Western elites persist in seeking affirmation that the Iranian economy is collapsing under the weight of sanctions and that Iranians are ready to turn against the Islamic Republic if only the United States would get out the right PR message see here and here. However, real insight into the sources of the Islamic Republic’s endurance and the views of its highest decision-maker can be accessed more reliably simply by reading and taking seriously a recent address by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei to a group of government officials, see here. The speech provides what we believe are important insights into Ayatollah Khamenei’s thinking about the Islamic Republic’s domestic and international condition. It also reveals a man determined to continue leading his people in resistance to Western pressure and hostility.
After opening remarks on the significance of the holy month of Ramadan for believing Muslims and what that should mean for the government officials in his audience, Ayatollah Khamenei posits that “there is no contradiction between realism and idealism,” he holds that “if government officials pursue ideals in a logical and dignified way and the people cooperate with them, then the realities of our society will be in harmony with the ideals. This is an essential pillar for our national movement.”
Khamenei then turns to “some of the realities that exist in our society,” one of which “is the existence of sanctions and threats, and the Islamic Republic is reminded of this reality more than in previous years.” In his words, the Islamic Republic
“is faced with a showdown with a few arrogant powers and governments…They have a number of followers who are also opposed to us, but their existence is not independent and they do not have any power. If superpowers like America stopped supporting them, they would be nothing. They would not even be considered in global and international equations. However, they are currently following America, the Zionist regime and the global Zionist network. This is a reality. It is in front of our eyes. This reality has developed since the beginning of the Revolution. Its intensity has not decreased, rather it has increased…We acknowledge the pressures and sanctions, and these pressures and sanctions are backed up with their economic capabilities, political capabilities, security capabilities and other such capabilities, particularly their media capabilities” (which, according to Khamenei, are “powerful in propaganda and media campaigns and in terms of the power to distort whatever they want to distort”).
Another reality that Khamenei identifies is Western claims that
“this showdown is because of such issues as the nuclear issue and the issue of human rights, and this is a lie…Today there is nobody in the world who believes that America is after human rights and the rights of nations or that the Zionist regimes—which commits genocide and murders children—is after establishing democracy in other countries…Similarly, their claim that they are opposed to the Islamic Republic because of nuclear weapons is also a lie. In the beginning, we announced it as a guess, but later on it became clear during international negotiations and interactions that they know the Islamic Republic is not after nuclear weapons…The claim that these pressures, these sanctions, these sieges, these enmities and these hostilities are due to the issue of nuclear weapons and technology is a lie. The fact that this claim is false is also a reality.
“The truth is that their opposition is because of the essence of the Revolution and the existence of the Islamic Republic. They were ruling the region without any worries. They had full control over a country like Iran, with its rich resources and numerous facilities. They used to do whatever they wanted. They used to make whatever decisions they wanted. They used to make the best of the facilities of our country in order to advance their own goals. But now they have been deprived of all these things. This is not the only reason. Our movement has motivated the world of Islamic and today we can see the signs in North Africa, in the Middle East and in all countries. This is what they are angry about. The Islamic Republic is the focus. They want to harm the Islamic Republic and make it a lesson for others. This is their real motive. And this is another reality.”
Of course, as Khamenei notes, “the challenges the Islamic Republic is currently facing are not new. This is not an analysis; it is a fact. Everybody can see this. There was a day when our ships and oil tankers used to be targeted in the Persian Gulf. There was a day when they used to bombard the oil terminal in Kharg Island. There was a day when the enemy used to drop bombs on all our industrial centers. These are the things that we have witnessed with our own eyes…The war with Saddam Husayn was not just a war that had been waged on us by one government. It was an international war against us. Therefore, the challenges that exist—the threat they make, the claims they make, the things they mention and magnify—are not new to the Islamic Republic.”
Against these challenges, Khamenei points out a number of “encouraging” realities: “The Islamic Republic has cleared all these hardships and difficult turns. Have we not? Did we stop moving forward? Did they manage to harm the Islamic Republic? Did they manage to undermine the ideals and principles of the Islamic Republic? Did they manage to undermine the ideals and principles of the Islamic Republic? They did not…We managed to make progress even under threat. Over these years, we have made progress in all areas. We have made progress in sophisticated scientific areas. We have made advances in the technologies that our country needed. We have made outstanding advances in the area of medicine, transportation, housing, water supply, and constructing roads…In spite of all these pressures, the country has made constant progress over the years.”
Likewise, “the country has become far more powerful in confronting challenges and threats,” while “the opposing camp has grown weaker over these years. If we think of America and the Zionist regime as the two main representatives of the opposing camp and consider Western countries as their followers, it is obvious that they have grown weaker. Today the Zionist regime is far weaker than twenty or thirty years ago. The events that took place in North Africa and Egypt substantially weakened the Zionist regime. The Zionist regime suffers from domestic problems and it also suffers from endless problems outside its borders. And today’s America is not the America of the time of Reagan. They have declined a lot. You know what happened to them in Iraq, and their condition has been growing worse on a daily basis in Afghanistan. They have failed in their Middle Eastern policies. They were defeated in the 33-day war, which was waged by their agents, the Zionist regime. In the 22-day war on Gaza, their Zionist agents did not manage to do anything against a million-something defenseless people.”
Furthermore, “the regimes which are opposed to the Islamic Republic are in crisis. The few arrogant Western governments and their allies are in crisis. With the economic crisis that exists in Europe, the European Union is in serious danger. The Eurozone is in serious danger. In a way, the same is true of America: a large budget deficit, massive debt, pressure from the people and the anti-Wall Street movement or what they call ‘the 99 percent movement.’ These are important events…The economic problems and the economic crisis in Europe are different from the economic problems that we may encounter. Our problems are like the problems of a group of climbers who are moving forward on a particular path. It is a difficult path and of course there are problems. Sometimes they need water. Other times they need food. Sometimes they have to deal with certain problems. Other times they encounter obstacles. But the important point is that they are climbing up the mountain…The situation of Europeans is like the situation of a bus that is trapped under an avalanche.”
Another positive reality “is the events that have taken place in North Africa and in our region. In certain places, these events have resulted in regime change; in certain other places, these events have not resulted in regime change, but there is a possibility that they will.” At the same time, there is “the increased power of the Islamic Republic.”
But, in keeping with his exhortation that government officials pursue the Revolution’s goals “in a logical and dignified way,” Ayatollah Khamenei does not look away from what he sees as mistakes in Iranian policy. With regard to foreign affairs, one notable mistake, in Khamenei’s judgment “is that whenever we showed flexibility toward the enemy and used certain justifications to retreat, the enemy adopted bolder positions against us.” Referring to Iran’s post-9/11 cooperation with the United States, he notes that “the day the statements of our government officials were contaminated with flattery for the West and Western culture, they labeled us ‘axis of evil’…This is how they are.”
Similarly, “regarding the nuclear issue, at a time when we cooperated with them and backed down—this really happened although we learnt a lesson from it—they advanced so much that I said in this hussayniyyah that if they continued like that, I would have to step in personally, And that is what I did. I had to step in. These things are not my responsibility. Our retreats emboldened them. There was a day when our government officials would be satisfied if they allowed us to have twenty-five centrifuges in the country, but they said it was not possible. Then our government officials became satisfied with having five centrifuges, but they still said it was not possible. Then our government officials became satisfied with three centrifuges, but again they said it was not possible…Today, we have eleven thousand centrifuges in the country. If we had continued those retreats, if we had continued that flexibility, we would have achieved none of these nuclear advances.”
Elaborating on this theme, Ayatollah Khamenei argues that “if the country judiciously resists these pressures by the enemy—particularly the sanctions and other such things—not only will their technique prove ineffective, but also it will be impossible for them to repeat such things in the future…These things will only continue for a while. One of the signs is that they were forced to exempt twenty countries from the oil embargo and similar sanctions…Therefore, it is necessary to resist. These are tangible realities. None of the things that I said are abstract analyses. They are things that we can witness.”
Khamenei also tells his audience that “it is necessary to take risks while relying on Allah the Exalted and on competent management. Everybody should be prepared to take risks.” Invoking the historic battles of Badr and Khaybar—critical reference points for Muslims, when early followers of the Prophet Muhammad prevailed over more numerous and better-resourced adversaries—he says that, while “there are challenges…there are also sufficient capacities and potentialities to deal with these challenges…If we manage to bring our capacities into the arena, if we manage to decrease the number of our weaknesses, we will make progress.”
To this end, Ayatollah Khamenei enjoins his audience to “work hard on this issue and try to find a solution, the way a mathematician works on a mathematical problem…Imagine that you are a talented mathematician and that this issue is a mathematical problem. This is the way you should confront different issues.” In this spirit, Khamenei recounts his idea of the “economy of resistance”:
“The enemy’s goal [is] to focus on our economy, work against our national growth, undermine efforts to create employment opportunities, disrupt and jeopardize our national welfare, create problems for the people, make the people disappointed and isolate them from the Islamic Republic.”
To counter this, Khamenei advances the “economy of resistance,” which, of course, has “certain requirements”:
“Putting the people in charge of the economy is among the requirements of an economy of resistance…Certain things have already been done, but it is necessary to make more efforts. It is necessary to strengthen the private sector. The private sector should be encouraged to engage in economic activities and our banking system, governmental organizations and the organs that can help—such as the Majles and the judiciary—should help the people step into the arena of economy.
“Minimizing our dependence on oil is another requirement for an economy of resistance. This dependence is an evil legacy from a hundred years ago. If we manage to make use of all the opportunities that exist today and try to replace oil with other lucrative economic activities, we will have made the most important move regarding our economy. Today, knowledge-based industries are among the things that can fill this gap to a large extent.
“The issue of managing consumption—that is to say, moderate consumption and avoidance of extravagance—is one of the pillars of an economy of resistance. Our governmental and private organizations as well as our people and families should pay attention to this issue. This is indeed an instance of jihad. Today moderate consumption and avoidance of extravagance is undoubtedly a jihad-like move against the enemy. One can claim that this will receive the same reward as jihad in the way of God.
“Another aspect of the issue of moderate consumption and managing consumption is that we should use our domestically produced products. All governmental organizations should pay attention to this point [and] should try their best to avoid consuming foreign products. And our people should also prefer domestically produced products to famous foreign brands. Some people go after different foreign brands only to show off. The people themselves should prevent consumption of foreign products.
“I believe that plans which are centered around an economy of resistance are workable…If we had not implemented the gasoline rationing plan, today our gasoline consumption would have exceeded a hundred million liters a day. They managed to control this. Today our gasoline consumption is at a very good level…They were planning to impose sanctions on gasoline. Economy of resistance made their gasoline sanctions ineffective. The same is true of all the other things needed in the country. The targeted subsidy plan is also a measure to shape our national economy. These things can boost production and employment, and it can also bring about welfare. These are factors that can boost our national production and economic growth. They can also bring about honor for the country.”
Additionally, Ayatollah Khamenei highlights the importance of safeguarding the Iranian people’s “unity and solidarity.” In this regard, “the occasional disagreements among our government officials—which are aired without any good reason—harm national unity. Some people become supporters of this and some others become supporters of that. They start opposing and blaming each other…This is among the harmful things. And our honorable friends, the esteemed government officials of the country, should know that blaming this and that person for our problems will not bring about any honor and prestige for them among the people. There are certain problems and it is necessary to solve them. And we have the capability to solve them; we are not incapable of solving our problems. As I said, these are the realities in the country which are revealing themselves to us.”
Western pundits have been predicting the Islamic Republic’s impending collapse virtually since its founding in 1979; they have consistently underestimated Ayatollah Khamenei since he succeeded Imam Khomeini as the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader in 1989. His approach to leadership is certainly strategic; it also reflects a deep-seated understanding that one cannot truly serve the ideals of Iran’s Islamic Revolution without the most rigorous possible analysis of policy challenges and options. Considering how badly U.S. policy in the Middle East is faring, political elites in Washington would be well-advised to reflect “in a logical and dignified way” about America’s real interests in the region and how best to pursue them.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett