In Iran, presidential inauguration ceremonies are considered important political celebrations, not formalities. The Iranian supreme guide, Ali Khamenei, has broad constitutional powers. His approval of election results, as required by the Iranian constitution, marks the official start of the new president’s mandate. The inauguration ceremony and its speeches act as a gauge to the power balance in Iranian politics and show how Iranian decision-makers view their country’s regional and global positions.
The presidential inauguration ceremony is conducted according to evocative procedures. The supreme guide’s speech is considered a letter of assignment to the new president, reflecting how the country’s top authority views the domestic and international issues facing the country. Then the new president gives a speech laden with messages directed to Iran’s interior and exterior. Analyzing the speeches on this important occasion can shed light on Iran’s priorities in the next phase.
The scene’s symbolism
There was a large platform in front of a huge crowd, which included major regime figures and foreign ambassadors to Iran. Behind the podium was a blue curtain, in the center of which hung a picture of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. According to Iranian tradition, six men sat on the floor while the supreme guide sat on a chair above the rest, right under Khomeini’s picture.
To the podium’s left and to the supreme guide’s right, sat former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Next to him sat the head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, and the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani. To the podium’s right and to the supreme guide’s left, sat the new President Hassan Rouhani. Next to him, sat the Chairman of the Expediency Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani.
The platform, elevated to a higher level than those sitting in the hall, allowed everyone to see the ceremony. A rug embossed with Persian motifs extended from one end of the platform to the other, where the flag of the Islamic Republic stood.
Among the attendees were presidential candidates — those who stayed in the race to the end, as did Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Saeed Jalili, Mohsen Rezai, Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohammad Gharazi — as well as those who left the race early, as did Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Mohammad Reza Aref. Interior Minister Mostafa Najjar, who oversaw the presidential election, read the final results. He was followed by the supreme guide’s Chief of Staff Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, who read the supreme guide’s decision to appoint Rouhani as Iran’s seventh president.
The former president then handed the reins of power over to the supreme guide, who in turn gave them to the new president, who kissed the supreme guide on his shoulders, then delivered his speech before the supreme guide concluded the ceremony with a protocol speech.
The new president opened his speech by asserting his ideological affiliations, and his complete submission to the supreme guide. He quoted the Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib in Arabic. He stressed his support to the concept of Velayat-e Faqih, thus shutting the door on those who wished to see Rouhani distance himself somewhat from the regime’s ideological foundation.
Rouhani expressed his pride in participating in the recent presidential elections which were “marked by popular support from all segments of society and the Iranian people.” In other words, he wanted to portray his electoral victory as a victory for the electoral system and to Velayat-e Faqih, thus confirming his loyalty to the regime and its supreme guide.
Rouhani’s speech contained a lot of “moderate” expressions, which reflected his desire to put himself in the center of Iran’s political and ideological map, not with the Reformists. He briefly and laconically praised former President Ahmadinejad and the services that Ahmadinejad’s government provided. Some have noted that Ahmadinejad was reprimanded in Rouhani’s speech when the latter criticized policies that “created problems of poverty, corruption and caused the deterioration of the economy and the isolation of Iran, in spite of the presence of highly qualified people in the country.”
It was clear that Rouhani’s quote of Imam Ali — “Truthfulness is the goodness of everything whereas lying corrupts everything” — was directed at Ahmadinejad. It was also noteworthy that Rouhani did not shake hands with Ahmadinejad, as is usual in such ceremonies. This signaled that Ahmadinejad is completely out of the Iranian decision-making circles.
Ali Khamenei’s speech was considered the most important of the ceremony. He stressed that the “peaceful transfer of power is a positive sign established by Imam Khomeini,” signaling that the unrest following the 2009 presidential election was an exception that will not be repeated. Khamenei praised the Velayat-e Faqih system, which he considered the best in Iran’s history since the constitutional revolution of 1905.
On the subject of Quds, or Jerusalem, Day, Khamenei recalled the Palestinians’ oppression, which is a pillar of legitimacy for Iran’s regional role. He condemned the Israeli occupation’s policies, but he kept his speech within the limits of calling attention to the injustices suffered by the Palestinians under occupation by saying, “The Zionist regime has been practicing for 65 years injustice and arbitrariness against the original owners of the land, the people of Palestine, by destroying their homes, killing the child in the arms of his father, sending young people to prison without trial and pressuring the Palestinians in their livelihoods. Are these not crimes? It is unfortunate that some forces support these crimes.”
That particular wording signaled that Iran continues to be in solidarity with the Palestinians, though it did not use fiery language to make it easier for Rouhani to loosen the international embargo on Iran. In response to new US sanctions imposed on Iran just two days before the inauguration ceremony, Khamenei said, “The enemy front, led by the United States, is putting pressure on Iran, and this pressure is causing problems for the citizens. But we have learned valuable lessons from this pressure, the most important of which is to do our best to improve our self-sufficiency without relying on the outside.” Khamenei did not mention the nuclear issue associated with these sanctions. Rather, he displayed confidence in his ability to confront them.
At the end of his speech, Khamenei stressed his agreement with Rouhani about moderation and its necessity because the “road of moderation is the way of Islam.” This was a clear reference to giving priority to “moderation” in official Iranian discourse in the coming period. So, moderation will mark Iran’s regional and international policies.
Khamenei also said, “I support the issues raised by the new president about conducting foreign policy wisely and rationally. Of course, we have enemies with whom rationality doesn’t work, but given the noble objectives of the Islamic Republic, we have to pursue these goals seriously.”
At the end of his speech, Khamenei obliquely thanked Ahmadinejad for his “services” before devoting much more time praising Rouhani, whom he described as among the “experienced veterans. He has passed numerous tests, both in the era of the Sacred Defense [the Iran-Iraq war] or in the Islamic Consultative Assembly. And he provided great services to the revolution.”
The essence of the Iranian discourse
The inauguration ceremony and the president's and supreme guide's speeches had five basic messages directed to those inside and outside Iran. First, the Islamic Republic is the best form of government in Iran’s history. The Islamic government is entrenched and has popular legitimacy, as evidenced by the presidential elections. Second, the advantages enjoyed by Iran are the result of Khomeini’s ideas and Khamenei’s leadership, while the economic problems and the international isolation are the result of Ahmadinejad’s policies. Third, the identical points of view between the supreme guide and the new president were illustrated by Rouhani’s subordination to Khamenei and the latter’s support, affection and him giving priority to the slogans of moderation over those of confrontation and martyrdom. Fourth, Iranian self-sufficiency will overcome the economic sanctions. Fifth, the supreme guide supports openness in foreign policy despite his doubts about the other side’s “irrational intentions.”
In this context, Palestine remains a cornerstone of the regime’s regional legitimacy, but Iran will adopy a discourse expressing its solidarity in a way that does not clash with Iran’s desire to open up to the world.
Iran has sent the messages it wanted to send. Now it’s up to the “other side” to make up its mind and give its response.
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