Leaving Islam



June 24, 2005

Not bad for a terrorist godfather

The favourite in today’s Iranian presidential election is somehow seen as a moderate

Times Online

IMAGINE IF Hojatoleslam Hashemi Ali Akhbar Rafsanjani, the front-runner in today’s Iranian presidential run-off, were a superannuated Tory politician who had made it to the final round of the Conservative leadership race. The opinion-forming classes would immediately pronounce that the Stupid Party simply “didn’t get it” and was “mired in the 1980s”.

His record during 18 years of misrule would be raked over — as the linchpin of an intolerant, misogynistic, racist and homophobic regime. The Howard League for Penal Reform and assorted civil libertarians would make much of the 5,000 to 15,000 inmates who died on Mr Rafsanjani’s watch under the draconian “prison works” policy. And there would be the small matter of his failure fully to declare a billion-dollar fortune in the Register of Interests: Tory sleaze redux.

But because the septuagenarian Mr Rafsanjani is running again for high office in the Islamic Republic, he’s virtually given a free pass. That said, given his baggage, the man is a PR genius. This terrorist godfather — once wanted by a German court for his role in authorising the murder of Iranian dissidents in Berlin — has gone overnight from bad memory to a “pragmatist” and even a “moderate.”

The world’s journalists seem to be falling over themselves to explain Mr Rafsanjani. With typical banality, John Simpson portrays a man who practised the “art of the possible” — as though he is a kind, wonderfully ambivalent R. A. Butler figure with whom the West might be able to do business. No mention here of Amnesty International’s description of his salient role in terrorism or domestic repression.

Others seem to have difficulty calling a mullah a mullah. The Daily Telegraph correspondent pronounced that this grey eminence enjoyed “strong connections to Iran’s clerical elite”, which is rather like saying that the Marquis of Salisbury has “close links” to the British aristocracy. And as for the BBC’s anonymous online profile, well, it reads like a revolutionary guards’ press release.

Why the easy ride? Western journalists seem too rarely to escape from occidental categories of thought and terminology (interestingly, there is no indigenous word in Farsi for “pragmatist”). In this world of mirror-imaging, they are always on the search for struggles pitting easily identifiable wets versus dries, hardliners versus softliners, and secularists versus theocrats.

Of course, there are major differences between factions inside totalitarian regimes. They are not monoliths. But the kinds of differences are so different from those within democratic systems as to make this kind of “rational actor” theorising very hazardous indeed. Lt-Col Oliver North et al tried to exploit those alleged fissures in what emerged as the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986 — and was rightly derided for entering the snake pit with insufficient knowledge.

The West keeps getting it wrong because we underrate the importance of ideology to these regimes. Ideology is often seen as the antonym of pragmatism, even though the two frequently go hand in hand. After all, tyrants such as Milosevic and Stalin were often highly “pragmatic” in their modus operandi — often engaging in tactical retreats to perpetrate even greater evils further down the pike.

Curiously, it was left to a senior Foreign Office mandarin at a briefing this week to dampen journalistic high spirits about Iran. There are a number of reasons for King Charles Street’s relatively sober assessment. British diplomats remember the paroxysms of excitement that greeted Rafsanjani’s first election victory in 1989 — and how he failed to live up to expectations of better relations with the West.

Another reason for British caution is that the Americans are becoming increasingly impatient with the Iranians — exemplified by President Bush’s remarks on the worthlessness of the poll. Who would want to vouch in perpetuity to the Administration for Mr Rafsanjani’s good behaviour?

But although the Government recognises that the Iranian election process makes the first round of last year’s Ukrainian presidential race look like a Swiss cantonal plebiscite, they too are not totally dismissive of what they still describe as a fledgling democracy. And a rigged ballot isn’t worth jeopardising the Government’s pride and joy — the endless minuet with Tehran over its atomic aspirations.

The Government is less than dewy-eyed about Mr Rafsanjani, but he nonetheless represents the hope that there is some worthy interlocutor for the EU in Tehran, which avoids the need for a repetition of the coalition’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Mr Rafsanjani has positioned himself masterfully for world consumption. And the regime has rigged the poll so that his opponent is the even more “retro” mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The reformers are thus handed an impossible choice akin to that of the French Left after the presidential election of 2002: vote for Jacques Chirac or you get Jean-Marie Le Pen. Many Iranian reformists had wanted to boycott the bogus poll so as to drive turnout below 50 per cent. Now the democratic movement will be further split: some of its activists feel obliged to participate and thus confer legitimacy on the regime.

The mullahs may hold a weak set of cards strategically, with coalition forces on their eastern and western borders and a restive population. But when it comes to self-preservation those wily Persians still know a thing or two. And they get by with a little help from the delusions of the West.


Dean Godson is research director of Policy Exchange






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