The new pseudo-nationalist narrative, told by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a speech marking the 40th anniversary of the Khomeinist Revolution, is also designed to explain, or explain away, the fact that after 40 years, the Revolution has failed to spread to even a single other country or inspire similar movements anywhere. Pictured: Rouhani (right) with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (Image source: Michael Gruber/Getty Images)
What do scoundrels do, when caught red handed in their shenanigans? According to an old proverb they wrap themselves in a flag and seek refuge in patriotism.
Something close to that seems to be happening to the Khomeinists dominating Iran, thanks to their control of the nation's finances and monopoly on guns. As it marked its fourth decade in power, the regime implicitly admitted the bankruptcy of its narrative, according to which the 1979 revolution was prompted by a desire to "revive Islam" which, after the death of the Prophet, with the exception of the brief caliphate of Ali ibn Abi-Taleb, had been in agony. Thus, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was given the title of "Ihyagar" or "Reviver" of Islam.
Last Monday, however, Hojat al-Islam wa al-Moslemeen Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, told a different story to marchers in Tehran marking the 40th anniversary of the mullahs' seizure of power.
He shouted: "The Islamic Revolution was firstly made to protect Iran."
How so, you might wonder.
Rouhani went on to enumerate a series of wars that Iran had lost in the 19th century to Great Britain and Russia. He said that Iran was not what it is today, a sliver of territory left from a once great empire that stretched from India to the Mediterranean. Dropping the regime's usual pan-Islamist narrative, Rouhani adopted a pan-Iranist discourse, according to which much of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistani Baluchistan, the Caucasus, Oman, the Musandam Peninsula, and territories now covered by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait must be regarded as Iranian land stolen by foreign invaders.
He referred to a number of treaties under which Iran had "lost" those lands. (One treaty he didn't mention was the Qasr-Shirin Treaty under which Iran lost the "holy" Shiite shrines of Mesopotamia to the Ottoman Empire. Surprise!)
Feigning anger, Rouhani claimed that without the 1979 revolution, Iran might have been completely lost as the late Shah, too, had accepted its dismemberment by agreeing to Bahrain's independence. Even the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war had been a prolongation of the historic "conspiracy" to snatch territory from Iran, to make it smaller and weaker.
Rouhani didn't say what he means to do to redress that "200-year-long injustice" and regain Iran's "lost territories."
However, other promoters of the regime try to justify its regional policies by claiming Iran is trying to assert its "historic right" as hegemon in a region cut into salami slices by imperialist divisions.
"Is Iran the cat-like image that appears on geographical maps?" demands Professor Shamseddin Rahmani, an adviser to "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Or is Iran a state that stretched from India to the Mediterranean, from Central Asia to Caucasus?"
In a 6,000-word essay published by daily Kayhan, Rahmani reassures his readers that by seeking leadership in the region, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to North Africa, Iran does not attempt to rule them but to grant them "genuine independence" denied by Western powers.
In that context he also argues that what is known as Palestine, in fact, belongs to Iran and that those Iranians who oppose the destruction of Israel because "it has nothing to do with us" do not understand that doing so is in the interest of Iran's national state.
If "our Leader" orders the elimination of Israel, it is because he wishes to protect Iran's own integrity, not to mention that of the entire humanity.
The new pseudo-nationalist narrative is also designed to explain, or explain away, the fact that after 40 years, the Khomeinist Revolution has failed to spread to even a single other country or inspire similar movements anywhere.
The Lebanese Hezballah is often cited as Tehran's sole success in creating an instrument through which Iran controls the levers of power in a country. But that, too, is hard to sell as an example of ideological victory, if only because, as Hezballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly admits, his outfit is "wholly" financed by Tehran. He who pays the piper sets the tune, but cannot be sure of having won the piper's heart.
Thus, some regime apologists portray Iran as a nation dominating the region through sheer exercise of state power rather than ideological attraction.
"We now control four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa," says Ayatollah Ali Yenisei, an adviser to Rouhani.
In an ode marking the 40th anniversary of the Khomeinist revolution, Ali-Reza Qazweh, one of the circle of poets approved by Khamenei, puts the claim in lyrical tones: "Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria are now all ours," he writes. "The pearl from Najaf isn't less valuable than amber from Yemen." (Let's note in passing that there is no pearl in Najaf, a desert city far from the ocean, and no amber in Yemen!)
Signs of the shift in official narrative are multiplying daily.
Once much-used shibboleths are fading out; for example, "ummah," which designates the Muslim community across the globe.
In his speech on Monday, Rouhani didn't once mention it. The fashionable shibboleth now is "millat" ("nation") which Khomeini had described as "an invention by kuffar [infidel] to divide the ummah."
Last Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi attacked US National Security Adviser John Bolton for "not appreciating the great culture of the Iranian people" and "being hostile to Iranian nation."
The first "intelligent robot" made in Iran has been named Surena, after the Parthian general who defeated the Romans and killed their leader Crassus in battle in Harran, in what is now Turkey, in 57 BC. The implicit message is that the new "Surena", which is to have military functions, would repeat the exploit in future battles against Western invaders.
There is even an attempt to present what some call "Islamic civilization" as a by-product of Iranian culture. In that context, the mausoleum in southern Iraq, of Salman Farsi, a Persian officer who joined the Prophet Muhammad, has been renovated under the supervision of General Qassem Soleimani, the man in charge of exporting "revolution".
A hush-hush project is also under way for a serial about Princess Shahrbanu, the daughter of Yazdegerd, the last Shah before the Arab invasion. She is supposed to have married Hussein ibn Ali, third Imam of Shiism.
The whole thing many be a fiction but it is used to claim that descendants of Hussein, including Khamenei, were of partial Iranian, not to mention Persian royal, descent.
Also on the 40th anniversary of the Khomeinist seizure of power, Ghulam-Ali Haddad Adel, who heads the Academy of Persian Language, called for purification from foreign words. He claimed that his team's "purification squad" had already revived or partly coined 6,000 Persian words, especially in scientific domains, to replace foreign, mostly Arabic, ones.
Will the new narrative do better than the old?
I doubt it. One indication came when the crowd in Tehran continued gossiping, laughing and eating while Rouhani was trying to play Persian nationalist.
Was he not the man who signed the Caspian Sea Convention dictated by Russia?
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.