Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani touch the coffin of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Never have so many reformers done so little with so much. If you read the news about Iran, there is a never-ending narrative sold the public that claims the “reformers” are winning. When Hassan Rouhani won the presidential elections in 2013, The Guardian claimed “moderate candidate secures surprise victory.” His victory “delighted reformers who have been desperate for a return to the forefront of politics after eight acrimonious years under Mahmud Ahmadinejad.” But there are no reformers in Iran.
In February the “reformers” were still winning elections. In parliamentary elections in early 2016 The Huffington Post claimed that “moderates and reformers” had made major advances. “A loosening of control by the anti-Western hard-liners who currently dominate the 290-seat parliament could strengthen [Rouhani’s] hand.”
Then former Iranian president Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani died on Sunday at age 82. Western media once again sold us a story of how this was a “big blow to moderates and reformists,” as CNBC reported. Rafsanjani was the “most influential supporter” of reforms among the Islamic establishment. Now the nonexistent “reformers” have another excuse why there are no reforms. Reuters reported on Tuesday that Rafsanjani’s death “heightens concerns for reformers at a time when morale is rising among hard-liners because of Donald Trump’s election as US president.” The reason? Because Trump’s policies will “undermine reformers’ attempts to build bridges with Washington.”
Reading news about Iran it almost seems every Western news agency and major media receives talking points from some unseen super-news media word database. “When writing about Iran there are two political parties, the reformers or moderates and the hard-liners, use these key words when describing everything.”
But there are no reformers in Iran. If there were reformers and moderates then we would see reforms. What “reforms” are there? Are women allowed to dress as they want? In May 2016, NPR reported that “spring means the morality police are out in force” in Tehran. More than 7,000 undercover police known as Gashte Ershad had been deployed to ferret out “immorally” dressed women who “don’t follow the conservative Islamic modes of dress and behavior.” The NPR report was a bit misleading, because it’s not about “conservative Islamic modes” of dress, it’s about legally enforcing certain types of dress. Women are forced to cover up by law. The article claimed that more liberal Iranians were disappointed that Rouhani had not “been able to fulfill a campaign promise to bring relief from the morality police.” So much for the “reforms.” Women are still being stuffed into vans by police and charged for improper dress.
The reformers and moderates still hang people in Iran as well. In October, BBC reported that a 22-year-old woman was about to be hanged but had her execution delayed because she got pregnant in prison. The 22-year-old woman was in prison after she had been married at age 15 and killed her husband. Amnesty International revealed in August 2016 that a 19-year-old man had been hanged in a prison in Markazi province after being convicted for “forced anal rape” of another man in 2015. What reform was involved in his hanging? The length of the rope? Iran also excels at hanging minorities, most of whose killings by the regime go unreported. In August 2016, 20 Kurdish men were put to death in a mass execution for allegedly being members of a resistance group. Maybe they had committed crimes, maybe they hadn’t. But they are only a small number of the Kurds who are brutalized by the regime’s “reforms.”
Women are jailed for trying to attend volleyball games. Journalists are jailed. Activists. People dancing in the video “Happy” were sentenced to be whipped 91 times. Was it a “moderate” lashing? Was a reformed type of whip used? When a person is being whipped for singing, in a scene more reminiscent of the 15th-century Inquisition than 2017, why is that called a “reform” and a “moderation?”
The reality in Iran is that the choice is not between reformers and hard-liners, but between the extreme-religious Right and the extreme-nationalist-religious Right. There are no liberal leaders in Iran. There are only militarists, theocrats, nationalists, extremists, the extreme Right, the populist Right, the fundamentalists, the fundamentalist Right, the Inquisition leaders, and floggers and executioners.
Foreign politicians go to Iran and cover their hair dutifully for a regime better suited to the 16th century than today. Every time journalists parrot this “moderates” story they feed a false, regime-supported narrative. The Iranian government wants the West to believe there are moderates, so it can do a bait and switch with the West by trotting out the “moderate” to negotiate, sending Foreign Minister cherub-faced Mohammed Javad Zarif to charm the EU, while the “hard-liners” hold the strings. It’s good-cop/bad-cop in Tehran. And everyone buys into it. There are no moderates. There are no reformers. The new story Tehran is pushing is that Donald Trump will erode the influence of the moderates. If a regime always has to threaten you that its “liberals” will be eroded by some foreign election, then it means there are no liberals in the first place.
There may be Iranian liberals among the people. There may be many Iranian reformers among the long-persecuted minorities, such as Kurds, Baloch, Arabs, Azeris, Baha’i and others. But they have no influence and often no rights. No right to free speech, to form political organizations, to sing or dance, or even speak out. The very fact that Iran has succeeded time and again at pretending reformers exists is evidence of how well its narrative has influenced others. There is no difference between Iran’s government and the governments of the 15th century in Spain that were run by the Inquisition. Maybe deep within the soul of Spain in the 15th century the liberal 20th-century Spain was begging to get out. But the reality is that such liberalism and moderation is so far from the surface, has so little impact and is of so little importance, that it is ridiculous to speak of it being in power. Perhaps Rafsanjani was better than others. Surely the public turnout for his funeral in Iran shows he was much loved. But until there are real reforms in Iran, toward freedoms for average people, freedom for women, and for minorities, one has to hold the regime accountable for the reality that exists.