Is Tehran pursuing deception or diplomacy?

How should world leaders react to Rouhani’s apparent moderation and seemingly well-meaning words?

Hassan Rouhani Iran flag in background 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
Hassan Rouhani Iran flag in background 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani takes the rostrum this week at the annual UN General Assembly meeting, his words will be carefully analyzed to see whether he opens up the possibility of genuine dialogue with the West. Having replaced the abrasive and Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has tried to present himself as a “centrist cleric” and has encouraged Iran’s adversaries to seize the “opportunity” presented by his election to engage Iran in constructive dialogue. He has said that nations needed to find “win-win outcomes” instead of resorting to “brute force” to combat terrorism, extremism and cyber-crime.
His intentions have special import, particularly at this time, due to the pivotal role Iran exercises in Syria. Iran has sent its Republican Guards to fight alongside its ally Bashar Assad, and supplies weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has also joined the Syrian war. Rouhani’s offer, which was published as an opinion piece in The Washington Post, to facilitate talks between the Syrian government and the opposition forces is tantalizing, as it could open doors to extend the diplomatic solution there and possibly lead to a solution to Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.
So how should world leaders react to Rouhani’s apparent moderation and seemingly well-meaning words, which seek “peace and friendship in the region”? Should we accept his assurances that his country would never develop nuclear weapons? Well, US President Barack Obama seems prepared to acknowledge the change in rhetoric from Iran since Rouhani’s election in June, and has indicated his readiness to meet with him while he is in New York.
Ever watchful and suspicious of Iran’s true intentions are the Israelis, who would advise Obama not to be beguiled by these overtures and to err on the side of caution. Iran’s nemesis, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, through his office warned: “One should not be taken in by Rouhani’s deceptive words. The same Rouhani boasted in the past how he deceived the international community with nuclear talks, even as Iran was continuing with its nuclear program.”
Speaking at the annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Shaul Chorev, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said: “The picture that the Iranian representatives are portraying regarding openness and transparency of their nuclear program...stands in sharp contradiction with Iran’s actual actions and the facts on the ground.”
The issue was not whether Iran has “modified its diplomatic vocabulary, but whether it is addressing seriously and in a timely manner outstanding issues that have remained unresolved for too long.” Chorev went on to accuse Iran of “deception and concealment,” warning the international community that the Islamic Republic was looking to buy time for its nuclear military program.
Could it be possible that Rouhani, this seemingly moderate Shi’ite cleric, who is totally immersed in Koranic studies, is applying the “deception and concealment” allowed and mandated under Shia Islam, known as taqiyah? The practice of taqiyah, which literally means “guarding against fear,” was initially meant to be implemented in order to save lives when faced with religious persecution. However, particularly among Shi’ite Muslims, it is frequently associated with the concept of dissimulation, which allows Muslims to pretend to accept what is contrary to their belief.
The first precedent for this law is found in the hadith which relates how the prophet Muhammad allowed Ammar ibn Yasir to “dissimulate” when he was placed in danger.
Presumably, the term “taqiyah” originates from this verse of the Koran: “Let not the believers take disbelievers for their friends in preference to believers.
Whoso doeth that hath no connection with Allah unless (it be) that ye but guard yourselves against them, taking (as it were) security [tuqatan, the same root as taqiyah]. Allah biddeth you beware (only) of Himself.”
This history would appear to indicate that taqiyah is especially allowed in the case of dealings with nonbelievers and that it is possible to excuse lying on almost any grounds that are consistent with the obligatory spreading of the Muslim faith.
It is the nature of the Koran to be esoteric and poetic, which leads most Sunnis to be critical of the applicability of the “Ammar” case and consequently to question the reliability of the precedent. They are able to provide many cases of Muslims who were tortured and murdered based on their beliefs during the time of Muhammad (as in the case of Ammar’s parents), and yet did not abdicate their faith.
There is an example where taqiyah is apparently sanctioned by the Sunni Muslim medieval theologian Abu Hamed Muhammad ibn Muhammad al- Ghazali of the Shafi’i school. In this quotation from Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri’s handbook, the context is clearly much wider than the saving of lives.
“Speaking is a means to achieve objectives. If a praiseworthy aim is attainable through both telling the truth and lying, it is unlawful to accomplish it through lying because there is no need for it. When it is possible to achieve such an aim by lying but not by telling the truth, it is permissible to lie if attaining the goal is permissible... and obligatory to lie if the goal is obligatory. ...One should compare the bad consequences entailed by lying to those entailed by telling the truth, and if the consequences of telling the truth are more damaging, one is entitled to lie.”
The practice of taqiyah obviously arouses certain moral and political concerns, in that it appears to make it problematic to trust the word of some pious Muslims regarding, say, a treaty. It is significant in this context to note that religious authorities consider taqiyah to be allowed in war and in reconciliation.
One of the purest types of taqiyah according to some authorities is tawriah; making the listener believe the speaker is agreeing with them through the use of ambiguity, whereas in fact they may be saying the opposite. The catchphrase that “Islam is the religion of peace” has just such an ambiguous meaning, since for Muslims, “peace” is to be found only through surrender to Allah.
So while it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the highest religious authority in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has granted his permission and blessing to Rouhani to apply this principle in Iran’s dealings with non-Muslim states, it complicates and compounds suspicions of the true intent behind every political statement and maneuver.
Equally, it must be admitted that similar skulduggery could also be part of Western diplomacy, which sets the stage for a dangerous zero-sum diplomatic game. Western leaders are faced with a Scylla and Charybdis dilemma which makes it vital to understand the mindset of Rouhani, who still blames Israel for “destabilizing” the region and the West for supporting Israel and is unrelenting in his pursuit of nuclearization.
Under the circumstances, Rouhani’s overtures to achieve a thaw in relations with the West have to be reciprocated and given every chance of hopefully leading to a diplomatic solution. In view of the fast-approaching critical ability to produce nuclear weapons, the West must, however, decide if Iran is playing a game of dissimulation or of genuine diplomacy.
The author is chairman of the South Africa Zionist Federation (Cape Council).