Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned his followers to beware American subversion of Iran’s culture in a state television address. “The enemy sets up a network within a nation and inside a country mainly through the two means of money and sexual attractions, to change ideals, beliefs and consequently the lifestyle [in Iran],” he said during the address.
The warning comes at a time when Iran is violently suppressing dissidents and engaged in what observers have called a “witch hunt” for American spies. Iranians with American ties have been arrested, imprisoned, and have even simply disappeared when lured to Iran. The most famous of these is the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who was sentenced this month on charges of espionage. The details of the sentence were not made public.
This secrecy by the Iranian regime is common when it is dealing with Iranians with American ties. Siamak Namazi, the fifth businessman with American ties to be arrested during this crackdown, was not told on what charges he was being taken in. Nizar Zakka was simply disappeared, with the regime not even formally acknowledging having taken him into custody.
Arrests such as these point to a regime that is in turmoil, former CIA officer Clare Lopez wrote for IranTruth earlier this month. Some of those arrested appeared to have tight political connections with the Iranian government and economy, but those ties were not sufficient to protect them from this wave of fear among the hardliners against the country becoming more open in the wake of the Iran deal. The big question, she wrote at the time, was where Khamenei stood on the matter. This state television address appears to answer that question: he is in favor of the crackdown.
Indeed, Khamenei went on to emphasize that all Iranian officials needed to take seriously the danger posed by American subversion. He added a warning against using the issue to promote one’s political faction — “if some are making factional use of this (infiltration), it’s a mistake,” he said. In the very next breath, he added that “these words should not lead to ignoring and forgetting the main issue of infiltration.”
Those words appear to be a rebuke to President Hassan Rouhani, who criticized the wave of arrests earlier this month saying hard-liners are “exaggerating the issue.” Though Khamenei’s words can be read as calling for an end to the factional bickering, which could consolidate Rouhani’s position, it is clear from his remarks that he wholly endorses the idea that infiltration and subversion are serious concerns.
Khamenei’s address can bring no comfort even to Iranians without American ties, as they indict a whole subset of the population — ‘a nation within a nation’ — that are drawn to openness and engagement with the wider world. Poets such as Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousav, each recently sentenced to receive 99 lashes apiece for their artwork, will continue to draw the ire of the Iranian suppression. So too young people such as those sentenced to receive 91 lashes for dancing to an American pop song.
In addition to these harsh measures, which go well beyond concerns with ‘infiltration’ or even subversion but are designed to prevent American cultural influence, Iran has banned imports of American consumer goods. That order was apparently also given directly by Khamenei to President Rouhani, showing the depth of his personal concern that American cultural subversion could be the ultimate undoing of his revolution.
The Ayatollah has also embarked on an attempt at cultural infiltration himself, addressing Western youth and urging them to study Islam. In a recent open letter to the youth of the West he wrote that they should be “ashamed of slavery, embarrassed by the colonial period and chagrined at the oppression of people of color and non-Christians.” To avoid being guilty of such things themselves, he wrote, they should study Islam’s “primary and original sources,” presumably the Koran and Sunnah. Unusually, Khamenei did not advocate Iran’s particular take on those traditions in the letter.