By Roger Cohen
Jul 22 2009
Allow me to quote the British novelist Martin Amis, writing about Persia in the Guardian: “Iran is one of the most venerable civilisations on earth: it makes China look like an adolescent, and America look like a stripling”.
Iranians, aware of that history, are a proud people. They do not take kindly to being played around with, nor to seeing their country turned into a laughing stock. They do not like the memory of an election campaign that now seems like pure theatre, the expression of the sadistic whim of some puppeteer.
So the line I take away from the important Friday sermon of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the two-time former President who believes that the Islamic Republic’s future lies in compromise rather than endless confrontation, is this one: “We shouldn’t let our enemies laugh at us because we’ve imprisoned our own people”.
There’s been tragedy aplenty since June 12 — dozens of killings, thousands of arrests, countless beatings of the innocent — and I hope I belittle none of it when I say there’s also been something laughable.
What President would celebrate a “victory” by two-thirds of the vote with a clampdown resembling a putsch? What self-respecting nation would attribute the appearance in the streets of three million protesters convinced their votes were stolen to Zionists, “evil” media and British agents?
(The former British ambassador to Iran told me with a smile last January that Tehran was an interesting place to serve “because it’s one of the very few places left on earth where people still believe we have some influence!”)
What sort of country invites hundreds of journalists to witness an election only to throw them all out? What kind of revolutionary authority invokes “ethics” and “religious democracy” as it allows plain-clothes thugs to beat women?
What is to be thought of a supreme leader who calls an election result divine, then says there are some questions that need resolution by an oversight council, and then tells that council what the result of its recount is before it’s over?
Iran is not some banana republic. The events since the night of June 12 have been a shameful interlude. Iranians have not digested this grotesquery.
No, Iran is not a banana republic. It’s a sophisticated nation of 75 million people. It pretends to a significant role in the affairs of the world. It’s a land of poets who knew how to marry the sacred and the sensuous and always laughed at the idea of a truth so absolute it would not accommodate contradiction.
It’s an Islamic Republic and, as Rafsanjani said, “If the Islamic and Republican sides of the revolution are not preserved, it means that we have forgotten the principles of the revolution”.
Respecting that duality — the clerical and the republican — means that the price Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has to pay for his lifelong authority is the quadrennial holding of presidential elections that cannot remove him from office but must inform his actions.
Because Khamenei trampled on this principle, ignoring the will of the people, he created the “crisis” of which Rafsanjani spoke.
It will not abate quickly. Iranians believe the puppeteer must pay a price for such clumsy theatre. Within the revolutionary establishment and within society, fissures have become chasms. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now the most divisive figure in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history.
As Rafsanjani said: “We could have taken our best step in the history of the Islamic Revolution had the election not faced problems”.
The campaign was of an exemplary openness. Supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate, took to the streets without incident. Mousavi, with his impeccable revolutionary credentials, was the very emblem of unthreatening change.
But a hardline faction around Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards felt threatened — in their power, wealth and world view.
They do not believe, as Rafsanjani believes, in a China option for Iran: the possibility of normalising relations with the US and preserving the system.
While Rafsanjani spoke, Ahmadinejad was speaking in Mashad. “As soon as the new government is formed, it will enter the global sphere with a power that is 10 times greater than that of the West and overthrow the West from its hegemonic position”, he said.
I heard the President say the same thing, again and again and again, over the course of a three-hour press conference two days after the election. He is suffering from a pathology. Rafsanjani is not alone in believing it is dangerous.
A succession struggle of sorts has begun in Iran. Rafsanjani, 74, is challenging Khamenei, 70. So is Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former President who called Sunday for a referendum on the legitimacy of the election. They are saying Iran is a great and proud nation: open the prisons, free the press, allow debate, do not make a laughing stock of our institutions. That, they insist, is the only form of loyalty to the revolution.
It’s also the only action worthy of a millennial nation. The joke has been too foul to stand.