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
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
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
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