To the Cartesian mentality of the west every question can have only two answers: “yes” or “no”. Further east, however, other possibilities emerge. Arabs might answer a question with a curt “God knows best.” The Iranians have their own word for escaping the “yes” or “no” dichotomy, “bari”, which, roughly translated, means “let’s move on to something else.” When faced with an awkward question, the Japanese have an even better alternative to both “yes” and “no”. It is: “mu ” which means “un-ask your question.” There are questions that an intelligent person would think twice before asking.
This week I found myself bombarded with just that kind of question triggered by the so-called elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Would this election lead to significant changes in the Khomeinist regime’s foreign policy?” The question stems from the fact that, for decades, the Western democracies, led by the United States, have shaped their Iran policy around hopes for “change in the regime” rather than “regime change”.
More than any other western leader, President Barack Obama has heavily invested in that hope. His analysis is that his predecessor George W Bush missed the opportunity to achieve “change within the regime” in Iran by refusing to back the “Reformist” President Muhammad Khatami and even calling the Islamic Republic part of the “Axis of Evil.”
Obama was determined to do the opposite of what Bush did by bending backwards to please the ruling mullahs of Tehran. He refused to give even moral support to Iranians who rose against the Khomeinist regime in 2009 and persuaded other Western powers to also keep mum. Obama also sent hand-written letters to both the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, eventually convincing them that his administration was ready to dance to the Iranian tune.
That started a process which was to lead to the simulacrum of a deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, and the lifting of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United Sates and the European Union.
The election of Hojat Al-Islam Hassan Rouhani as President was seen as the return of the Khatami opportunity that Bush Junior had squandered. Dubbed a “Reformist”, Rouhani was cast in the role of central character in a new version of “change within the regime” scenario.
Back in 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that the US should support Rouhani to win the coming general election in 2016, and thus control enough levers of power to alter the course of the wayward ship that is the Khomeinist regime.
That election came last Friday and, drunk on their fantasies, the western media declared the “Reformist” bloc led by Rouhani and his mentor Hashemi Rafsanjani as “winners” even before the results had been announced.
For the New York Times, an ardent supporter of Obama, that was “the new beginning” that the president had worked for since 2009.
The problem is that Rafsanjani’s “Reformists”, if they actually exist, won neither the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz parliament and nor the Assembly of Experts that chooses the “Supreme Guide”.
Even if they had won, the fact remains that the Islamic Republic’s strategic policies are not discussed either in the Cabinet led by Rouhani or in the Majlis, let alone decided there. For example, Obama should know that his so-called nuclear deal was not even presented to the Cabinet and that the Majlis did not even receive an official Persian translation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which he has been marketing as his greatest diplomatic achievement.
Understanding the Islamic Republic, let alone speculating about its future course, is rendered more difficult by the western love of political labels. During the Cold war, western Kremlinologists used the labels “hawks” and “doves” in their analyses of the Soviet Union. It was only after the fall of the Communist Empire that they realized that the only birds that nested in the Kremlin had been vultures and cormorants.
The truth is that there are no “Reformists” in the Islamic Republic. Khatami was no “Reformist” and Rouhani isn’t one either. Khatami was honest enough never to describe himself as a “Reformist”. The term he used” in Persian was “Islah talab” which means “someone who seeks reform”. Throughout his eight years as President, Khatami did not introduce a single reform in any domain; economic, political, cultural, social, or foreign policy. Whether he couldn’t as his friends suggest, or didn’t want to, as his critics charge, is beside the point.
Rouhani has been equally honest, describing himself as “Etedali” (moderate) rather than “Reformist”. And, yet, with his presidential term heading for its final year, it would be hard to see Rouhani as a moderate. In a number of domains, including executions, imprisonment of human rights and trade union activists, crackdown against the media, and support for radical groups in the Middle East he has been more of a hardliner than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Again, his entourage blame all that on “other organs of state”, claiming that the president has no say in shaping let alone implementing the repressive policies.
Last Friday the candidates’ list backed by Rouhani and Khatami, as well as Rafsanjani, won all of Tehran’s 30 seats in the Islamic Majlis. But the architects of the list were honest enough to label it “The List of Hope”, making no mention of the word “Reform”. Thus terms such as “reform” and “Reformist” with regard to the Islamic Republic exist only in the imagination of Obama and some delusional analysts in the West.
All this does not mean that people like Khatami and Rouhani, and more importantly, some of those on the ”List of Hope” are not aware of the fact that the Islamic Republic is on a suicidal course and that change is needed to save not only the regime but, more importantly, the country itself.
The trouble is that the Khomeinist system, like other systems with an ideological architecture divorced from reality, lacks any mechanism for reform. The Khomeinist system is un-reformable as were Nazi Germany and the USSR in their times, or as are North Korea Cuba and Zimbabwe today.
Iran’s behavior, inside or outside will not significantly change, unless the present regime changes. But before Obama once again accuses me of calling on the US to invade Iran and change its regime, let me emphasize that I am not asking for any such thing and have never done so. All I ask is that Obama and others do not interfere in Iranian affairs and, above all, do nothing to help prolong the life of an un-reformable regime that is oppressing Iranians and wreaking havoc in the Middle East and beyond.
Don’t get me wrong.There are some good people within the Khomeinist regime, including some of those “elected” to the two assemblies last Friday. I am confident that some of them at least are true “seekers of reform”. The problem is that they don’t know what kind of reform and, even if they knew, dare not mention it in public. They dare not mention it in public because they fear that changing one brick within this shaky structure could bring the whole edifice down, a frightening prospect for them.
So, can “seekers of reform” lead Iran to reform as Obama hopes? The prudent answer is in Japanese: Mu!