In recent days, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has taken to his twitter feed to condemn American racism, even using the trending hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. CNN.com asked me to respond to his tweets, which I did here. In short, there’s something rather hypocritical about the Iranian leader calling the United States—or any other country racist. The Islamic Republic of Iran is today among the world’s most racist and religiously intolerant countries. Culturally, many Iranians look down upon all the other peoples surrounding them (this is a theme explored in my 2005 co-authored book, Eternal Iran). After all, the Middle East is a region of artificial countries, shaped largely by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and nineteenth and twentieth European colonialism. Iran is an exception, however: it is the successor to great empires and has its own imperial legacy. Iranian racism against and abuse of Afghan refugees and workers is well known.
Whereas Iran once counted Baha’is among its cultural and economic elite, Revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini and Khamenei, his successor, have ushered in an era of state-sanctioned religious discrimination. And while Khamenei has become fond of citing Jesus Christ in his recent tweets, let us not forget all of the Christian pastors whom the Khamenei regime has murdered. Of course, Jews also suffer at the hands of Khamenei’s regime. Sure, it’s not uncommon to hear that Iran has the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East, but it’s just 20 percent of what it was before Khomeini and Khamenei seized power. Anti-Semitism is nothing new in Iran. While former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called international attention to it with his repeated Holocaust denial, it was actually his predecessor, the so-called reformist Mohammad Khatami, who welcomed prominent Holocaust deniers to Iran and gave them a forum at the foreign ministry’s think tank.
Nor has Khamenei showed particular enlightenment toward blacks, either in his own country or abroad. When President Obama won election in November 2008—like Obama or dislike him, it was surely a historic day in American history—the Iranian press (and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri) both dismissed Obama as a “house slave.” The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ weekly Sobh-e Sadegh editorial discussing Obama’s election was entitled, “A Dark Person Rises to Remove Darkness From America,” but then continued to condemn the president for appointing a Jew as his chief-of-staff. Jomhuri-ye Eslami dismissed Obama as merely “a black immigrant.”
There is an unfortunate tendency in the United States toward moral and cultural equivalency. Is there racism in America? Certainly, although far less than decades ago (and enshrined too often in policies which promote color consciousness such as affirmative action). And is there racism in Iran? Of course. But to say the two are equivalent is to compare the heat from a camp fire to that of the core of a nuclear reactor. The difference in the two cases is that America has free press—remember the Emmett Till case 50 years ago—and Americans are introspective enough to confront problems and seek improvement. In Iran, however, speaking openly about anti-Semitism, discrimination against Christians and Baha’is, seeking justice for Afghans, or preventing discrimination against minorities like the Baluch or Kurds will lead to lengthy jail terms.
It’s time to call Khamenei out on his racism and bias. He is an embarrassment to what Iran could and should be and, for that matter, to any notion of human rights and decency. To let his preaching continue unanswered is simply to cede the moral high-ground to a bigot more comfortable promoting genocide than striving after any notion of justice.
If Obama is serious about race and teachable moments, perhaps it’s time to call Khamenei out on his racism.