Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: The Mullah, the Prince and the Taqiyah Trap | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Ever since they seized power in 1979, Iran’s ruling mullahs have faced the challenge of forging a synthesis between perception and reality. In almost every case, attempts at replacing reality with the perception of an ideal ends in grief. And in many cases, the ideological regime is prepared to sacrifice reality to perception. What matters is how things look, not how they are.

Iran’s Khomeinist regime is the latest illustration of that. The seizure of American hostages in 1979 ended with a disaster for the Iranian economy, not to mention the nation’s prestige. Yet, the ayatollah declared victory over the “Great Satan.”

In 1988, the eight-year war with Iraq had a humiliating end for the Islamic Republic. But, there too Khomeini crowed about his triumph, and ordered the execution of thousands of prisoners to divert attention.

More recently, President Hassan Rouhani labelled the so-called nuclear deal the “greatest diplomatic victory in the history of Islam” while accepting some of the most humiliating terms dictated to an Iranian government even at times of historic weakness.

Over the years, most nations have learned to treat the Islamic Republic leaders in Tehran as snooty teenagers who would fall in line as long as they don’t lose face. Last month, the Foreign Minister Muhammad Jawad Zarif toured a number of Latin American countries with bankrupt leftist regimes and reported that the Islamic Republic was now the leader of a new bloc of revolutionary powers. It didn’t matter that Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela didn’t have even two farthings to rub against each other. The Tehran Foreign Ministry’s Economic Director-General, a certain Mr. Haqbin, had the temerity to declare Zarif “a gift to mankind” for “having created a new framework for global prosperity.”

For two decades the Islamic Republic has tried to become a full member of the so-called Shanghai Group, an alliance led by Russia and China. Every year, Tehran’s application is politely set aside. And every year, Tehran declares “great diplomatic victory” because of a promise to examine the application the following year.

It is also two decades that the Islamic Republic declares “diplomatic victory” regarding an agreement on the status of the Caspian Sea by the littoral states. And, yet, all four states that share the sea with Iran- that is to say Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan-, have simply isolated Iran and continue to do as they please regardless. Russia has even violated three treaties under which the Caspian must be free of a military presence.

Last month, Zarif went all the way to Laos to persuade a summit of the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to admit Iran as a member. Back in Tehran, he declared the usual “diplomatic triumph of Islam” ignoring the fact that the Vientiane summit shelved the Iranian demand with a promise to examine it a year later. Instead, the same summit admitted Chile and Morocco as members, neither of them even in Asia.

Earlier this year Tehran was preparing for what it hoped would be an even greater “diplomatic triumph”, persuading the Saudis to play the mullahs’ script by allowing the mullahs to appear as if they could dictate the terms under which Iranians would perform the Hajj rites. Soon, however, it became clear that this time the Saudis would not play the role written for them in a script designed to deceive the Iranians, other Muslims, and indeed the whole world.

The mullahs had played a similar game in 1987, triggering a tragedy in which more than 400 pilgrims died and, later, in 1997 when they used their favourite tactic of taqiyah (dissimulation) to resume their attempt at the politicization of the Hajj rites.

An account of the prelude to that attempt is given by Ayatollah Ray-Shahri, the mullah who led the Iranian pilgrims at the time. In his memoirs published in Tehran, the ayatollah recalls a meeting between the then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and the Islamic Republic President Hashemi Rafsanjani in Pakistan during the Islamic Summit.

Ray Shahri makes it clear that Rafsanjani was trying to persuade the Saudi leader to allow Iran to play a game of deception by pretending that the pilgrims in Mecca had responded to Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for mass demonstration. Rafsanjani wanted a space, any space, in which a few Iranians would gather, make films for TV and show it in Tehran to say the entire pilgrimage paid tribute to Khomeini and his policies.
It would be an exercise in make-believe, like a Cecil Be DeMille movie made in a studio.

Khomeini would be deceived, Iranians would be deceived and the regime would declare another triumph. Ray Shahri quotes part of the dialogue verbatim.

It is a valuable historic document. Here it is:
Crown Prince Abdullah: What is this Hajj pilgrimage leader you have named? Why don’t you appoint someone who obeys you? We have had enough, enough of suffering about what happened before (in previous Hajj seasons). Non-Muslims laugh at us. We’ve had enough. As one Iranian brother has told us you could do your demonstration in the desert or in Europe.
President Rafsanjani: We’ve a clear solution to offer. There is no need for either of us to be concerned.
Crown Prince Abdullah: Let me tell you something which is from the time of the Shah. It shows that Iranian people have always been Muslims. The only nation that came for Hajj in good discipline was the Iranians. They knew where they were and what they should do. In Arafat, Mina and elsewhere they had the best places. We welcomed them and offered full facilities.
President Rasfanjani: Let me make a deal with you, a final deal. I have also talked to {your} foreign minister. For example, if you give us a mosque anywhere in Mecca, even a very small mosque we could agree on the number of people {for demonstration}.
Crown Prince Abdullah: Why couldn’t they perform Hajj as before? Weren’t Iranians who did it before also Muslims?
President Rafsanjani: Things changed since we created an Islamic government. We’ll solve it, you won’t have any problem.
Crown Prince Abdullah: But God created the Iranian people as Muslims from the beginning of creation.
President Rafsanjani: But before we had the Shah. Give us a tent, a small tent; say for 500 to 1000 people {to make a film for TV}
Crown Prince Abdullah: Why not in your assigned place (ba’atha)?
President Rafsanjani: We accept even in our place. We won’t fix loudspeakers and make no announcement. We’ll have people there to pray, say for half an hour or an hour, won’t give the news to any newspaper, the footage will be shown only in Iran. No loudspeakers.
Crown Prince Abdullah: No need for loudspeakers. God can hear even the prayer of an ant.
President Rafsanjani: With this arrangement you will be Ok and we will be comfortable.

Ray Shahri then relates how the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ignored Rafsanjani’s promises to the Saudi leader and how thousands of Islamic Revolutionary Guard members and security agents went on a rampage in Mecca. This year, President Hassan Rouhani, a disciple of Rasfanjani tried the same trick aimed at deceiving the Saudis presumably with Khamenei’s consent. This time, however, the technique didn’t work.