A few days ago I witnessed the much-anticipated Friday Prayer speech by Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Leader” of the Iranian Revolution. The current political climate made this an important oration. There is a sense here, shared by a minority of optimists, that these are the last days of the regime. Even those pessimists, who think that the mullahs are too clever and entrenched to be easily moved from power, believe that this theocracy is indeed in trouble.
The vocal lamentations of the second khordad front of reformers in the Majlis (Iranian Parliament), who daily criticize pecuniary corruption and social injustice, along with the student demonstrations against the recent death verdict against Aghajari, a reform seeking professor accused of blasphemy, have created an atmosphere of malcontent that is hard to ignore.
The gun slinging attitude of the U.S ever since September 11 has also helped make the regime feel a bit jittery. All of this has put a new gleam in the eyes of the so-called opposition movements in exile who boldly sling mud on the mullahs from the safety of their TV studios in L.A and call on the youth within the borders to take to the streets and bring their long held dream of a return to a secular Iran to life.
Even the son of the Shah, who was thus far not taken seriously by anyone but his dad's octogenarian courtiers, is now being given more and more air time by American networks and making himself appear like a possible alternative.
So if one was to pick a time to listen to Khamenei give a Friday Prayer speech, this was most certainly it. I expected a speech full of propagandistic one-liners and direct attacks on reformers and the opposition. Instead, I witnessed a speech that was intelligent, clever and impressive even if stale and insipid.
For some fifty minutes he spoke, without tele-prompters or notes, of the need for order and Islamic unity in the face of American aggression. He used the sayings of Ali, the “first martyr” of Shiite Islam, to stress the need for an orderly society in which each person takes his place and good will exists amongst all layers of society.
He used the much hated American stance vis a vis Israel to press the importance of Iran's Islamism and the need for its preservation. In the tradition of scholastic scholars he made a clever argument, Socratic in its simplicity, that went something like this:
We Iranians made a revolution with Islam that showed the Americans that they couldn't impose themselves on us. They back an unjust government, Israel, who kills our Muslim brothers. We have to stand firm behind our Islamic faith and government in order to save the meek, Palestine, from the mighty, Israel and America. The enemy has propagated rifts in our society in order to weaken Islam, which is an obstacle to Imperialist ambitions. Iranians, especially those in positions of leadership, should not dwell on national problems and differences of opinion but stand firm behind the Islamic Revolution, which is the guiding light for independence and justice in the region.
Khamenei shrewdly sandwiched his criticism of the student movement and the reformists between the kinds of criticism of American foreign policy that now have universal appeal. This kind of anti-Americanism is shared by most liberals and moderates the world over and even by most European nations these days.
In this speech you had in microcosm the fundamental problem with American foreign policy in the region. If America did not back Israeli aggression these hardliners would have a hard time justifying their extreme policies at home and abroad. Here, you had the leader of the Iranian Revolution equating reform with siding with America and Israel. If you oppose what Israel is doing in Palestine and you are a Muslim then you must back the Islamic Revolution, went the head mullah's argument.
But the old mantra of “Death to America” is dead. When the crowd punctuated the speech with traditional anti-American slogans – their voices were tired. Their fists, that at the beginning of the revolution used to rise up in the air in sincere anger, came only half way up and fell down again. Amongst the crowds of listeners there was much fidgeting and murmuring.
The truth is that despite the large numbers that still turn up at such rallies, the language of the revolution is staid. Corruption and injustice at home is so rampant that the new enemy, every one knows, is within. And as much as they might care about the plight of Palestine, the people in Iran are more concerned about the dire straights in which they find themselves at home.
The promise of the revolution to create a harmonious society based on Islamic principles has not only failed to come true, it is now seen as a bad lie, a total sham. Often I have heard ordinary people lament having ever believed the Mullahs. The man who fixed my washing machine, for example, boasted of his ability to speak English and claimed that he used to repair Boeings in the good old days.
We are a nation of complainers who always find others to blame. No one wants to take responsibility. Khamenei is not an exception. He side-stepped the real issues and put the blame, once again, on that old enemy: the United States. But Iranians have found a new enemy to blame: the mullahs. There is an anti-clericalism blooming here that reminds one of Reformation Europe.
When and if this regime falls, there will be a blood bath. It is perhaps with this in mind that Khamenei called for the urgent need of unity amongst the leadership. Even the more moderate amongst the clergy know that if things reach boiling point, no nuance of thought will spare a turbaned head.