Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei painted most of his regime’s current crises with the same broad brush on Saturday when he delivered a wide-ranging speech to mark the anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini. Khamenei sought to portray the Islamic Republic as the victim of a global conspiracy, with events both inside the country and throughout the world being directed by the regime’s “enemies”.
“Today, the enemies’ most important hope for striking a blow at the country is based on popular protests,” the regime’s supreme leader said. The Islamic Republic has been mired in protests throughout the month of May, beginning with teacher protests that were organized to coincide with International Worker’s Day, and continuing through protests over food subsidy cuts and the collapse of a building in the city of Abadan, which activists have blamed on government corruption.
Many of those activists have indeed promoted the idea of regime change as a solution to such problems, and Khamenei appears to have seized upon that message to argue that the public demonstrations are really the work of foreign “infiltrators”. However, slogans like “death to the dictator” and “we do not want the mullahs ruling” have defined several large-scale protests in the Islamic Republic in recent years, including at least eight movements since the beginning of 2018 which the leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, labeled as nationwide uprisings.
While some of these protests have received public statements of support from the likes of the White House, those statements have been fairly tepid and have avoided any explicit endorsement of regime change. There has certainly been no evidence presented by Tehran or any other entity to suggest meaningful foreign investment into the protests, much less a foreign point of origin. Yet Khamenei and others continue to rely on intimations of foreign conspiracy as part of an effort to delegitimize local organizing efforts, which the PMOI largely attributes to its own “Resistance Units”.
Khamenei’s condemnation of “enemy” plots may also serve as a public justification for acts of foreign confrontation and brinksmanship which the regime’s critics have long described as a pillar of its strategy of keeping a hold on power. This interpretation was given additional credence by the fact that the supreme leader’s speech also featured unusually forthright statements about one of the most recent outlets for his regime’s conflict with foreign adversaries.
Khamenei openly acknowledged that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boarded two Greek oil tankers in the Persian Gulf last month for the purpose of “taking back” oil that had been “stolen” from Iran via the enforcement of US sanctions. The statement was at odds with earlier statements from lesser Iranian authorities, which justified the seizures by vaguely accusing the tanker crews of violating some unspecified maritime rules.
These earlier statements were more in line with Tehran’s commentary on similar tit-for-tat seizures in the past, as well as other provocative acts such as the close approach of US warships transiting the Strait of Hormuz. In other cases, Tehran has simply denied responsibility for incidents in surrounding waters, such as the 2019 limpet mine attacks on several tankers and the 2021 attack on a tanker with ties to Israel, which killed two English crew members.