Iran's Khamenei meets adoring crowds – but not dissenting ayatollahs – in Qom

Iran's supreme leader is in the holy city of Qom to cement his religious leadership. State-run TV shows the trip as a popular triumph, but key ayatollahs have been notably absent.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in the holy city of Qom, 75 miles south of Tehran, on Oct. 19.

How important, in Iran, is the first official visit in a decade of the country's supreme leader to the holy city of Qom?

It is all-important, judging by the work of those in Iran’s state-run media, tasked with portraying Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “landmark visit” as an emotional pilgrimage to the people, and to hobnob with fellow eminent ayatollahs at the religious heart of the nation.

REPORT: In Qom, Khamenei aims to cement leadership over clerics

On Wednesday – the second day of a visit that will last at least a week – there were meetings with families of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

But in the official media there was no talk about divisions among the clergy, which have torn Iran’s religious establishment since controversial elections in June 2009. Nor was there any discussion of the absence from Ayatollah Khamenei's first Qom meetings of key grand ayatollahs, who have been critical of the government’s lethal crackdown last year and of Khamenei’s own “supreme” rule.

Drawing lessons from Khomeini's use of propaganda

Every government uses propaganda. But even before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution it was counted a particularly important tool. Back then, the man who would go on to establish the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, rallied revolutionaries who were short on weapons with these words: “Propaganda is explosive as a grenade.”

More than three decades later, such lessons are being widely applied. One example is the news story about Khamenei’s triumphant Tuesday arrival in Qom, which was effective enough to run repeatedly on English-language PressTV throughout Tuesday and long into Wednesday.

The aim? Erase doubt, and illustrate the perfect union in Iran between the ruler and the ruled.

“Some people had even camped out from the night before, in order to have a good spot when Ayatollah Khamenei would deliver his speech,” the announcer states, voicing over images taken from a helicopter of streets choked with people.

After noting that Khamenei’s arrival happily coincided with the birthday of one of Shiite Islam’s 12 hallowed imams, the camera shifts to the night before Khamenei’s arrival. On the street, an older woman with thick glasses holds her black chador tightly at her chin – a sort of conservative every-mom in Iran.

“I have come ... to have a closer view of the leader, when he is giving his speech tomorrow,” the woman states.

PressTV highlights Westernized youth welcoming Khamenei

The announcer then takes back the story: “Although Ayatollah Khamenei was expected to arrive at 8 o’clock in the morning, people from all walks of life had gathered from dawn where his motorcade was to pass.”

The camera then points to two young men who look – though not so convincingly – like the sort of Westernized young people, in this case with big sunglasses, long spiky (but not gelled) hair, and tight short-sleeved shirts, who might normally protest Khamenei’s way of doing things in Iran.

“We’ve all been preparing since yesterday, to show that the leader is welcomed everywhere in Iran,” said one of the men.

Footage then shows Khamenei’s low armored van-like bus, first from the outside – swamped with the crowd going wild – and then from the inside, where Khamenei waves appreciatively to his faithful flock pressing hard against the glass for a glimpse of the man they consider to be God’s current “representative on Earth.”

“The excitement of the crowd peaked when the leader’s motorcade arrived,” the announcer explains. “A chance to see the leader in person was a memorable one for many.”

Two young women, apparently interviewed shortly after the motorcade passed, appeared to be overwhelmed.

“I was waiting here from 6:30am for the leader to arrive. I’m very happy that I saw him,” said the first, with tears in her eyes.

“I’m so happy that I saw my leader,” said another young woman, her breathing coming in gasps as she turned away, unable to say more, overcome with emotion.

“The massive turnout forced the Leader’s motorcade to move at a very slow pace,” the narrator concluded. “It took Ayatollah Khamenei’s vehicle five times the regular time it would usually take to reach the holy shrine… where the people were waiting for his speech.”

Khamenei: Media's influence outweighs that of the pulpit

And if anyone knew the power of those images – and of that propaganda narrative – in removing doubt about his rule, it was Khamenei.

For it was Iran’s supreme leader who in 2006 told filmmakers: “Your influence is many times… that of a clergyman or a preacher or writer. If I say your influence is 10 times as much, it is surely more. Therefore, you can see that there is a great difference between the influence of a well-produced motion picture and the influence of the pulpit!”

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