An Iranian presidential hopeful wants a coalition with Italy’s Meloni, but why?

Published in the National

Iranian hardliners, known for their devotion to the Islamic Republic and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sometimes like to accuse their opponents of being modelled after westerners. But last week, it was a hardliner presidential candidate, who on a televised debate, praised a European head of government and called for a coalition with her.

In a debate about women’s rights, Iranian Vice President Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi harped on his favourite theme of family values. In defence of such values, hardliners usually like to refer to role models in Shiite history such as Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. This time, Mr Ghazizadeh Hashemi picked a contemporary female leader: Giorgia Meloni, the right-wing Prime Minister of Italy.

During the debate, the deputy to the late Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi quipped that unlike Iran, the West objectifies women: “We see the consequences of such a view in the western culture,” said Mr Ghazizadeh Hashemi. “But there is also a reversal in western society. They are also returning to family-centred values. Two years ago, Ms Meloni sailed to victory on a massive wave of support for family values and with the slogan God, Fatherland, Family.”

The appeal to a female leader also has a domestic context. These are the first elections since the Women, Life, Freedom protests rocked Iran in 2022-23. The issue of mandatory hijab, which was central to those protests, has also featured in the campaign.

Knowing full well the unpopularity of the morality police in Iran, which brutally enforces mandatory veiling on women, even candidates such as Mr Ghazizadeh Hashemi do not venture into taking responsibility for it. Instead, he is hoping to use a socially conservative narrative of family values to defend the country’s misogynistic laws, including forcing veils on women, which makes Iran one of only two countries in the world with such an imposition, the other being Afghanistan under the Taliban.

To buttress his claims, Mr Ghazizadeh Hashemi referred to Ms Meloni as being part of a movement led by “western women, those who once used to be a tool for feminist currents”.

He went on to call on the Iranian regime to be a “flag-bearer for family movements” in the world. “We should make a coalition with all the movements who have this commonality with us,” he added.

It is not the first time that Iranian leaders have toyed with such ideas. As Mr Ghazizadeh Hashemi noted, Mr Raisi himself had used Iran’s annual speech at the UN General Assembly last year to speak out against the “war on family”.

Clearly trying to appeal to the global right, Mr Raisi’s speech defended “marriage as being between a man and a woman” and took a position against “fabricated narratives on couplehood and gender”. He called on world leaders to collaborate with Iran on this issue.

Tehran’s ideologues had already pointed to Ms Meloni as a potential ally on this front. Following Mr Raisi’s speech, a university professor in Tehran appeared on Iran’s state TV to point to Ms Meloni’s famed slogan and her opposition to reproductive rights. He called for an international organisation bringing together “pro-family countries”.

Nour News, an outlet close to Iran’s security establishment, ran a piece in English last year defending Ms Meloni as “a new phenomenon”, claiming that Italy was distinct from other western countries due to its tradition of “Mediterranean-Middle Eastern co-operation”.

This is well-worn ground, of course. Russia has used a similar theme for years, organising global conferences on family values. Russian President Vladimir Putin even declared 2024 the Year of the Family. Mr Putin has won many fans on the global right by positioning himself as defender of Europe’s Christian heritage from liberal hedonism.

The Kremlin’s social positions have sometimes appealed to the Muslim world, and to the leadership in Tehran, as allies in social conservatism, and they have found receptive partners among their counterparts in Tehran. Alexander Dugin, a prominent supporter close to Mr Putin, has visited Iran several times and has praised Mr Khamenei.

Tehran has also used themes such as anti-Semitism to build ties with the global far right. In 2006, American supremacist David Duke was a key speaker at a major gathering of Holocaust deniers held in Tehran. Mr Duke has remained a favourite with the Iranian leadership.

An axis bringing together Iran, Russia and the European right could be very useful for Tehran. Some European right-wing parties have also backed Iran and Russia in their support for the government of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the country’s civil war – or have at least opposed Europe’s position against Mr Al Assad.

In 2018, Ms Meloni, then a party leader in opposition, struck a similar chord with her praise for Iran and Hezbollah as alleged protectors of Syria’s Christians. Previously, during Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, she had condemned “another massacre of children”.

But Ms Meloni’s subsequent evolution shows the instability of such ties. Since she assumed office in 2022, Ms Meloni has been reliably pro-Nato and pro-Israel. She condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supports military aid to Kyiv. She has openly spoken about how she shares the values of the right-wing Likud party of her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, who she hosted in Rome last year.

As it has increased its political clout, France’s far-right National Rally, which recently topped the European Parliament elections in the country, has gone on a similar trajectory. The former leader of the movement, Jean-Marie Le Pen, boasted openly of downplaying the Holocaust and regularly attended events at the Iranian embassy in Paris to show support for Tehran.

His daughter, Marine Le Pen, has taken the party in a more pro-West and pro-Israel direction. Not only has the party condemned Hamas’s attacks on Israel last October, it now even opposes the recognition of a Palestinian state as “reward for terrorism”.

Still, Tehran’s search for global allies will continue across the political spectrum. In the same breath as defending Ms Meloni, Mr Ghazizadeh Hashemi pointed out that Iran could also ally with “left-wing countries of Latin America with whom we share values of justice”.

On a shared basis of anti-Americanism, Tehran has long built enduring ties with the communist government of Cuba and socialist authoritarian states of Venezuela and Nicaragua. The Tehran-owned Press TV, and its Spanish-language offshoot, Hispan TV, often feature the far-left voices critical of capitalism and their country’s imperial ventures.

The UK’s Jeremy Corbyn and Spain’s Pablo Iglesias, perhaps once the two best-known leftist leaders of Europe, used to contribute to Tehran-owned TV channels. Having long been internationally isolated, Iran will try to build alliances with oppositional forces in the West, whether on the right or on the left.

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