The new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi announced this week that the Islamic Republic will not make any progress in implementing UNESCO’s 2030 Plan for Sustainable Development. In any case, the announcement was superfluous.
Although the previous government drafted an education policy plan in 2017 that took into account some of UNESCO’s recommendations in this area, the plan was canceled within months of backlash from hardliners such as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
That reversal was reiterated by the Ministry of Education in 2019 after Khamenei continued to rail against the plan. In his capacity as chairman of the Council of the Cultural Revolution, Raisi’s most recent action was merely to formalize a decision on the matter that had already been taken by the executive branch.
The repeated rejection of UNESCO in 2030 shows how sensitive it is for the Iranian regime. Khamenei’s criticism of the document included claims that it was “anti-Islamic” and that it represented some kind of cultural infiltration of the Islamic Republic.
Such claims are well known, as they appeared in Khamenei’s criticism of various politics and social phenomena, including purely domestic protests, calling for an end to the theocratic system and the establishment of a democratic alternative.
In the midst of a nationwide uprising in January 2018, the top leader overlooked local organizing efforts and insisted that the movement was the product of a “triangle of enemies” that included Western and Israeli intelligence agencies.
Tehran’s commitment to this type of rhetoric is easy to understand in large-scale protests. The 2018 uprising posed a direct challenge to maintaining power for the mullahs, which the regime could not legitimize without risking a further rise in popular unrest.
However, Khamenei’s claims of foreign infiltration seemed largely to have fallen on deaf ears after nationwide protests. A similar uprising took place in even broader locations in November 2019, leading regime authorities to focus less on propaganda and rely more on violent repression.
Around 1,500 peaceful demonstrators were killed within a few days of the second uprising, and thousands more were arrested and subsequently threatened with torture.
However, this does not mean that propaganda or control of public information is no longer relevant at the time of this raid.
On the contrary, during and after the two uprisings the regime tightened its restrictions on both traditional and online media, even going so far as to completely block Internet access in particularly troubled areas.
In particular, such measures are in direct contradiction to UNESCO 2030, which recognizes that “public access to information and the safety of journalists” play a role “in accelerating development opportunities and in promoting good governance and the rule of law”.
This is exactly the kind of humanitarian principle that Iran’s top leader, its new president and other officials fear that the international community will “impose” on the country with the UNESCO 2030 Plan.
Also, if not more important than the document’s defense of press freedom, is the recognition of “gender equality” as one of the document’s top priorities.
The Islamic Republic of course rejects this very openly and shamelessly. In recent years, the regime has widened its enforcement of institutional discrimination against women, as evidenced by the growing harassment of women suspected of violating the country’s laws on compulsory veiling, and particularly those who have protested publicly.
This trend is expected to continue under the administration of Ebrahim Raisi, who served as the judiciary for more than two years before being publicly endorsed by the supreme leader and then becoming the only viable candidate in Iran’s mock presidential election in June .
Indeed, Iranian affairs experts generally believe that all of Iran’s malicious conduct will escalate in this new era and potentially lead to new clashes between the regime and the forces behind the 2018 and 2019 uprisings.
Maryam Rajavi, the exile leader of Iran‘s main democratic opposition group, the People’s Mujahideen, said at a virtual conference in July that “hostility and enmity between the Iranian regime and society will increase more than ever” once Raisi starts implementing his agenda .
The announcement by the new president regarding UNESCO will now confirm for society as a whole that his government’s agenda defines the total rejection of all universal human rights principles and any way of life other than Tehran’s ultra-hardline interpretation of Shiite Islam.
The Iranian people have already made their “enmity and hostility” towards this position clear by singing “Death to the dictator” at two nationwide uprisings and “We do not want an Islamic Republic” at even more recent protests.
Of course, the unrest also makes it clear that most Iranians will recognize Raisi’s initiatives as a continuation of much larger trends that have not subsided significantly under the previous administration.
The continuity of Tehran’s hard-line ideology became clear when then President Hassan Rohani reversed a plan that was only partially influenced by UNESCO in 2030.
It was made even clearer by Khamenei’s previous comment on the document, which stated that its authors “have no right to comment on the traditions of the countries”.
The thinly veiled sub-text of this statement is that Khamenei and all of his trusted officials view the traditions of the Islamic Republic as the suppression of women’s rights, authoritarian control over the media and the internet, and a host of other policies and behaviors that are fundamentally contrary to the most basic universal principles of human rights and good governance.
Tehran is presumably hoping to suppress public awareness of these principles by preventing “infiltration” by concepts like UNESCO in 2030. But as much as the regime may try to deny it, it is clear that the Iranian people know very well what life in a modern democratic nation is and are very committed to making this vision a reality in their homeland.