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Opinion: Can Rouhani change course? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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For weeks, the American media have waxed lyrical about Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive. The hojjat al-Islam has established a record of granting interviews to advertise his “admiration” for the American people.

It would be naïve to accept Rouhani’s claims at face value. After all, he has authored numerous anti-American speeches and articles. For example, in a speech before the paramilitary Basij, he described the US as “an earth-devouring monster” that must be “fought, defeated and crushed.” He also described the Khomeinist mantra “Death to America” as “a beautiful slogan that unites the Islamic Umma”.

Rouhani lashed out against the US Democratic Party, describing it as “an instrument of Zionists.” He claimed that no Democrat could win the presidency without “Zionist money.” (Full text of this speech was published in the Tehran-based Ettela’at newspaper on May 17, 1995.)

Despite all this, it would be wrong to dismiss Rouhani’s change of mood music, because we simply don’t know what his true intentions are. People do change and Rouhani must be given the benefit of a doubt.

The only way to find out is to judge his deeds.

Next week, as the mullahs mark the 34th anniversary of the raid on the US Embassy in Tehran, Rouhani has an opportunity to reveal his true colors.

November 4, the day that the US embassy was seized by “students,” is an important date in the Khomeinist calendar. Dubbed “the Second Revolution,” it has become part of the mythology of a regime that thrives on myths. The day is celebrated with messages from regime grandees, including the Supreme Leader and the president, and marked with rallies of Hezbollah crowds and chants of “Death to America.”

This week, Tehran has been abuzz with speculation that Rouhani plans to tone down the anti-US feast by not offering a special message, for example. He may also prevent the use of government finances to rent the mobs necessary for this, not to mention their transportation to Tehran for the Hate-the-US marches. On Tuesday, Tehran’s daily Ebtekar published an editorial that affirmed that “Death to America” belonged to the past.

There are other things that Rouhani could do to show that he intends to change course.

He could instruct the state-owned media to stop labeling the US a doshman (enemy) or adou (foe). Such terms should be taken out of textbooks designed to instill anti-Americanism in Iranian children from the age of seven onwards. These terms have a theocratic charge, whereas whatever differences Iran and the US might have are political. Rouhani could instruct his media to use political terms, such as harif (adversary) or mokhalef (opponent).

The term “Great Satan” should also be discarded. This also gives differences between two governments a pseudo-theological character that makes normal political and diplomatic exchanges redundant.

This does not mean that Rouhani should stop criticizing the United States if he feels that it is warranted. But he should do so in the political arena, utilizing political terms; he should do so as a politician, rather than a cleric.

Anti-Americanism is a key ingredient of the Khomeinist ideological hodgepodge. What matters is the degree of anti-Americanism. If it is within reasonable limits—like the anti-Americanism espoused by Vladimir Putin in Russia or the leftover Hugo Chavez regime in Venezuela—it could be regarded as political propaganda and understood, if not justified, in this context.

Even the anti-Americanism that intellectuals in Parisian cafes or on American university campuses indulge in could be tolerated in this regard.

Next, Rouhani could disband the office in the foreign ministry that organizes annual “End of America” conferences attended by anti-Americans from across the globe, including from within the US.

Of course, Rouhani may claim that ending the conferences amounts to limiting “freedom of expression.” However, he could privatize anti-Americanism. If there are individuals who wish to work for the end of America, let them do that at their own expense, not with money from the Iranian government. Let the American, British and Venezuelan anti-Americans who fly to Tehran to vilify the US buy their own air tickets and pay for their own hotels.

Rouhani could instruct the Friday Prayer Leaders’ Office to tone down anti-Americanism in sermons. Here, too, he could let mullahs who are not on the government payroll indulge in as much anti-Americanism as they like, at their own expense. But mullahs on the government payroll should reflect the new attitude to the US.

Rouhani could end government-organized demonstrations during which the US flag is burned. The slogan “Death to America” that covers official buildings could be removed. The US flags painted on the ground at entrances of public buildings, hotels, factories and schools—so that people can trample on them—could be covered. How would Rouhani feel if, during his next visit to New York, he has to walk over his Khomeinist flag when entering his hotel?

Rouhani would make American families happy if he shed light on the circumstances in which more than a dozen US citizens were murdered by Khomeinist agents in Beirut.

Rouhani has been inviting the Americans to forget past grievances. But, last month, the last thing he did before flying to New York was to appoint Massoumeh Ebtekar as a presidential aide. Americans recall Ms. Ebtekar under her nom de guerre, “Sister Mary,” spokesperson for the “students” who held 52 US diplomats captive for 444 days following the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Since the mullahs came to power, there has not been a single year in which no US citizen was held hostage by Khomeinists in Iran or Lebanon. At present, Tehran holds three hostages, among them a former FBI agent, a former Marine officer, and a Christian pastor. As a goodwill gesture, Rouhani could break the cycle of hostage-taking and release the captives.

Amir Taheri

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. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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