Excitement about a possible thaw in relations between Iran and America has become a prisoner of the old Washington, D.C., trap of confusing the message with the messenger.
Newly elected Iranian President Hasan Rouhani may be the nicest guy in the nation of 80 million mainly Shiite Muslims. But he may have zero power to influence the trajectory of events as the two countries whirl past each other frozen in a dance of hostility, anger and fear. The real power belongs to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who remains hostile to America, Israel and the Sunni Muslim nations.
I recall a previous nice guy at the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Mohammad Khatami. He brought a message as sweet as the strong Persian tea that people drink every hour of the day in Tehran, Mashed, Tabriz, Shiraz and other cities.
Khatami preached: Let’s respect civilizations and admit that America has some top-quality folks and ideas. But Khatami was a front man shown to the world as the sweet face of Iran’s theocratic state.
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I saw the real bottom line one day in Tehran while reporting for an American newspaper. A mob of angry young men in the Majlis – regime thugs – were bused in from the countryside to demonstrate at the gates of the parliament and threaten any legislator who defied the supreme leader.
I was the only Western journalist in the press gallery that day as the Majlis or parliament – mainly clerics wearing turbans and robes – was expected to debate a bill protecting newspapers from closure by the justice ministry.
But the debate never took place. Instead, the speaker read an agenda that did not mention the press bill. The parliament erupted into anger. One mullah aligned with Khatami shouted, “Where is the press bill?”
“It has been removed from the agenda,” said the speaker.
“Who said it could be removed?” asked one cleric.
“The supreme leader said the bill is un-Islamic,” said the speaker.
The next few minutes were pure chaos. The reformists now understood there would be no bill and no free press. So did millions of ordinary Persians who would love to have free press, democracy and the inevitable downfall of the theocracy ruling since 1979.
After many bangs of the gavel, the pro-Khatami reformists had to swallow the death of the free-press bill. And the next president the theocratic councils of state allowed to be nominated and win an election was a hard-line bigot, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was happy to jail liberal thinkers and opposition political leaders.
So President Obama and others hoping for a breakthrough with Iran had better ask themselves – which Iran?
The Iran of the ancient, decent people who showed me so much kindness on my visits there over the years?
The Iran of the hard-line Revolutionary Guards still hoping to punish the liberals who refused to go as cannon fodder in the war against Iraq?
The Iran of the supreme leader who is riding a tiger and knows that releasing clerical control over media and politics signals the failure of the Islamic project – much as the Islamic Brotherhood faced in Egypt?
The supreme leader remains the key to ending the frozen dance of hatred and terrorism Iran has been locked into for more than 30 years.