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Opinion: The “Cursed Three” and the “Supreme Leader” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian air force commanders saluting Khamenei during a meeting in Tehran on February 7, 2013. Source: AFP Photo/HO/Iranian Supreme Leaders Website

During pre-television times, Iranians, especially in smaller towns, owed much of their entertainment to bands of clowns roaming the countryside. Any spot could be used as a stage: a village square, a bazaar shop-front or the courtyard of a “holy” shrine. Sometimes, the pond in a rich man’s house would be covered with wood panels and used as a stage.

A typical troupe of four comedians would offer a routine of folk songs and dances and recitals of lewd poetry.

One popular sketch was known as siah-bazi, which, translated literally, means “playing black.” In it, two actors, wearing red turbans with their faces painted black, would fight a fast-paced verbal duel with words that could mean anything or nothing. The idea was to pin down the attention of the audience about nothing; an exercise worthy of the Beckettian theater of the absurd.

Going through the Iranian media these days one is reminded of siah-bazi. To be sure, the clowns involved are not wearing red turbans. Nor do they paint their faces black.

The theme of the sketch is the forthcoming presidential election. Every day brings a new batch of putative candidates, with fast-paced exchanges regarding possible approval or rejection by the Council of Guardians—or the supreme leader, for that matter.

If the official media are to believed, the “enemies of Islam,” whose identity changes according to circumstances, are hatching a new plot to turn the election into a new fitnah (sedition).

With former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi under lock and key, Tehran conspiracy theorists need new characters to cast as villains.

So far, three men are lined up as likely candidates for that role.

One is Ali-Akbar Hashemi Bahremani Rafsanjani—let us call him Rafsanjani for short. Another is Muhammad Khatami Yazdi. Despite the fact that the two mullahs served a combined total of 16 years in the presidency of the Islamic Republic, the Tehran media brands them “traitors” to the Islamic Republic and the Khomeinist ideology.

The third potential villain is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, regarded as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bosom-buddy. Today, Mashaei is secretary-general of the Non-Aligned Movement, a post Ahmadinejad invented to provide his friend with a heightened profile and a regular pay check.

According to the daily newspaper Kayhan, reflecting the views of “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei, none of the three would squeeze through the filter of the “Council of Guardians.”

All three have repeatedly stated that they do not plan to stand as candidates.

So, why is Khamenei’s faction focusing its fire on the “cursed three” (Al-muthallath Al-malounah) with such vehemence?

One might find the answer in siah-bazi sketches, at the end of which the spectator realizes that the clowns have been talking about something quite different from what he thought he was hearing.

Let us try to see through this tangled web of double-talk, dissimulation and deceit.

Khamenei is desperately trying to prove to the world—and more importantly to himself—that the Khomeinist regime retains at least part of its popular base. One way to demonstrate this is to achieve a big voter turnout in the presidential election. The last presidential election attracted more than 40 million voters, according to official claims. So, this time, with more than 55 million people eligible to vote, the regime must manage a bigger turnout.

However, that could not be achieved without candidates capable of creating some excitement. With candidates like former foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, a Khamenei favourite, potential voters may just yawn and stay home.

However, allowing exciting candidates is a high-risk strategy.

A candidate who rejects velayat-e faqih, even if he does taqiyah (religious dissimulation whereby a believer can deny his faith) about the so-called “heritage of the revolution,” could encourage those who seek straight regime change.

Thus, Khamenei is looking for a candidate, or candidates, who could produce some excitement without endangering his hold on power.

At first glance, the “cursed three” could deliver that. Rafsanjani has a network of personal support, bureaucrats, civil servants, businessmen and mullahs whom he patronized and helped enrich during at least two decades of direct or indirect power. At the same time, aged 80, he would presumably not want to upset the apple cart by challenging Khamenei.

Khatami may be even more attractive. When president, he described his position as that of factotum to the “Supreme Leader.” There is no reason why, if given another chance, he would adopt a different stance. He could serve the regime by, once again, hoodwinking sections of the urban middle class as well as Western liberals with talk of the “dialogue of civilizations.”

Of the “cursed three,” Mashaei is by far the potentially most exciting candidate. After eight years as Ahamdinejad’s éminence grise, Mashaei remains something of a mystery. Reflecting fear of the unknown, the official Tehran media and pro-Khamenei mullahs have launched a massive campaign of vilification against Mashaei. That, in turn, has aroused some interest in him among potential voters.

In the “as-if” style of Khomeinist politics, the trio are pretending they would have a presence in the coming elections, even if only through an understudy. The Rafsanjani–Khatami camp is using the shibboleth “Dawn of Hope” as an election slogan.

Mashaei’s supporters have adopted “Long Live Spring” as their slogan.

In other words, whether they become candidates or not, the “cursed three” have thrown their turbans or hats in the ring.

If any of the three actually becomes a candidate, people might see that as a direct challenge to Khamenei. That, in turn, could trigger an avalanche that no one would be able to control. Having secured a degree of power, he could not have dreamed of a decade ago, Khamenei may not relish that prospect.

Waiting for the final list of candidates to be approved by the “Supreme Leader,” a measure of interest in the current siah-bazi may be in order.