Hardliners once mocked Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Once they dismissed him as "mad," but recently they have made efforts to show their admiration for the businessman-turned-politician.
On Monday, November 2, during an annual anti-American rally marking the anniversary of the student take-over of the US embassy in 1979, Khamenei implicitly praised Trump as an honest straight-talker. This straight-talking why the American people favor Trump, he said. Suddenly, the citizens of the United States were listening, and they saw that what Trump said was directly relevant to their lives.
However, this recognition of Trump's power is relatively new among Iran's hardliners.
On March 30, the managing editor of the hardliner newspaper Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari, referred to the Republican presidential candidate as “mad Trump,” though he approved of his plans to tear up the nuclear agreement, formally referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Soon after, the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei added: “If they tear up the JCPOA, we will burn it.”
On May 19, hardliner politician and advisor to the supreme leader Mohammad-Javad Larijani announced to a gathering of students affiliated with the paramilitary Basij organization that Iranian moderate politicians were “more ridiculous” than Donald Trump. He suggested a television program about them, and gave it a snappy title: “Deformed Trump.”
But soon, views began to change. Even before Khamenei spoke in relatively complimentary terms about the Republican candidate, there were signs that some from Iran's conservative camp were changing their minds on Trump. On May 25, Revolutionary Guards-linked newspaper Javan credited Trump with exposing the inner workings of US American politics, and with pointing out who was really running the country and making decisions for the people of the world.
And of course Khamenei’s pro-Trump remarks not only make it easy for ideological hardliners to support Trump, they give them further encouragement to attack Hillary Clinton.
The front page of today's issue of Vatan-e Emrooz is one example: Beneath a photograph of Hillary Clinton the headline reads: “War Witch,” and the accompanying story goes on to explain how “Hillary is much more extremist that she appears.” It continues with its message of fear: "Her victory will most likely lead to a very big war,” writes Mehdi Mohammadi, a member of the nuclear negotiation team under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the paper. Mohammadi also shared his views across social media, expressing his pleasure over Clinton's drop in the polls on his Telegram channel. The American people, he said, have decided to take the country into their own hands. “If the 99 per cent have risen up, then it will not be so easy” to get rid of them, he claimed.
Mohammadi’s “99 per cent” refers to the Occupy Wall Street movement, a grassroots protest against social and economic inequality that began on September 17, 2011 and lasted through 2012. At the time, Iranian officials praised the movement. “The [Occupy] Wall Street movement will bring down the American and western capitalist system,” said Khamenei in October 2011. And a few months later, he tried to somehow connect Occupy Wall Street to the short-lived Arab Spring that was at that time in full swing and which he referred to as the “Islamic Awakening.” “Today the youth of New York and California repeat the same slogans as the people of Egypt and Tunisia,” he said. “They are inspired by them and they don’t deny it.”
These days, Khamenei rarely uses the term “Islamic Awakening,” and it unlikely that he would characterize supporters of Trump as people who have been inspired by such a phenomenon.
Many Iranian hardliners, however, still have reservations. They believe that Trump’s anti-Muslim pronouncements have given the Democrats and westerners in general a chance to present the illusion that they support Muslims. These same politicians are quick to use Trump’s remarks to their own advantage, however, especially when it comes to his comments against the nuclear agreement, which they use to cast doubt over the future of the agreement and President Rouhani’s government. At the same time, it is unclear how they might react to any new proposal set forth by Trump. Among other things, Trump has attacked the JCPOA because he believes it has given Iran the opportunity to become a regional power. But if as president he moves to curb Iran’s power in the region, it is unlikely that Khamenei will continue to call him an “honest straight-talker.”
Khamenei approves of Trump because he can use the Republican candidate's words to attack the United States, and prove to the Iranian people that his own anti-American rhetoric is the truth. What happens later is not his concern. What is important is that he is seen to be right at all times. And at this moment in time, Trump’s vitriol is a useful tool to remind the Iranian people that he has been right all along.