Iran Plays the Race Card | Opinion

Iranian "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spent a good portion of the summer propagandizing about racial injustice in the U.S., as part of a decades-old effort to divert attention from Iran's problems and from his own cruel and incompetent government. The day after video of George Floyd's death became public, Khamenei tweeted: "If you're dark-skinned walking in the US, you can't be sure you'll be alive in the next few minutes. #ICantBreathe #BlackLivesMatter."

On his website, Khamenei has been lecturing on racism in the U.S. at least as far back as 2011. With pages devoted to such problems as sex trafficking and the American prison system, and others asserting that neither Lincoln nor the nation ever abolished slavery, Khamenei's website is a clearinghouse of anti-American agitprop. One lesson claims that "'Uncle Tom' is still alive in the American society." But the website never reached a very large audience (and, in general, it's probably wise to avoid sites ending in .ir).

Twitter, though, is a different story. It allowed Khamenei to expand his propaganda through retweets and media coverage of his "newsworthy" commentary. As Benjamin Fearnow points out, Khamenei "routinely references slavery" to his 780,000 Twitter followers. In addition to promoting genocide and threatening terrorism—mostly unimpeded by Twitter censors, who seem focused on Donald Trump Sr. and Jr.—Khamenei has been needling the U.S. about race relations on Twitter since 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.

The riots that followed Brown's death energized Khamenei's Twitter team, inspiring a new strategy involving rhetoric borrowed from the newly-formed group Black Lives Matter. On August 23, 2014, he tweeted: "African-Americans r descendants of those who lived in their rich land but US looted & enslaved them. #Ferguson #slavery," and later: "Sailing to W. African coast, Americans kidnapped tens of 1000s of men& women w/ guns & used to take them to US as slaves. #Slavery #Ferguson."

Of course, Khamenei is not the first autocrat to invoke racism in America to divert attention from the grievous flaws of his own country. That distinction belongs to Joseph Stalin (another "supreme leader"), who originated the tactic in the 1930s. In fact, Stalin so frequently used the charge of racism to deflect U.S. accusations of Soviet brutality and human rights abuses that his retort has its own Wikipedia page: "And you are lynching Negroes." Though the old Soviet "whataboutism" has become more elaborate under Khamenei's touch, it's still only a slightly more mature version of the classic child's retort to an insult: "I'm rubber and you're glue."

Coinciding with the Ferguson riots, Khamenei's Twitter activity became more polished. It began including videos and slick graphic "posters"—not unlike the kind that ISIS and al-Qaeda disseminate on WhatsApp and Telegram. It also began to evince a canny familiarity with American pop culture.

For instance, while he was stirring up anger at the height of the first wave of riots in Ferguson, Khamenei referenced the popular American film 12 Years a Slave, which had just won the Academy Award for best picture earlier in the year. But Khamenei added a twist at the time, tweeting "395 Years a Slave." His "joke" only makes sense when one subtracts 395 (years) from 2014 (the date) to arrive at 1619. This puts Khamenei some five years ahead of The New York Times' effort to rewrite the history of the U.S. as beginning in 1619, rather than 1776.

Khamenei has seized on George Floyd's death as an opportunity to scorch. It began on May 27, when he tweeted a two-minute-and-eighteen-second video that offered bogus statistics ("for every $100 of white families' wealth, African-American families only [make] $5") and presented a blame-America history of slavery that even Howard Zinn would probably say goes too far.

Mural of Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran
Mural of Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Khamenei would have his followers believe that the U.S. is the only nation where humans once owned other humans as slaves, and that Americans went "with guns and other weapons which were not available to [other] people at the time" and took Africans from their homes. In fact, as Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani writes, "the organization of the slave trade was structured to have Europeans stay along the coast lines, relying on African middlemen and merchants to bring the slaves to them."

Khamenei's propaganda ignores entirely the leading role played by Arab Muslim slave traders in Africa, both in the transatlantic slave trade (which spanned from the 16th century to the 19th century) and in the Islamic, or Eastern, slave trade, which lasted over three times as long (from the 7th century until the 20th century). He prefers cheap bumper-sticker slogans like "Islam abolished slavery in Arab society."

In reality, Iran's supreme leader probably knows that slavery was widespread until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when British and American thinkers first enacted abolition laws, enforced those laws and even fought wars over them until they succeeded. He might even be aware that some of the humans taken from Africa to become slaves were themselves slaveholders. Incredibly, the practice was so widespread that not only did Africans sold into slavery often come from tribes that practiced slavery, but, as 18th-century freed slave Olaudah Equiano wrote in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), "some of these slaves have even slaves under them as their own property, and for their own use."

The history of slavery is complicated, and the truth about guilt and complicity is more nuanced than Khamenei will ever admit. But he is not interested in truth or constructive dialogue. He is, however, very interested in provoking animosity among Americans.

A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Milstein fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.