When the Question About Iran Has a Japanese Answer
13 March 2016
By Amir Taheri
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
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
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
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
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!
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.