Ali Khamenei and Heroic Flexibility: A media war over meaning

Written with ASL19

While President Rouhani’s actions have been watched closely after a week in New York and a historic phone call with President Obama, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s next moves will help to determine whether these signals materialize into concrete changes in Iranian foreign policy. On September 17th, Khamenei gave a speech to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) citing “heroic flexibility” in world diplomacy, sparking a media frenzy in the Iranian press.

Referring to the “complexities of the world of diplomacy," Khamenei said, "diplomacy is the sphere of exchanging pleasantries which should be understood in the context of the true issues that need to be addressed” and added "I support the strategy that I called 'heroic flexibility' years ago. This tactic works well when you need to understand and grasp the intentions of your opponent." He explained heroic flexibility by comparing it to the moment when "a wrestler allows himself to be compromised [in order to later gain the upper hand], but does not forget who his opponent is nor what his main goal is."

Additionally in his speech, Khamenei said "we are not pursuing nuclear weapons, not because of America or because of anyone else, but due to our own beliefs, and when we say no one should pursue nuclear weapons we include ourselves in this statement as well." Khamenei also noted that "it is not necessary for the Revolutionary Guards to engage in political activities."

Referencing flexibility contrasts sharply with his usual references to “rigidity” and “resistance”, which were frequent hallmarks of his public statements over the past two decades of his leadership. At the end of Mohammad Khatami’s first term as President in 2001, Khamenei said, “victory can be achieved through struggle and resistance…The model for failure is before us as well, and that is seeking compromise and holding the begging bowl of peace.” On May 25th, 2013, a month before Rouhani’s presidential victory, Khamenei said, “the enemy wants someone to be elected who will bring Iran into backwardness, weakness, and dependence…the people should elect someone who has jihadist intentions.”

Reaction in the Iranian press

A review of Iran’s top 25 newspapers shows the diverse reactions the day after Khamenei’s speech.

Seventeen newspapers, Shargh, Etemaad, Aftab-e Yazd, Arman, Bahar, Quds, Mardomsalari, Hambastegi, Siasat-e Ruz, Khorshid, Jomhouri Eslami, Jam-e Jam, Hasmshahri, Ghanoon, Donya-e Eqtesad, Hemayat, and Iran, quoted Khamenei’s "heroic flexibility in diplomacy" in their front page headlines. Eight of these are government affiliated while nine are not.

Six papers with conservative ties, Kayhan, Resalat, Javan, Khorasan, Farheekhtegan, and Tehran Emrooz, did not mention “heroic flexibility” in their front page headlines, nor did they touch upon the President’s opposition to nuclear weapons or his comments on the role of the Revolutionary Guards in politics, and only presented the parts of the speech that celebrated the Revolutionary Guards and discussed future challenges.

Privately-owned newspapers Jahan-e Sanat and Ebtekar noted only that Khamenei deemed it unnecessary for the Guards to engage in politics.

Analysis by conservative newspapers

The conservative Ghanoon newspaper called Khamenei's remarks on heroic flexibility “in the service of national interest,” but added that the term must not be misinterpreted as a “retreat from revolutionary values.”

IRGC- affiliated Javan wrote that the Supreme Leader used this term first when he translated a book on Shia Islam’s second Imam Hasan ibn Ali’s historic peace treaty with a Sunni caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, titled “The Greatest Heroic Flexibility in History.” He then used this phrase in a meeting with members of the Assembly of Experts at the beginning of Rouhani’s term. Javan implied that use of this term could be “indirect validation” of Rouhani’s efforts to establish peace and ease tensions. The day after Khamenei’s speech, Kayhan wrote “as the Supreme Leader said, the path to diplomacy, engagement, initiative, and tactical flexibility is not closed.” However, the very next day, Kayhan accused domestic and foreign media of distorting the Supreme Leader’s speech and wrote, "heroic flexibility does not mean passivity and submission,” and Javan published an article entitled, "Excessive Optimism from Some Regarding Negotiations with the U.S.” which accused reformist and pro-government forces of cooperating with the West in order to “distort the Supreme Leader’s words and imply that he has betrayed the principles of the regime."

Analysis by reformist papers

Etemaad called Khamenei’s words a "change of tone," adding, "the realities of the world are more visible than they have ever been, and it is necessary to stop the hostilities, conflicts, and bloodshed." The article suggested that in addition to "heroic flexibility in foreign policy," Iranian officials should "remove obscurity, open up space, abolish imprisonment and constraints, and strengthen the foundation of true justice," for example, by freeing Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard from house arrest.

Arman welcomed the Supreme Leader’s remarks and described the speech as "support for the government’s moderate policies before the UN General Assembly” and wrote "the diplomatic policy of heroic flexibility could bring great achievements to the country and the nation."

The Supreme Leader’s comments have obviously been open to interpretation in Iran’s factionalized media environment, with some seizing upon the opportunity to call for greater political openings domestically and for a more moderate face internationally, while the conservative current cautioned against misinterpreting the Supreme Leader’s remarks as an abandonment of his hawkish policies of the past. As Rouhani’s presidency continues to provide fodder for juicy coverage and additional previously shuttered media outlets add to the cacophony, it’s a safe prediction that these debates will grow ever more lively.

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