On May 27, while the bodies of young people from Khuzestan were being pulled from the wreckage of the Metropol complex in Abadan, thousands of children and adolescents were brought to Tehran's Azadi Stadium to take part in a massive pro-regime rally. Those present were invited to sing along to the new pop song/anthem Hello Commander, also known as Hail Commander, and other “revolutionary” odes in a choreographed pledge of support to the Supreme Leader. at a time when disenchantment with the state has never been higher in Iran.
The recorded version of Hello Commander, sung by choruses of youngsters enlisted from across Iran, has dominated the airwaves in the country for weeks now. It was a long time in the making; back in 2015, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had admonished Iranian cultural officials for their weak performance, ordering them: “Create a beautiful, powerful song, one that children would sing under their breath while going to school from their homes.”
The result was an ideological hymn aimed specifically at the so-called "nineties generation": children born in the early 2010s, after the Persian calendar year 1390. Hello Commander was created by a choir known as Mah 313, where 313 is a reference to the number of supposed helpers of the Mahdi, the “Hidden” 12th Shiite Imam whose anticipated messianic return is supposed to bring about judgment day. The singer Abuzar Ruhi first performed it for state TV in Gilan; a music video directed by Mahyar Talebi at Qom’s Jankaran Mosque then aired in March 2022. Some 313 children born in the 2010s accompanied the singer.
Among other things, the children sing that they are ready to sacrifice their lives for the “Commander”. This is nominally the 12th Imam, but as Khamenei’s supporters believe he is the Mahdi’s representative on earth, it can be taken to mean him too. “Hello Commander!” the lyrics run. “Seyyed Ali [Khamenei] has called his children. Despite my small size, I will become your general.” The song also makes explicfit reference to the “martyred” General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, who was killed by an American drone outside Baghdad in 2020.
Crossing a Red Line
The content of the lyrics to Hello Commander has alarmed children’s rights activists who say the song promotes the idea of child soldiers, an international red line. "Don't worry about your army, my Lord!" another line of the song declares. "Your army was born in the 1400s."
Iranian state-affiliated media has been open about the perceived need to promote militancy among the new generation. Mehr News Agency notes that slow population growth in Iran – itself the result of a range of deeply-entrenched factors – has led to a fall in the number of enlisted soldiers and military service recruits. The idea seems to be that children born in the 2010s are still at an impressionable age, compared to the clearly disenchanted set born in the 1990s and 2000s, and might yet be indoctrinated into the ranks.
The Student Basij (“Mobilization”) was founded in 1988 based on a decree from Ayatollah Khomeini. It aimed to train up a new group of ideological foot-soldiers in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war. The new propaganda drive aimed at children appears to be an attempt to replicate the same, as per Khamenei’s 2019 blueprint for the so-called “second step of the Revolution”, which he said had to involve students. The Ministry of Education has been promoting Hello Commander in schools since it was first shown on TV, including in classrooms.
“Moral and Aesthetic Bankruptcy”
The last few years have been punctuated with incidents of young people singing and dancing to pop hits in videos posted online, then facing the consequences. One of the stated goals of Hello Commander and other songs like it is to squeeze normal pop music and other sub-genres considered “deviant” out of schools.
To hammer the message home, a number of events to promote the song have been organized in schools across Iran, and performances have even been organized for children and young people in Pakistan and India. Some families received text messages inviting them to win prizes in they posted videos lip-synching to Hello Commander using apps like Dubsmash.
This, too, has precedent. In 2017, the government had used children and adolescents to create a video promoting the so-called “Defenders of the Shrine”: militants and recruits who fight in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad. “At the command of my leader,” the children sang in that video, “I am always ready to give my life.”
Supporters of Hello Commander anthem can therefore claim that it forms part of a campaign against “vulgar” pop music in Iran: a direct strike, or so they believe, on popular Iranian-born performers like Sasy Mankan.
Critics, meanwhile, have compared the events organized around the anthem to those held by the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany and similar events in North Korea. Some opponents have created videos of their own in which the song plays over footage of poor and working children (born in the 2010s) in Iran. These videos, too, are addressed to the “Commander” – i.e. Ali Khamenei – as the person directly responsible for their pitiable situation.
When TERRORISTS have a bunch of fresh kids to represent their putrid thoughts while the majority of Iranian people are barred from prosperous life— It's Artin (@aboutArtin) May 30, 2022
#LetUsTalk @CommerceGov @UN@Europarl_EN @POTUS @WhiteHouse#سلام_فرمانده pic.twitter.com/2oGGfqYikW
Saeed Peyvandi, a professor of sociology at University of Lorraine, France, told IranWire: “We are dealing with a government that views children and the young generation only from the perspective of its own interests. It does not take into account any of the principles that are regarded as important across the world.”
Abbas Milani, a historian, author,visiting professor of political science and director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, agrees: “Hello Commander is a symbol of the regime’s political, moral and aesthetic bankruptcy.”
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Parents in Iran told IranWire public schools are encouraging or even forcing students to memorize and sing the anthem. Azadeh, whose eight-year-old daughter Karin goes to school in eastern Tehran, said the local education department sent a team with cameras to the school to film students being made to sing the anthem. The crew, she said, had been insistent on filming close-ups of the students’ faces: “Karin was unhappy and wanted to leave the line. She and my son Kian both mock the song when they’re at home, but they have to sing it at school.”
The situation at private schools is different, at least to some extent, and for now. Nazli, who lives in northern Tehran and sends her son Artin to a prestigious private school there, says for the time being no-one at his institution is being made to sing Hello Commander. To some extent, socio-economic class may be determining which youngsters are exposed to this new strain of propaganda.
Snubbing the Metropol Victims
The “ceremony” at Azadi Stadium was preceded by a vast and probably very expensive promotional campaign that had begun a few days before the 10-story Metropol tower collapsed in Abadan. The ruined building has now become a symbol of graft and corruption in every tier of power structures in the Islamic Republic. Dozens of bodies have so far been recovered from the wreckage and tens more are thought to still be underneath.
Few would have believed that even the state under Khamenei would be so brazen as to go ahead with a propaganda parade aimed at children in the aftermath, especially as some of the first named victims of the Metropol disaster were young people. In addition, barely a week earlier, all football matches in Iran had been closed to spectators – supposedly out of concern over Covid-19, unofficially to prevent protests from breaking out at sports venues.
But Khamenei pointedly ignored events in Abadan for nearly 72 hours, and the Hello Commander event duly went ahead, even as street protests spread from Abadan to other cities in Iran. Among other anti-government and anti-Khamenei chants, the protesters did not ignore the slight, shouting out: “Commander, Commander, the city is buried under the rubble!”