Ali Khamenei, Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” has shaped a foreign policy for the Islamic Republic around several overriding concepts: Jihad, or holy war, culture wars, soft power, an “enemy” conspiracy, and a Historic Turn. They are interrelated and are at the core of the regime’s successful effort to create an intellectual proxy in the West to fight the “culture war” and facilitate the “Historic Turn.”

In the convoluted calculus of Mr. Khamenei’s paranoid mind, these concepts cohere into a vision that sees the West, and particularly America, in decline, Israel in its death throes, Asia, particularly China, on the rise, and Islam, led of course by Mr. Khamenei, on the threshold of a “Historic Turn”—one that would bring about an end to the catastrophic era of Judeo-Christian Western hegemony and usher in the apocalyptic victory of Islam.

For years, Ali Khamenei has argued that successive U.S. administrations have attempted to overthrow the clerical regime through coercive means. To him, Bush and Clinton, no less than Obama, Trump and now Biden, have all pursued the same policy of attempting to destroy the regime—either with an iron fist, or the same fist clad in a velvet glove.[1]  They have all failed. Thus, they have launched not just a “culture war” but created also a “Cultural NATO.” In a talk given as early as November 9, 2006, Khamenei for the first time used the term Cultural NATO, going on at length—as is the pattern in the autumn of every “patriarch”—about a conspiracy, spearheaded not only by the US—in his neologism the “Greatest Satan”-- but also by “Zionists.” He even alludes to George Soros in a tone that betrays his anti-Semitism and calls him “that Jew whose name I don’t want to mention”. These forces are, according to Khamenei, attempting to defeat Islam by advocating nihilism, materialism, individualism, and a rationalism devoid of Allah and faith.[2] As Khamenei often repeats, for him Iran’s negotiations with the US have been only a ploy to expose America’s true hypocrisy and buy time for that “Historic Turn.”

While Khamenei believes that all direct political or military challenges to the regime have failed, he fiercely believes that America, Israel, and the West have only changed tactics. To continue their attempts at “regime change” in Iran, and to thwart the “Historic Turn” towards Islam, they now primarily use “soft power.” More than once, Khamenei has quoted Joseph Nye and his theories, suggesting that he is now the grand theorist of American global hegemony. All one must do to understand the extent of the Culture War conspiracy, Khamenei grandly opines, is to read Nye himself.[3]

Khamenei’s insistence on the necessity of fighting the ideological war has been a central part of his political ideology. In one study, published in a journal affiliated with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp) it is suggested that from 2007 to 2009, Khamenei discussed the topic of the “culture wars” in 43 of his 89 talks.[4] The journal where the study was published is, in an Orwellian turn of phrase, called the Scientific-Scholarly Journal For Culturally Guarding the Islamic Revolution; it is published by the equally  Orwellian Center for Islamic Human Sciences and Soft Power and Training of the Guards in Imam Hossein’s Officers College. No less central in Khamenei’s vision is his belief in the divine inevitability of this “Historic Turn.” The idea also played a key role in Khamenei’s Manifesto, issued in 2019 on the 40th anniversary of the revolution. Since its publication, sites, and papers close to the regime, as well as ideologues of the IRGC, have gone out of their way to position the paper as a seminal text and strategic gospel for the “second phase” of the revolution. In one “scholarly” article, the authors argued that the publication of Khamenei’s manifesto was an auspicious indication of a rebirth and reinvigoration of the revolution, the first stage in that new “Historic Turn.”[5] 

For Khamenei and his regime, war and Jihad are a constant state of affairs, and in this war and Jihad, his regime trains, and employs not just armed proxies but it also opportunistically uses a whole army of “fellow travelers,” hired guns (literally and metaphorically), “progressives” keen on defending,  or “contextualizing” any action of the regime based on the claim that it is fighting “colonialism” and Euro-centric or Jude’s-Christian hegemony. Most ironic is the existence of some feminists in this strange alliance.  They are even wary of criticizing the regime’s gender apartheid and its blatantly misogynistic laws. The complicit silence of some parts of the feminist movement about the historic “Woman, Life and Freedom” in Iran, the drivel of a few scholars about how the movement was a “Zionist” or “colonial” creation, are examples of the pernicious influence of this “soft power.” Some of these “fellow travelers” are members of faculty in prominent universities.  They sit on committees, review and pass judgment on articles or books submitted for publication, write articles or op-eds that are partially validated by the names of the institutions they are affiliated with and through it all, they help promote or justify the regime’s ideology and actions, silence or sideline critics, and sometimes offer “explanations” for the regime’s behavior by drenching it in the lexicon of “progressive discourse.” Moreover, a combination of rumor and reality has created an atmosphere of fear amongst Iranian students and faculty that “Big Brother” is watching and will punish dissent or disagreement and reward consent and cooperation. Western journalists are led to believe that harsh criticism of the regime, or pointed questions in press conferences will mean a denial of access or entry visa. Obviously, many journalists are not intimidated into complicity. Some sadly are. In politics, perception is power and hand in hand with its “soft power” the regime has created a perception of possessing an omniscient and ruthless “sharp power.” The exercise of random acts of intimidation against returning members of the Diaspora and applying a shifting, ambiguous “red line” of what kind of activity the regime will not  tolerate has helped the regime’s effort to extend its reign of terror to Iranians abroad .

It is impossible to track how much money the Islamic Republic of Iran spends in creating this vast, varied, multi-pronged, multi-purposed network for a muscular “soft power.” One estimate puts the total budget for their ideological activities in 2019 at around three billion dollars.[6] It is both facile and faulty to think that every one of the regime’s “fellow travelers” support or legitimize, or “contextualize” the regime’s nefarious activities because of personal profit. Lingering belief in Islam, fond attachments to shibboleths of “progressive” ideology are at least as powerful as the perks of power given to those who play by the regime’s rules. Equally unsophisticated is the attempt to get a sense of the regime’s total financial tools to reward its “fellow travelers” simply through a forensic search of official regime budget lines.

On the order of Khamenei, the regime has created many institutions inside Iran whose function is precisely to assist and engage in this culture war.[7] Today, there are no less than 29 centers operating in Iran which promote the Khamenei vision. However, these are only the known institutions—and only known because they have a line item in Iran’s state budget. In 2019, the total budget for 23 of these centers was 280 million USD.[8]  When these numbers first became publicly known and subject to considerable consternation,[9] the rector of one university defended their budget by suggesting that the school was a cultural arm of the Islamic regime, and that it has “recruited more foreign students” than any other university in Iran. He added that, outside of the students located in Iran, the university had a further 20,000 students in satellite campuses around the world, and 10,000 more engaged in “distance learning.”[10]  Who and where these students live and how they might be another part of the regime’s soft power remains to be studied. 

Among the 29 institutions that assist in this “culture war,” Jama’at al Mostafa al Alamiye or the International Institute (University) of Mostafa is by far the most influential, and well-funded. In its structure and praxis, Jama’at is akin to the Soviet Patrice Lumumba University during the Cold War. As I have argued elsewhere, “Not only do the Iranian and Soviet regimes bear striking resemblances in their moribund last stages—ruled by septuagenarian men, moored to sclerotic ideas, deluded by self-serving fantasies about the power and appeal of their ideas, and maintaining total control through terror—the structure and functions of the two institutions also bear fascinating similarities. While there is no consensus on the effectiveness of the Patrice Lumumba University, its goal was clearly to increase the Soviet Union’s “soft power” and train cadres—whether ideologues or outright agents of the Soviet regime—to promote Soviet ideology.”[11]

The Jama’at, headquartered in Qom, has branches in Iran and sixty other countries, and runs 4,000 weblogs and 50 magazines in forty different languages. The university claims that, since its inception, they have published a book a day in one of twenty languages.     

Another component of their mandate is symbolic politics; more specifically, organizing mass demonstrations and Islamic and Shiite rituals in cities across the world. In recent years, from Sydney and Toronto to London and Los Angeles, there have been mourning rituals during Moharram—the month of mourning for Shiites for the battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Hossein, the prophet’s grandson and a revered figure in Shiism. Journalists and scholars sympathetic to the regime as well as its overt mouthpieces in Iran then use these “rented crowds” as signs and symbols of the regime’s sustained support around the world. 

An essential component of Khamenei’s vision has been to criticize what he calls the hypocrisy of democracy.  But his regime, taking its cues and lessons from consanguine pseudo totalitarian regimes, hypocritically uses all the liberties of a democracy to promote its illiberal vision. As in all its wars, the clerical regime uses its varieties of proxies in an asymmetrical battle. Its past operatives and officials, new “fellow travelers” of every hue use the cherished liberties of a democracy to promote the regime’s soft power strategy; yet no such possibilities exist for advocates of democracy in Iran.  The singular power and appeal of democracy is its freedom. This lays it open to such malign uses. Ignoring the insidious influence of the regime’s network is courting danger. But suppressing the regime’s myrmidons is a cure worse than the disease. 

[1] Ali Khamenei, “New Year’s speech in Mashhad, Iran,” March 21, 2009.

[2] For the complete text of the speech, see Ali Khamenei, “Statements in the meeting of Semnan academics,”.

[3] See, for example, Joseph S. Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990). Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

[4] Fariborz Aslani et al, “Peyamad Shenasi Karkerdhaye Barandaziye Narm Nashi az Nofouz Doshman ba takid bar didgayahey Magham Moazzam Rahabir,” [Understanding regime change through Soft Power Based on the View of The Esteemed Leader,” Do Faslanmeh Elmi Pajouheshi Pasdari Farhangi Enghelab Islami Daneshkadyey Oloum Ensani Islami Va Ghodarat Narm Daneshkadyeh Afsari Va Taribat Pasdari Imam Hossein 7, no. 15, (Spring 1390): 179-202.

[5] Ali Karimzadeh, “Implementing the second phase of the revolution,” Anna News Agency, January 27, 2020.

[6] Tony Badram and Emanuele Ottolengri, “Hezbollah’s Al-Qadr al-Hassan and Lebanon’s Banking sector,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, May 11, 2021.

[7] Ali Mirsepassi, Political Islam, Iran, and the Enlightenment: Philosophies of Hope and Despair (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[8]Budget for 23 religious and cultural institutions for 2020,” Mardom Salari Newspaer, December 9, 2019.

[9] The number may be higher than official numbers suggest. The President’s political consultant, Hesamodin Ashna, has implied that there are other, unnamed institutions besides Jama’at al Mostafa which do not appear in any official budget. For public opinion about religious foundations being considered in the budget line, see “The Iranian Parliament Once Again Required Astan Quds Razavi to Pay Taxes to the Government,” BBC News.

[10]Each Student of Al-Mustafa Society Is One-Seventh of a Normal Student,” Icana, December 27, 2019.

[11] Milani, Abbas. "Iran’s Culture Wars in the Arab World."  Struggles for Political Change in the Arab World: Regimes, Oppositions, and External Actors after the Spring, edited by Lisa Blaydes, Amr Hamzawy, and Hesham Sallam, University of Michigan Press, 2022, pp. 373-391.

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