April 27, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Ideological War on Homosexuality

April 27, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Ideological War on Homosexuality

Iranian police raided a private party this month, arresting more than 30 people on charges of sodomy, alcohol consumption, and psychedelic drug use. The move reflects the daily perils that homosexuals face in the Islamic Republic, which regards them as enemies of the state who threaten its revolutionary ideals.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has described the West’s legalization of gay marriage and refusal to criminalize homosexual acts as the results of the broader licentiousness that supposedly pervades its culture. Iran, he said in a speech last year, faces a “destructive flood of moral decadence which has originated from the West and which is overflowing into the whole world. Today, you are witnessing the characteristics of this moral decadence.”

Khamenei worries that the presence of gays and lesbians in Iran makes the country vulnerable to Western efforts to normalize homosexuality. To combat this “soft war” of cultural “infiltration,” he insists, the Islamic Republic must follow “the path of the Revolution” and promote “the authority of Islam and God’s religion.”

In the supreme leader’s mind, the West’s acceptance of homosexuality constitutes a modern form of jahiliyya, or the state of religious ignorance that preceded the dawn of Islam. “We should open our eyes,” he declared in a 2015 address, to identify jahiliyya as a type of “incalculable, unbridled and unreasonable lust” encouraged by secular nations. The West’s willingness, he added, to allow such permissiveness on ideological grounds makes present-day jahiliyya hundreds or even thousands of times more dangerous than its antecedent.

At the same time, Tehran deems homosexuality a psychological disorder, a position it has defended by citing Western views of same-sex orientation from decades past. Fearing that homosexuals will corrupt others, the regime exempts them from military service and bars them from universities. One gay man recalled that the military officer approving his exemption told him, “You are only being exempted because you are a deviant. You are all deviants, and you will lead others to deviance as well.”

In 2007, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously asserted at Columbia University, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” But in an interview a year later, he offered a clarification, noting that he intended to draw a distinction between Iranian and American culture. “I didn’t say they don’t exist; I said not the way they are here,” he argued. “In Iran, it’s considered as a very unlikable and abhorrent act. People simply don’t like it. Our religious decrees tell us that it’s against our values.”

Washington should seek to combat Iran’s persecution of homosexuals not only through hard power, such as economic sanctions, but also through what Khamenei fears most: a “soft” counter-narrative aimed at discrediting the regime’s ideology. In so doing, it can strengthen moderate forces in Iran that seek an alternative to the Islamic Republic’s repressive rule.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.