the ongoing dialogue and historic agreement with the “Great Satan.” At the same time, though, there are mass demonstrations in Iran calling for the eradication of their partner to the agreement. This paradox is even greater when you factor in the recent talks in Vienna to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.

For the first time, in an open and multiparty event, the Iranian foreign minister sat alongside the U.S. secretary of state to discuss an issue that is unrelated to the nuclear deal. Only a few days earlier, Khamenei dismissed the Syrian question with a statement that there was no reason to negotiate with the West on the matter since “they are not serious,” the talks are a “waste of time” and it “could lead to a penetration [of Western culture].” It is still too early to determine whether the talks are a waste of time, but Iran has already achieved something just by being there – and its presence was, of course, approved by Khamenei.

The contradictions in Khamenei’s statements are nothing new, and are testimony to what he must say in order to manage the Iranian political space. He must assuage the conservatives and Revolutionary Guards, and demand their support of the nuclear agreement. And the reformers must be blocked so they don’t grow too strong before the parliamentary elections next February. Khamenei must also show support for the government of President Hassan Rohani, albeit without such support being interpreted by the conservatives as “a deviation from the path of the revolution,” as they see it.

Iranians burning a U.S. flag outside the former U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 2015, during a demonstration marking the 36th anniversary of its storming.Credit: AFP

Khamenei, 76, must manage this twisting, labyrinthine show, and this has generated some strange events. This is how, for example, the branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tehran was ordered shut (even though it was completely unconnected to the U.S. chain), saying its design was too close to that of the American flag. A few weeks ago, conservative clerics demanded the prevention of U.S. fast-food companies from entering Iran because of fears “they could serve as bases for American intelligence.” So far, Iran has not allowed the opening of any such restaurants, but you can find supermarkets stocking many U.S. brands, which are smuggled in through Dubai. An Iranian company has already been chosen to represent Microsoft in Iran.

The difficulty in understanding what is allowed and what isn’t concerning trade with the United States led the spokesman for the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to vehemently deny that Iran receives Internet infrastructure and IT services from U.S. companies. At the same time, there are almost no reports that Iran has turned down European companies who want to participate in Iranian projects or import consumer goods. This distinction between European and U.S. companies and goods shows that the fears of a “Western invasion” require much more careful analysis. It seems that Iran wants to “punish” America more than it is afraid that American hamburgers, movies or chocolates will lead Iranian citizens astray.

While the nuclear agreement is seen as a diplomatic achievement for both the Iranians and Americans, it is causing a political earthquake in Iran, which is now preparing for two election campaigns. One is for the parliament; the other for the Assembly of Experts – 88 senior Islamic theologians who are the ones who choose the supreme leader (and can remove him, too). All are ayatollahs and the elections are held once every eight years – and Khamenei is old and sick.

It seems the closer they come to these elections, the more the attacks on Rohani will increase. This could put Khamenei in a delicate situation: after all, once he gave his blessing to the nuclear agreement (with his own conditions), he will have a hard time joining Rohani’s critics. At the same time, though, he could use all his power to prevent the election of a more reformist parliament.

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