In traditional clerical schools in Iran and Iraq, one of the skills aspirant mullahs learn is known as “shabih-khani.” Broadly speaking, it means “narrating as if.” It is a primitive form of theater imitating life with a few broad strokes of words and images.
So it was no surprise that when the mullahs seized power in Iran in 1979, they dipped into their immense experience of “shabih-khani” to create a political system and way of being that imitates reality but is as far from it as possible.
The “as-if” technique was first reflected in the name they chose for the regime they created: The Islamic Republic of Iran. Anyone familiar with history and theology knows there can be no republic in Islam. In a republic sovereignty belongs to the people, in Islam it belongs to God. In a republic, laws are made and unmade by the public via elections and parliaments. Islam is the realm of divine law that can never be changed.
The “as-if” scenario also applies to including the name of Iran into the regime’s triple identity. One problem is that Islam is a universal faith and cannot be confined to any particular national identity. Another problem is that Iran existed as a nation-state and a cultural space long before Islam appeared, while Islam does not depend for its existence and success on Iran or any other particular country. In other words, outside the “as-if” exercise, the Khomeinist regime is neither a republic nor Islamic, and even more so not even Iranian.
The mullahs also created an “as-if” Parliament, a body that looks like a Parliament and sounds like one but is miles away from a real legislature. Ruhollah Khomeini was obliged to include this pseudo-Parliament in his scheme in order to hoodwink the Iranian middle classes, who had dreamt of a Western-style parliamentary democracy since the 19th century.
But the most glaring example of the “as-if” gimmick is the election of a president, which we witnessed earlier this month. Since the Khomeinist system is not a republic, it is logical that it should have no president. Yet such a position is included in the regime’s constitution.
Leaving aside “as-if” considerations, the position has nothing to do with the presidential function in any normal republic. The man who occupies it could, at best, be described as head of the Council of Ministers or first minister. Muhammad Khatami, who played the role of president for eight years, has described his position as that of a “logistics man” whose task is to provide the wherewithal to implement policies set by the supreme leader.
To foment more confusion, the so-called president is allowed to have countless “assistants” (mu’awen). The trouble is that the term “assistant to the president” is translated as “vice president.” This is why a foreign visitor is flattered when on arrival in Tehran he is greeted by an “as-if” vice president who, in reality, could be no more than a bag-carrier for the “as-if” president.
Having said all that, one must give it to the mullahs: Their “as-if” scheme has fooled many people inside and outside Iran. In the latest pseudo-election, we saw some otherwise sane Iranians arguing about the necessity of voting for Hassan Rouhani, as “the bad candidate,” to prevent the election of Ebrahim Raisi, branded “the worst candidate.”
This has been the theme of several panels organized by the Tehran lobby in Washington and elsewhere, to sell the idea that the re-election of “moderate reformer” Rouhani promises a change of behavior by Iran.
He is neither a moderate nor a reformer. A member of the security services from the start, Rouhani was deeply involved in almost all the regime’s atrocities.
He is neither a moderate nor a reformer. He started his career as a member of the Islamic Majlis by introducing a bill to have the hanging of regime opponents organized in public, preferably during Friday prayer gatherings. He claims that his greatest “honor” is that he was the first mullah to refer as imam to the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
Rouhani was also a member of a committee charged with purging the Iranian army of its best officers, which weakened Iran immensely on the eve of Saddam Hussein’s invasion in September 1980. A member of the security services from the start, Rouhani was deeply involved in almost all the regime’s atrocities.
As for his description as a “reformer,” in his first four-year term Rouhani did not suggest, let alone implement, a single reform in any walk of life. He says he wants reform, but does not say what it is precisely that he wants. Nonetheless, I believe everyone, including Rouhani, should be given the benefit of the doubt. Maybe age has mellowed him. Maybe he had his fill of revolutionary blood-letting and is seeking to burnish his historic image.
If Rouhani has truly changed, we shall soon know. Even within his extremely limited powers, he can still do quite a few things to ease pressure on the Iranian people and reduce tension in the region. Even if he cannot do anything, he can at least call for some things. For example, he could ask for a moratorium on executions, which in his first four years reached the highest peak since the 1980s.
He could also call for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who have already served their sentences but are still being held without fresh charges. He could publicly demand that those put under house arrest without charge regain their full freedom.
Maybe because he is conscious of his limited powers, in his first message after the election Rouhani promised to be “a good advocate for you, pleading your cause.” On foreign policy, he could at least “plead” for the release of 11 hostages from five countries, including the US and UK.
He may not be able to efface the “Death to America” slogan that constitutes the cornerstone of Khomeinist fake ideology. But he could at least paint over the US flag on which he walks every day before entering his office. How would he feel if US President Donald Trump walked on an Iranian flag every day before entering the Oval Office?
Rouhani or any other “as-if” president cannot decide radical changes in the Khomeinist regime’s policies. But he can, if he has the courage, at least ask for change.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He worked at, or wrote for innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.