United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Khamenei vs. Rouhani on Non-Muslims

Garrett Nada

Iran’s supreme leader and president take two different approaches to interfaith outreach. While extolling the qualities of shared prophets with Christianity and Judaism, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei often censures other countries or groups for supposedly not living up to the high standards set by Jesus, Moses and others. President Hassan Rouhani, on the other hand, focuses on shared values and faith rather than politicizing his messages to or about Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.

For Christmas 2014, postings on Khamenei’s official Twitter account mixed praise of Jesus and Mary with backhanded condemnation of the West. Some of the remarks were more than two decades old, repurposed from the pre-Twitter age. Many of his tweets included trending hashtags referring to racial issues in the United States, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson — references to the killing of unarmed African-Americans by white police officers in New York and Missouri. Even the caption under a picture of Khamenei visiting with a Christian family (above) had a political overtone. The tweet invoked martyrdom and Jesus because the couple's son died in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.
 
President Hassan Rouhani, however, did not mix politics or criticism with his Christmas outreach. The tweet posted on his account was a simple wish for a merry Christmas and a blessing from Jesus, a prophet of "peace and love." Rouhani also visited with elderly Christians at Tehran’s St. Mary Hospice on New Year’s Day. Instead of referring to the Iran-Iraq War, Rouhani used the opportunity to emphasize that all citizens, regardless of age or faith, deserve proper services.
 
The difference in tone between the two leaders' words is a microcosm for how they view the outside world. Khamenei dwells on past grievances and tends to be confrontational, while Rouhani is more interested in dialogue and real outreach. During his first press conference after winning the 2013 presidential election, Rouhani called Iran's relationship with the United States an "old wound" that needed healing. "Wisdom tells us both countries need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things," he said. Rouhani's outlook has played a critical role in advancing negotiations between Iran and the world's six major powers on Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
 

Religious Minorities

Iran may be the world's only modern theocracy, but three religious minorities are actually woven into the political fabric under the constitution. Muslims account for some 99 percent of the country's 80 million people. Yet Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians all have seats in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to their populations:
 

Two seats for Armenian Christians (who number between 40,000 and 80,000)
One for Assyrian Christians (who number between 10,000 to 20,000) and Chaldean Christians,
One for Jews (who number 20,000 to 25,000)
One for Zoroastrians (who number between 25,000 to 60,000)

 
The following is a collection of tweets from Iran's supreme leader and president related to these faiths.
 
 
Christianity
 
In his tweets, Khamenei has frequently used word “arrogants.” The term refers to Western powers or Israel.
 

 
President Rouhani's Christmas tweet, on the other hand, was a more tolerant attempt at outreach.
 
The president's website also published several pictures of his visit to a facility for elderly Christians. 
 
 
 
Judaism
 
In his tweets on Judaism, Khamenei has differentiated between the religion and Zionism. 
 
In a March 2014 speech marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Khamenei questioned the veracity of the Holocaust. This issue has long been a controversy. Iran's only Jewish member of parliament challenged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust in 2005.
 
 
In September 2013, President Rouhani wished Jews around the world and in Iran a happy new year on Twitter. He also called the Holocaust a "reprehensible" crime against the Jewish people during an interview with CNN. Weeks later, Rouhani invited Iran’s only Jewish lawmaker to accompany his delegation to the 2013 U.N. General Assembly in New York. These moves sharply contrasted with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial. Rouhani has since twice donated more than $150,000 in government funds to the country’s only Jewish hospital. 
 
In late 2013, the head of Tehran’s Jewish Association told AP that Rouhani’s government had listened to the community’s grievances and requests. “That we are being consulted is an important step forward,” said Homayoun Samiah. “Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nobody was listening to us. Our requests fell on deaf ears.” Rouhani’s government has also agreed to allow Jewish schools to be closed on Saturday to mark the Sabbath.
 
Zoroastrianism
 
In December 2013, Rouhani sent a message to the 10th International Zoroastrian Congress held in Mumbai, India. He proudly referred to Iran as the birthplace of the ancient Prophet Zoroaster. Excerpts of the letter were also tweeted. 
 

Photo credits: Khamenei.ir and President.ir

Iran on Islamic State

On December 29, 2014, Iran held a funeral for Brig. Gen. Hamid Taqavi, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander who was killed in the Iraqi town of Samarra, home to a Shiite shrine. The Revolutionary Guards did not detail the scope of Taqavi's role in Iraq. But he was reportedly the highest-ranking Iranian military officer to be killed in Iraq since the 1980s.

The general's death highlights Iran’s expanding role in Iraq since ISIS - also known as ISIL, Daesh, or the Islamic State - seized large swaths of Iraqi territory in June 2014. Iran is a firm ally of Iraq’s central government. After ISIS's advance, Iran sent military advisers to Baghdad and ramped up support for Shiite and Kurdish militias trying to push back extremists on the ground. Iranian officials denied sending combat troops to Iraq, and they have been critical of foreign intervention in the Iraq crisis. On June 14, President Hassan Rouhani said “Iran has never dispatched any forces to Iraq and it is very unlikely it will ever happen.” But he noted that the fall of Shiite holy sites in Karbala and Najaf to extremists would constitute a red line.  Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said in August that “if something like this happens, there will be no limit to our operations.”
 
In late 2014, evidence of Iran’s evolving strategy in Iraq mounted. In September, photos began to surface of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Guards' elite Quds force, on the ground in Iraq. In late November, Iran bombed ISIS targets in Diyala, Iraq using American-made F4 Phantom jets, likely sold to Iran before the 1979 revolution. Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour confirmed on December 5 that the strikes had taken place, but denied any cooperation with the United States. “We will not allow Iraq to descend to the level of Syria,” he said. Since June, Iran has sent elite units, more than 1,000 military advisers, and one billion dollars in military aid to Iraq, according to a senior cleric quoted by the Washington Post.
 
The following are the most important quotes by Iranian and Iraqi officials on ISIS in 2014. 
 
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
 
“We are strongly against the interference of the US and others in Iraq’s internal affairs and do not approve of it.”
June 22, 2014 at a meeting with judiciary officials
 
"We believe that the Iraqi nation and government, particularly the country's youths, are capable of overcoming terrorists and establishing security and there is no need for the presence of foreigners."
 Oct. 22, 2014, according to Iranian Student News Agency
 
 
 
 
President Hassan Rouhani
 
“Iran has never dispatched any forces to Iraq and it is very unlikely it will ever happen.”
— June 14, 2014 during a press conference
 
  
“When we say the red line we mean the red line. It means we will not allow Baghdad to be occupied by the terrorists or the religious sites such as Karbala or Najaf be occupied by the terrorists.”
 
“We are cooperating and working... with the Iraqi government and with the Kurdish government in order to repel this very serious, atrocious group. But we do not believe that they need the presence of Iranian soldiers in order to do this task.”
— Aug. 24, 2014 in a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari
 
“Americans are very aware that the country that prevented the [Baghdad] government from falling was Iran. Iran’s role has been undeniable.”
— Sept. 23, 2014 at a breakfast meeting with journalists (via Lobe LogAPReuters,Bloomberg, and Al-Monitor)
 
 
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has been supporting the Iraqi nation and army in fighting terrorists since the beginning, and will continue this approach and will not withhold any support from the Iraqi nation.”
— Oct. 21, 2014, according to Iranian Student News Agency
 
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
 
“The Islamic Republic of Iran realized the danger of violence and extremism in Iraq since the very first day and stood by the Iraqi nation, and we will stand by the Iraqi people including Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs until the end of [their] fight against extremism and terror.
“Today, the world has understood the reality that the first country to rush to the help of the Iraqi people in the battle against extremism and terror was the Islamic Republic of Iran, which countered these common threats.”
— Dec. 7, 2014 in a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari
 
Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour
 
"We will not allow conditions in Iraq to descend to the level of Syria, which has been created by foreign players.”
 
“We are taking our security actions at the request of the Iraqi government. On the other hand, we are assisting the Kurds in the north, our friends over there, and although there is some differentiation between the Kurdish perspective and the Iraqi government, we can make an arrangement according to both their interests."
 
"This is only an advisory presence [in Iraq]. There is no need to send Iranian troops to Iraq. There are sufficient Iraqi and Kurdish troops there."
— Dec. 5, according to the press
 
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani
 
“The Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are our friends [in Iraq]. We have always insisted that all ethnic groups must have active and constructive participation in Iraq's power structure".
— June 21, 2014 according to Parliament’s website 
 
 
 
 
 
Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan
 
“We are hopeful that the trend of liberation of occupied parts of Iraq from the stain of the terrorists will continue with the same current strength and seriousness,"
— Dec. 29, 2014, in a meeting with Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al Obeidi
 
Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari
 
“It is the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief that no one should aid countries like Syria and Iraq unless the work is limited counselling and advising. The people and governments of these countries can overcome their problems without the aid of any country.”
— June 24, 2014 at a ceremony for martyrs of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq
 
 
 
 
 
 
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli
 
“One day they brought news that there is a possibility that Karbala and Najaf would fall [cities holy to Shiites]. At that session, the president said that this is our red line and if something like this happens there will be no limit to our operations.”
— Aug. 25, 2014 according to the press (translation via Al-Monitor)
 
Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian
 
“We supply Baghdad with necessary consultations but we have no intervention in the country.”
— June 16, 2014 according to Tasnim news agency
 
Iraq
 
Prime Minister Haider al Abadi
 
“When Baghdad was threatened, the Iranians did not hesitate to help us, and did not hesitate to help the Kurds when Erbil was threatened.”
"[The Iranians were] unlike the Americans, who hesitated to help us when Baghdad was in danger, and hesitated to help our security forces.”
— Dec. 3, 2014 according to the press
 
“Choosing Iran as my first destination after taking office indicates the depth of ties [between Iraq and Iran.”
“Terrorism is a threat to all regional countries, and we are sure Iran will stand by us.”
— Oct. 21, 2014 according to the press
 
Interior Minister Mohamed Salem al Ghabban
 
“Iran is not only a neighboring country, but also a friendly country and strategic ally for Iraq.”
— Oct. 27, 2014 according to the press
 
Ambassador to Tehran Mohammad Majid al Sheikh
 
“Iraq doesn’t need any country neither for weapons nor for the military forces at all; hence, I emphasize that neither General [Qassem] Soleimani nor any other (Iranian) figure is in Iraq.”
— June 24, 2014, according to press
 
Photo credit: Khamenei.ir via FacebookAli Larijani by Harald Dettenborn [CC-BY-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons; Leader.ir
  

Parliament Debates Nuclear Deal

On January 6, Iran’s parliament called a snap vote over Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s handling of nuclear talks with the world’s six major powers. Conservative lawmakers had accused the minister of making too many concessions in the most recent round of diplomacy in December.

But Zarif hit back, arguing that “no one today dares to question Iran’s nuclear program, demanding its suspension. The disagreement is merely on the level of [uranium] enrichment. This is our achievement.” The minister also emphasized that progress in negotiations has helped change the perception that Iran was “threatening and dangerous for world security.” The Islamic Republic is now better positioned to play “an influential and serious role on the regional and international stage,” Zarif added.

After answering seven questions posed by 40 lawmakers, Zarif won the support of a little more than half of the 229 present. Some 125 backed him, 86 voted against him, eight did not express a preference and 10 abstained. No repercussions were attached to the vote, but a loss would have damaged the credibility of Zarif and, by extension, President Hassan Rouhani.

 

 

Rouhani Prepares Ground for Compromise

On January 4, President Hassan Rouhani began preparing the public for a compromise on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The country's ideals “are not linked to centrifuges but to our heart and determination,” he said in remarks to a conference of 1,500 economists in Tehran. He emphasized the importance of a deal for Iran’s economy, which has been cut off from world markets by layers of sanctions by the United States, European Union, United Nations and others. “Our political life has shown we can't have sustainable growth while we are isolated.” Iran’s negotiators are scheduled to resume talks on January 15 with the world’s six major powers in Geneva.

At the conference, Rouhani also suggested occasionally putting important economic, social and cultural issues to a direct referendum instead of to a vote in parliament. He stopped short of referring to a vote on a potential nuclear deal. But a public referendum could help his administration bypass hardline lawmakers who oppose a compromise. If, however, Rouhani was referring to Article 59 of the constitution, two-thirds of parliament would need to first approve the vote in the first place. The following are excerpts from Rouhani’s speech.
 
Nuclear Deal and Economy 
 
“Our ideals are not linked to centrifuges but to our heart and determination. If we show more transparency and say, halt some of the enrichment operation we don’t need, does it mean we have let go of our ideals?”
 
“Negotiations are about bridging interests."
 
“Our political life has shown we can't have sustainable growth while we are isolated.”
 
“It’s been the economy that pays for the politics. It would be good for once to act in reverse and have internal politics and foreign policy pay for the economy.”
 
“We want a sustainable, comprehensive and continued development. It is not possible to say we want economic development but want to be politically restrictive.”
 
Opening up the outside world “doesn’t mean letting go of the nation’s ideals and principles.”
 
“The time is past when it used to be said that if a foreign investor comes to Iran, our independence will be in danger.”
 
“The economy won’t prosper with monopolies, if something is exclusively in the hands of a specific group this will lead to corruption. All government entities must bring transparency to their economic activities.”
 
“It [the economy] must be freed of insider speculation, be transparent, all people must be aware of the statistics. If we can bring transparency to our economy, we can fight corruption.”

Referendum 
 
“On a crucial matter that affects all of us and our livelihoods, let's ask people's opinion directly, just for once.”
 
“It will be good to, after 36 years, even for once, or even every 10 years if we implement this principle of the Constitution, and put important economic, social and cultural issues to a direct referendum instead of to the Parliament.”
 
Taxes
 
Rouhani seemed to indicate support for a resolution passed by parliament in December to tax organizations overseen by the supreme leader and the armed forces.
 
“We are trying to tax everyone across the board, but as soon as we touch this or that institution, they make such a stink about it.”
 
“Of course this government will do what it deems in people's interest. Just be aware that in some cases, the domestic political lobby is very strong, very strong, more than you think.”
 
*Remarks as reported by the Los Angeles Times, Fars News, Bloomberg, Iranian Students News Agency, the BBC, VOA, AP and AFP
Tags: Rouhani

Obama on Iran in 2015

On Dec. 18, 2014, President Barack Obama discussed U.S. engagement with Iran in an interview with NPR News. He said that Iran has “a chance to get right with the world” by reaching a nuclear deal. Iran and the world's six major powers - the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany - have extended the deadline for a nuclear deal to June 2015 after missing the November 2014 deadline.The following are the President’s remarks on Iran, excerpted from the full NPR interview.
 
 
NPR News: Let me ask a few questions, Mr. President, about America's place in the world and how you see it and how you'd like to move it if you can in the last couple of years that you have. We're speaking at a moment after you've announced that you're restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. You want to reopen an embassy there. Is there any scenario under which you can envision, in your final two years, opening a U.S. embassy in Tehran?
 
President Obama: I never say never, but I think these things have to go in steps. You know, Cuba is a circumstance in which for 50 years, we have done the same thing over and over again and there hadn't been any change. And the question was, should we try something different with a relatively tiny country that doesn't pose any significant threat to us or our allies?
 
Tehran is a large, sophisticated country that has a track record of state-sponsored terrorism, that we know was attempting to develop a nuclear weapon — or at least the component parts that would be required to develop a nuclear weapon — that has engaged in disruptions to our allies, whose rhetoric is not only explicitly anti-American but also has been incendiary when it comes to its attitude towards the state of Israel.
 
So, there's a lot of history there that's different from the history between us and Cuba. And the strategic importance of Tehran is — or Iran — is different from what we face with Cuba.
 
Having said that, if we can get a deal on making sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon — and that deal is possible; we know the terms of what that would look like. If Iran recognizes that it is in its own interests, having already said that they're actually not interested in developing a nuclear weapon, to go ahead and prove that to the world, so that over time as it's verified, sanctions are removed, their economy begins to grow, they're reintegrated into the international community — if we can take that big first step, then my hope would be that that would serve as the basis for us trying to improve relations over time.
 
You know, I was asked very early in my presidential race back in 2007, would I meet with these various rogue regimes? And what I said then remains true: If I thought it advances American interests, yes; I believe in diplomacy, I believe in dialogue, I believe in engagement.
 
But in order for us to, I think, open that aperture with respect to Iran, we have to get this nuclear issue resolved — and there's a chance to do it, and the question's going to be whether or not Iran is willing to seize it. I think there are elements inside of Iran that recognize the opportunity and want to take it; I think there's some hardliners inside of Iran that are threatened by a resolution of this because they are so invested politically and emotionally in being anti-American or anti-Western that it's frightening for them to open themselves up to the world in this way.
 
NPR News: That raises a word that I want to bring up that former Secretary of State Clinton used in a speech the other day. She was criticized for having empathy or understanding for even enemies around the world. There are, though, military people who use empathy for the enemy, by which they mean not sympathy but understanding the enemy so you can outwit them. Do you feel that you have sufficient empathy for the Iranians, meaning do you feel you understand what it is they need to get a deal done and is it possible?
 
President Obama: I think we do, because if you look at the negotiations as they've proceeded, what we've said to the Iranians is that we are willing to recognize your ability to develop a modest nuclear power program for your energy needs — that there's a way of doing that that nevertheless gives the world assurances that you don't have breakout capacity.
 
And, you know, Iran suffered from a terrible war with Iraq in which millions of their countrymen were lost. They have legitimate defense concerns, but those have to be separated out from the adventurism, the support of organizations like Hezbollah, the threats they've directed towards Israel.
 
And so on the one hand, you need to understand what their legitimate needs and concerns are. On the other end, you don't need to tolerate or make excuses for positions that they've taken that violate international law, are contrary to U.S. interests, are contrary to the interests of our allies. They've got a chance to get right with the world. This is not just about us.
 
I mean, there's a reason why we've been able to get this far in the negotiations. We mobilized the international community at the start of my presidency — a classic example of American leadership. The sanctions worked because we didn't just get our usual allies' support of this; we got China in support of it; we have Russia that still is supportive of the position that the P5+1 has taken in negotiations.
 
So, when I came into office, the world was divided and Iran was in the driver's seat. Now the world's united because of the actions we've taken, and Iran's the one that's isolated.
 
They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it. Because if they do, there's incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of — inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody. That would be good for the United States, that would be good for the region, and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.
 
Click here for the full interview
 

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo