Against the backdrop of the ongoing national uprising, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave an important speech to the Basij forces on November 26, 2022. The speech drew a lot of regional and international focus, given its timing and contents. Khamenei spoke about many issues including Iran’s protests, its presence in the region, its relations with the United States in the context of the nuclear talks and alluded to the defiance of the younger generation. Given the importance of the speech, the aim of this piece will be to present the key motives and implications for Khamenei to have delivered this speech to the Basij forces.
First, the Basij forces are a key pillar of the revolutionary power structure, and they have been deployed regularly since their formation in the early 1980s, particularly to crack down on dissidents and protestors. In the context of the current national uprising, the speech to them was significant as they have faced a torrid time, with protestors turning against them, the first time this has happened on a wide scale in Iran. Given this reality, there were concerns of low morale and confidence among the ranks of the Basij forces, and question marks raised over loyalty and possible defections. Hence, Khamenei’s speech to them was viewed as a rallying call amid the threats facing the Iranian political system, and an attempt to boost their confidence by speaking about the country’s achievements in the region. Surprisingly, he took the opportunity to speak about Iran’s achievements in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and espoused his usual anti-US and anti-Western sentiments. Second, quite telling was that he mentioned that flexibility with the United States was his “redline.” This is important in the context of the stalled nuclear talks, with pressures mounting on the Iranian political system to make concessions to kick start the talks once again, and voices from within Iran have been growing for this to happen to help in alleviating the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions. Furthermore, this tough talk of inflexibility toward the United States must have been music to the Basij forces’ ears, as they are known for their anti-US sentiments and non-compromising stances when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Third, he rejected the notion of a generation gap, and a shift of Generation Z young people away from religiosity. He alluded to the point that the ruling system’s religious doctrine remains as relevant today as in the past despite generational changes. This point was stressed to signal that the national protests are not organic and led by Iranians but externally driven to bring down the political system. This has been an accusation levelled by the political system whenever protests have erupted in the country to distract focus from its own failings and utter neglect of the affairs of the Iranian people. It is clear that the Iranian people are no longer deceived by such accusations, and they continue to point the finger of blame directly at the political system and its officials and not at external parties. Fourth, by rejecting the notion of a generation gap, in effect, Khamenei was dismissing the rising demands of young Iranian people for more opportunities and socio-political freedoms. Young Iranians are a serious threat to the political system, with a new generation of people completely disconnected from the Iranian revolution and alienated because of the regime’s failed policies and disregard for their concerns. Therefore, by dismissing their existence, Khamenei attempted to portray a homogeneous ideological depiction of Iranian society that is completely behind the political system but this is far from the truth, with Generation Z young people fed-up with the status quo and wanting radical changes to be made, and the alleged elimination of the “morality police” will not suffice; they want a radical transformation of the political system to one that represents and reflects their voices. Fifth, his speech was reminiscent of a war time speech in which a leader aims to whip up morale and rally the troops to defend the homeland. The speech epitomized the attitude of the ruling elite in a nutshell: no flexibility or compromise, but more escalation and confrontation. It seems that the ruling system has not learnt any lessons from the current national uprising and it will carry on with its usual behaviour of neglecting and suppressing the Iranian people. Cosmetic changes are unlikely to satisfy or calm the Iranian street, with its rage growing by the day. Khamenei is fully aware of this and needs to unify ranks with cracks appearing in the revolutionary armoury since the protests flared up after the killing of Mahsa Amini.
To sum up, the speech signals more of the same, with little change from the political system or acceptance of any blame for the national uprising, in addition, as it has done for 40 years, it has dismissed the voices and demands of the Iranian people once again.