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The discomfort of the mullahs with the Persian language

Like most Indo-European languages, sentence arrangement in Persian is based on subject, object and verb (in Arabic it is the other way round). This means the first thing a Persian sentence does is identify the subject, the doer of what is done. The key advantage of that sentence structure is clarity. You know who did what to whom before learning when, how and why.

But what if you fear clarity and wish to hide reality behind a fog of delusion and diversion? Through the ages some writers, many of them mullahs, have tried to cope with that problem by using a lexical device called “nakereh,” which allows the writer or speaker to be vague about the subject of the sentence. So instead of identifying the subject at the start of the sentence, you might say “it happened that” or “they did.”

Examples of the use of this device are numerous in the writings of Shiite theologians, from Muhammad-Baqer Majlisi to the more recent and far deeper Alameh Tabataba’i. But it has also been used by politicians and diplomats.

In 1941, when Russian and British troops invaded Iran to use its railways to ferry arms to the Soviet Union, then-Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Forughi said on Tehran Radio: “They come, and they go, and they won’t bother anyone.” He could not bear telling the truth, that the British and Russians invaded the country.

In 1989, when the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was forced to admit that he could not march to Jerusalem via Karbala in Iraq, he did not say his tragic gable had failed. He said: “It has been decided to accept the cease-fire.”

More recently, the Iranian team that concocted the nuclear deal used the device to draft the Persian version of the 179-page “fact-sheet” in which you read that this or that “will be done,” without ever finding out who is supposed to do it. Anxious to secure some legacy for former US President Barack Obama, his administration fell for the trick, going around claiming that Iran was going to do this or that.

Some writers use a different version of the device by putting the verb in the middle of the sentence, creating desired confusion. There are many disadvantages to the use of that device, especially in politics as the public are never told exactly who the competing sides in any argument are.

Consider this from newly re-elected President Hassan Rouhani’s talk with reporters in Tehran last week: “Some pretend to be experts in measuring people’s piety and attachment to revolution, and cut down whoever is taller than them.” Asked by a reporter to name who “some” are, Rouhani said “beyond them there is one taking decisions,” without saying who that person was (this was censored on state radio and television but is available on YouTube.)

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also uses the verbal trick. Addressing a group of militant “students” last week, he said: “Of course, my words are addressed at everyone to do what they can and if (institutions) of state don’t do their functions to act on their own as in battlefield when time comes for free fire.”

Khomeinist grandees do not speak or write Persian the way it is supposed to be. This is why the more they speak, the less people know. The only authentic sound is that of knives they are sharpening behind the scenes.

Amir Taheri

Rouhani and Khamenei are obviously referring to each other in the context of the struggle for power within the narrow Khomeinist clique of which both are members. Yet neither of them is prepared to adopt a normal political posture that identifies the other side in a debate, spell out any differences and ask for public support for one’s own position. The myth of “Islamic unanimity” must be maintained at the cost of the truth.

Last week, some MPs used the trick to show their unhappiness with the government’s failure or unwillingness to provide a coherent account of the terror attacks that shook Tehran. MP Ahmad Zamani: “Six days after the attacks there is still no account of what really happened.”

MP Muhammad Qassim Zamani said: “The attackers must have had a command and control and support network, about which we know nothing.” MP Muhammad-Reza Tabesh said: “Help must have been there for terrorists, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did.”

Like Khamenei and Rouhani, the three MPs wish to please their real or imagined constituency without committing to a clear position. They are not prepared to name the security services, the military and their supposed political masters, or blame them for failure to provide a credible narrative of the tragedy.

Language is a medium for exchanging information, ideas and sentiments in all walks of life, including politics. But in Iran, it is used either to hide things or to relay coded messages that only insiders might understand. Not having the courage of one’s declared convictions may at times be needed for self-protection in a hostile environment. But what about politicians in an environment they control?

One can understand why critics of the regime might be censored or otherwise silenced. But what about state-owned media censoring the incumbent president, not to mention former presidents who have become non-persons? Rouhani claims he is a moderate and reformist without ever telling us on what issues he seeks moderation and which aspect of current policy he wishes to reform and how.

Khamenei is constantly warning against “plotters and Zionist agents” trying to sabotage the revolution from within, but never tells us who they are and why are they allowed to pursue their misdeeds. Khomeinist grandees do not speak or write Persian the way it is supposed to be. This is why the more they speak, the less people know. The only authentic sound is that of knives they are sharpening behind the scenes.

• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications and published 11 books.

— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.