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The Game that Left Iran in Historic Impasse

The Game that Left Iran in Historic Impasse

Friday, 12 March, 2021 - 06:00
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

“Not worth a bucketful of spit!” This is how US President Truman described the vice-presidency when he himself filled that slot under President Roosevelt.

Today, some commentators believe that he colorful description could be applied to the position of the President in Iran.

This is why many, even among the critics of the regime, insist that showing any interest in this year’s presidential election, slated for next June, is not only a waste of time but an active participation in a massive political deception.

How relevant are such analyses?

To be sure, the system put in place by the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini and his group could be anything but republican. In fact, what we have in Iran today is a form of “Imamate” of the kind existed in North Yemen under the Hamidi imams. During the 1978-79 revolts against Iran’s constitutional monarchy, neither Khomeini nor any of his closest associates spoke of a republican system.

Their slogan was “Islamic Rule” (Hokumat Eslami in Persian).

Beyond that slogan they described their ideal system as one based on Walayat al-Faqih (Custodianship of the Theologian), later versions of which was presented by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the ISIS caliphate in Mosul and Raqqa and Boko Haram in West Africa.

However, because Iran under the Shah had developed a fairly large and partially westernized middle class, the pill that the mullahs offered had to be sugar-coated with such words as “republic”, “president” and constitution.

But as soon as the mullahs had gained control of the real levers of power, the sugar-coating was peeled off.

The first elected President of the Islamic Republic was summarily dismissed with a nine-word edict by Khomeini and his campaign slogan “Social and Economic Justice” turned into a sour joke.

The second “president,” Muhammad-Ali Rajai, was murdered a few weeks after he surfed to electoral victory with the slogan: All life in the Way of Allah!

The third “president,” Ali Khamenei, then a mere Hojat al-Islam, tried to appear relevant but was quickly shown his place by Khomeini and spent his eight-year stint sulking on the sidelines or traveling to North Korea and Black Africa.

The fourth “president”, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman who transformed himself into a Hojat al-Islam for the occasion, understood the situation better than others and, using the slogan “Work and Development” spent his eight-year tenure to expand his business empire, always careful not to ruffle the feathers of the Faqih.

Nevertheless, he too experienced untold humiliation including being denied a seat in the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz parliament. Some members of Rafsanjani’s entourage even claim that he was murdered by being drowned in his swimming pool.

The fifth “president” was another self-styled Hojat al-Islam, a travel agency manager who reinvented himself as a cleric to fit into the pattern set by Khomeini. However, his slogan “A Better Future” didn’t even work for himself as, since bowing out of the presidency, he has been denied permission to leave the country and at least until recently, as a non-person with his pictures and even his name banned in state-owned media.

The sixth “president,” Mahmud Ahmadinejad, cast himself as a populist heart-throb with the slogan: “Oil Money on People’s Tables” and presided over the squandering of nearly $1 trillion in oil revenues which produced the largest number of billionaires in Iranian history.

However, when he got too big for his boots, he too was whistled back into his niche.

The seventh and current “president” is another last-minute Hojat al-Islam.

In 1978-79 Hassan Fereidun Sorkheh was registered in a textile design course in an obscure British college. Sensing which direction the wind was blowing he decided to transform himself into a cleric by changing his name to Rouhani (spiritual in Persian), growing a substantial beard and wearing a mullah’s costume.

The newly-minted Hojat al-Islam Rouhani swept into the presidency with the slogan “Expedience and Hope.”

At first, things seemed to be going well for Rouhani. Backed by the so called “New York Boys”, a group of US-educated bureaucrats and technocrats close to the US Democratic Party, he enjoyed the blessing of President Barack Obama who regarded the Islamic Republic in Iran as a “people-based” government. The Hojat al-Islam also enjoyed support from several former British Cabinet ministers while getting a nod of appreciation from veteran Israeli leader Shimon Peres.

Things turned sour for the Hojat al-Islam when Donald Trump entered the White House, determined to undo what Obama had done, good or bad. The scenario under which the “New York Boys” would gain enough strength from US support to marginalize the “Supreme Guide” and turn the presidency into the real center of power in Tehran went all awry.

As a result, Rouhani’s presidency ends like the scene of a car crash.

With official inflation rate at over 50 percent, unemployment hovering over 25 percent and over 40 percent of Iranians pushed under the official poverty line, talk of “hope” seems indecent to say the least.

The scenario dreamed by Obama was to see Rouhani and his “New York Boys” achieving enough economic and diplomatic success to retain the presidency even after his two-terms have ended.

Today the pro-US faction, also backed by Britain, still hopes to revive the scenario by fielding a candidate in June. But that would require a much bigger effort by President Joe Biden to inject massive cash into Iran’s morbid economy, grant major diplomatic concessions to “New York Boys” and contribute to creating a feel-good atmosphere.

Even then, the scenario may not work.

Khamenei sees no reason why he should not seize the opportunity to deprive the presidency of the last vestiges of its relevance. He could propel one of his minions in the Revolutionary Guard, his main support base, into the presidential slot and pave the way for one of his sons to emerge as the next “Supreme Guide”.

For almost 150 years, Iranian politics was dominated by Anglophiles and Russophiles in a faction-ridden system that ended with the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and the 1925 change of ruling dynasty.

Today, we are back to the bad old times with Russophile and Americanophile factions competing for power within an increasingly narrow circle.

The “New York Boys” look to Joe Biden for last minute rescue.

The Russophiles have sent their “epoch-making” secret letter to Vladimir Putin.

The June election may mark the victory of the Russophiles which, paradoxically, may bring the Khomeinist regime’s erratic behavior under some control with nods and wins from Moscow.

Next June, the worst outcome would be a prolongation of the tragi-comedy puppet-show that has led Iran into an historic impasse.

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