Anyone following the media in the Islamic Republic of Iran these days is likely to be reminded of a slang Persian word that might better describe the political situation in Tehran than any sophisticated terminology.
The word is balbashu, which is hard to translate precisely. The closest equivalent in most European languages, including English, would be cacophony, while in Arabic the colloquial Egyptian word would be dowshah.
However, balbashu has other layers of meaning.
It describes a situation in which many voices are raised and heard but not understood while the whole atmosphere indicates a loss of control and the threat of chaos.
So why should we assume there is a state of balbashu in Tehran today?
One reason is that too many officials and semi-officials are talking about too many things, including things that have nothing to do with their responsibilities.
Hardly a day passes without some general delivering a speech, making a statement or even writing an op-ed regarding a range of issues from cleansing the Persian language of Arabic words (army chief of staff Gen. Hassan Firuzabadi) to training Kurdish Peshmerga forces, to “liberating” Jerusalem (Basij commander Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi). Needless to say, the current negotiations with the so-called P5+1 group of nations on Iran’s nuclear program remains a hot topic with the generals.
Those who collect such gems may be surprised by not only how many generals are talking but also by how many generals there are in the Islamic Republic. One study puts the number of generals of different forces—because there are different categories depending on which of the parallel armies one belongs to—at over 100.
However those in the regular army maintain the old Iranian tradition according to which the military never speak in public.
However, their silence is more than compensated for by those who belong to parallel armies created by Khomeini and his successors. These guys really love to talk as much as any parrot worth its feathers.
Iran today has an even larger number of mullahs, and a great number of them like to expound any and all subjects under the sun. By one estimate there are over 400,000 mullahs and wannabe mullahs in Iran. Mercifully, however, most mind their own business and have little love for the Khomeinist system of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist).
And, yet, the remaining horde is large enough to contribute to this balbashu in a big way.
One mullah (Ayatollah Yunessi) talks of reviving the Persian Empire with its capital in Baghdad. Another (Ayatollah Hojati Kermani) claims that anyone who questions the authority of the Supreme Guide is worse than a kaffir (infidel).
The hottest topic, of course, is the nuclear deal being negotiated in secret. Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei has come out with his “red lines” that must not be transgressed in any putative deal. But that has not been the end of the story. Hardly a day passes without some general or mullah issuing his own set of “red lines” for accepting a deal. The result is an amazingly complex maze of twists and turns that even the most talented diplomatic choreographers might not circumvent.
The impression of balbashu is further exacerbated because senior figures in the establishment have also decided to talk more than is either necessary or desirable.
As leader of the hard-line Khomeinist faction, Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei is talking almost every day, each time emerging with tougher and more intransigent rhetoric. One theory is that he is preparing a verbal smoke-screen behind which he can hide his regime’s surrender over the nuclear issue.
The late Ayatollah Khomeini used a similar tactic in 1988 when he decided to accept the “poisoned chalice” of UN Security Council Resolution 598 ending the war with Iraq. The idea is to cave in but pretend to have won “the greatest diplomatic victory in the history of Islam,” as President Rouhani put it.
Engaged in a political pasodoble with Khamenei is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the mullah who leads the so-called “moderate” faction. He hopes to use a deal with Washington as a springboard for a return to the center of power in next year’s elections for the Islamic Majlis (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts.
Rafsanjani’s friends describe him as the Iranian Deng Xiaoping, after the Chinese leader who led the transformation of Communist China from an international pariah into a major player in the global capitalist system.
To add to the balbashu, President Hassan Rouhani is also touring the country, making speeches that range from the esoteric to the bizarre. Having spent the first half of his presidency without achieving anything he could be proud of, Rouhani has pinned his hopes on a rebound produced by the elusive nuclear deal. However, now even his aides admit, and in public, that even if the deal is made, Rouhani is unlikely to achieve much in the two years left of his mandate.
There are societies that suffer from too much silence; there, action proceeds without sound in the style of the old silent movies. But there are also societies where there is too much sound and fury, signifying nothing. In this phase of balbashu, Iran belongs to the second category.
While the generals talk about linguistics and liberating Jerusalem, they are not protecting the nation’s borders. The commander of the Border Guard reported that there have been more than 80 armed attacks in the past year on border posts by armed groups based in Pakistan. And, yet, he makes more speeches and comments about the nuclear deal and the need to humiliate the “Great Satan.” While Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani inspires favorable reports on himself complete with selfies showing him “somewhere in Iraq”, armed gangs are roaming across the nation, robbing banks, kidnapping and, of course, operating vast smuggling rings.
The mullahs are in no better position. When did Ayatollah Hojati last publish a theological treatise? The answer is: never! All he knows is repeating, parrot-like, clichés about the “Great Satan” and the threat of DVDs imported from Europe. And is Ayatollah Khatami an expert on Islamic doctrine? Not at all. He is a self-styled expert on the number of centrifuges needed to enrich uranium for nuclear power stations that Iran does not have and does not even plan to build.
So, how best to define balbashu? Maybe as the following: A situation in which no one does his own job and everyone dabbles in things above their pay-grade.