Skip to main content

Iran's art community fears 'Stalin era' under Raisi 

President Ebrahim Raisi's pick for the post of culture minister has drawn a furious backlash from Iran's art community members, who fear there will be a return to stifling cultural restrictions.
Raisi speaks at swearing-in at parliament

Iran "is no Stalin-era Soviet Union," read a statement issued by Iran's National Union of Theater Directors, addressing Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili, the proposed minister of culture in the new administration of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi.

The statement was part of growing outrage against an 80-page document released by the proposed minister outlining his vision for the future of Iranian art and culture.

Esmaili, 46, particularly lashed out at the current status of Iran's cinema, dramatic arts and music. He lamented the counterrevolutionary" atmosphere, a term Iranian hard-liners commonly apply to political rivals accused of promoting liberal ideologies. Iran's dramatic arts are plagued by "deviation and secularism," Esmaili said.

Prior to earning a degree in political science, Esmaili completed clerical studies at Iranian seminaries. He worked as Raisi's cultural adviser when Raisi was the custodian of the powerful and wealthy Astan Quds Foundation in the holy city of Mashhad (2016-2019). Esmaili has also headed a supervisory body of Iran's conservative state broadcaster controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In his plans for the new post, Esmaili attacked his predecessors for failing to ban filmmakers "aligned with the enemies." His discontent with the ongoing situation came despite widespread restrictions, travel bans and even imprisonment imposed on a number of Iranian filmmakers for their defiance against the Islamic Republic's censorship and controversial regulations on art production.

Esamili specifically targeted the House of Cinema, a major circle formed by Iranian filmmakers that has been a thorn in the side of hard-liners. The proposed minister's statements renewed fears about fresh closures and attacks on the independent union.

"We are not in the mood to laugh at your bland jokes or shed tears at our anguish," wrote prominent director Homayoun Assadian. "By the way, have you heard about your companions conquering Kabul?" the filmmaker asked, likening Esmaili's approach toward art and culture to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Under the country's constitution, Iranian presidents enjoy full authority in nominating their ministers for approval by parliament. Nonetheless, an unwritten law stipulates that the nominee for minister of culture, among a few others, be proposed to parliament only after a green light from the supreme leader, who holds personal "sensitivities" regarding the post. With such a blessing, Esmaili is widely expected to face no significant hurdles before his vote of confidence from an already like-minded conservative parliament. 

Yet the hard-line politician still might face criticism from the parliament's largely toothless Reformist minority regarding his proposed road map, which one Iranian journalist said "is little less than a public indictment against culture and art in Iran."

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

Text Alerts - Be the first to get breaking news, exclusives, and PRO content.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial