Khamenei’s Speech: Rhetoric vs. Policy in Foreign, Domestic Affairs

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s recent speech has touched off significant discussion among conservative media outlets keen to reiterate that the Islamic Republic neither seeks Israel’s destruction nor intends harm to “Jews and Zionists.” While there is a strong focus on the Nezam’s commitment to rationality, these outlets seem to be subtly advising Iranian officials to avoid provocative statements that portray the nation as radical. Notably, Khamenei appears to be strategically shifting the focus from Israel to the United States, potentially aiming to present a broader, more appealing objective to his followers, and responding to the domestic critics who wondered why Iran did not get involved in the Israel-Hamas war.

In his recent meeting with Basij members, Khamenei stated that “throwing the Zionists into the sea” was not Iran’s policy. Some foreign media interpreted this comment as a sign of retreat or fear, possibly due to the arrival of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf (Daily Summary of 29 November 2023: “USS Eisenhower’s Persian Gulf Arrival Sparks Tensions, Debates”). However, the official administration outlet IRNA has refuted such a notion of “retreat,” pointing to Khamenei’s past speeches that echo similar sentiments and emphasize his advocacy for a referendum involving Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but not those who are immigrants to Palestine (which would conveniently exclude most Israelis—a point that IRNA glosses over). Khamenei has maintained that the Islamic Republic does not acknowledge the UN or other international organizations in arbitrating the matter, leaving unclear who would oversee the proposed referendum. IRNA notably rejects comments by Iranian military and political figures about destroying Israel, insisting that the supreme leader sets the nation’s key policies and that the president, the ministry of foreign affairs, and the Supreme National Security Council verbalize them. This stance seems to send a subtle message to those officials who speak of eradicating Israel, suggesting that such rhetoric inadvertently aids Israel’s efforts to promote Iranophobia. This is particularly noteworthy as it appears that, despite common belief, the supreme leader and, in this case, the official media arm of a conservative administration, are aligning with the views of reformist former foreign minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif. Earlier in the summer, Zarif had complained about Iranian officials whose ill-thought-out remarks often helped U.S. and Israeli efforts to portray Iran as a security threat to the world. The recent Hamas attacks and the subsequent intense military response by Israel have highlighted a disparity between Iranian officials’ rhetoric and the Nezam’s actual policies. Although senior religious figures continue to call for the destruction of the “Zionist regime,” it is important to note that not one of them issued a fatwa for jihad against Israel, even after the Jewish state’s robust response to the Hamas attacks. Even hardline analysts like Fo’ad Izadi and Hamid Shahnazari appear to be dialing back the rhetoric. Izadi interprets Khamenei’s fairly new buzzword of “de-Americanization”—reducing American influence without severing political ties—as aligning with his earlier calls for expelling the United States from the region. In Javan, an IRGC-affiliated publication, Shahnazari notes that Khamenei’s emphasis on a new, de-Americanized regional order is reflected in Saudi Arabia’s outreach to U.S. adversaries. Conservative outlets have portrayed Operation al-Aqsa Storm as successful in diminishing U.S. influence and shaping a new Islamic Middle East aligned with the resistance theory. The conservative Khorasan newspaper acknowledged the significant human toll in Gaza and Hamas’s failure to secure all its demands, but argued that the militia was “victorious” because Israel did not succeed in destroying it.

In summary, Khamenei’s speech and the surrounding media coverage reflect a complex interplay of rhetoric, policy, and regional dynamics, highlighting the nuanced and strategic approach of the Iranian leadership in navigating its foreign relations and domestic messaging.

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