Seven years ago, Iran’s “supreme Leader”, Ali Khamenei, offering videotaped advice to his cultural advisors, stated: “If you manage to compose a melodious, effective, and well-composed song, the kind children could hum on their way to school, you will have accomplished a great feat.” Last March, on the eve of the Persian New Year (Nowruz), Iran’s national TV broadcast a hymn entitled: “Hail to the Commander.” A chorus of 313 youngsters – an esoterically significant number – débuted the song, which became an immediate sensation and a viral hit – polemics and parodies continue to pour in.
Repeat performances of the song echoed in hundreds of schoolyards and shrines in Iran, as well as in the Shiite communities’ public venues from Pakistan to Nigeria. Urdu, Arabic, and English versions of the song rolled out in quick succession.
However, the reverberations did not go according to the plan. The song was re-imagined according to various Shiite communities’ beliefs and perspectives. In Iraq and Gulf countries, where most Shiites follow a quietist creed based on the Mosque/state separation, the references to the Iranian regime were removed The tune, with variations on the lyrics, appeared at weddings and other festive and memorial occasions.
Although the song has found a life of its own, it is worth asking what the original intent was. It may help us understand the present predicament of the Iranian theocratic regime.
“The Original Intent of “Hail to the Commander”
It would be a mistake to reduce the hymn to a simple political propaganda coup by the Iranian “culture industry” to bolster its “supreme” leader. To begin with, the hailed “Commander” in the song is not Ali Khamenei, but Islam’s (and particularly Shiites’) awaited Messiah: Mahdi. The song is primarily a declaration of preparedness to serve the awaited savior upon his return. It is the Islamic version of the Christian pre-millenarian “end-time” creed, spiked with local patriotism. Its goal is to interlace the Shiite community’s traditional Messianic hopes with the Iranian regime’s theocratic pretensions as if they are the warp and woof of the same creedal cloth.
A cursory review of the original lyrics reveals that only four out of the 19 lines of the song reference the Iranian leaders. The rest are devotional appeals to the awaited Imam. Even the lines about the Iranian personalities are rife with Messianic hints: Ali Khamenei “calls his Gen. Z little soldiers to active duty” in the Mahdi’s army, the assassinated general Ghasem Soleimani is lionized as a martyred soldier of Mahdi, and a reclusive recently deceased Ayatollah, Mohammad Taghi Behjat, is posthumously elevated as a “medium” of the awaited Imam.
Overall, the song belightly hijacks the Twelver Shiite messianic beliefs and uses it as the tent-pole of the Iranian theocratic regime. It hopes to tempt the diaspora Shiites (four times the population of Iran) to abandon their quietist pre-millenarian faith and join the active pre-millenarians ruling Iran. The non-Iranian Shiites, however, show little incentive for joining an “Islamic” republic of virtue modeled after Iran. They are content to emulate the quietist Najaf (Iraq) school of Twelver Shiite creed.
What does “Hail to Commander portend?
The new Iranian propaganda blitz serves as a warning sign that the Iranian “Exceptionalists” (who envision the Iranian nation-state as the metropolis of a nascent Islamic civilization), buoyed by their recent – unfair — electoral victories, are intent on steamrolling their “Realist” rivals. Up until now, the realists have managed to balance Iran’s need for the support of other Shiite communities in the region with the country’s non-ideological realpolitik policies that has included policies like siding with Armenia, Russia, and China against fellow Azeri, Chechen and Uyghur Muslims. Now Exceptionalists feel they have another chance to indulge their hegemonic messianic ideology to the detriment of normal politics.
If the “Hail to the Commander” hymn is part of an attempt to align the global Shiite community’s messianic faith with the Iranian theocracy, it has obviously failed. Even within Iran, the song has turned into an object of mass scorn. A recent attempt to stage a performance before a soccer game in Iran’s largest stadium was drowned out with loud boos.
Fortunately for (the present or future) Iran, there is another path for preserving its autonomy, ending its geo-cultural “aloneness”, and boosting its prosperity: to rely on its wider cultural, ethnic, and religious affinities with its neighbors while sustaining its traditional and cultural alliances. Only then it can chart a new path for the conduct of domestic and foreign policy and avoid such threadbare sectarian manipulative propaganda bits as “Hail to the Commander.”
*Mahmoud Sadri is a Professor of Sociology at Texas Woman’s University. Alireza Ghandriz is a geopolitical analyst.