As the latest wave of protests in Iran begins to subside, at least for the time being, the Khomeinist ruling elite still appear unable to decide what caused the uprising and how to deal with its consequences. Pictured: Anti-regime protesters in Iran, on November 18, 2019. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/Fars News/CC BY 4.0)
As the latest wave of protests in Iran begins to subside, at least for the time being, the Khomeinist ruling elite still appear unable to decide what caused the uprising and how to deal with its consequences.
One faction, led by "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, offers a standard analysis that has become the hallmark of the regime's approach to all things political. Khamenei says the uprising was the result of "a deep, broad and very dangerous foreign conspiracy" and nothing else. Moreover, he insists that the only way to deal with its consequences is with an iron fist.
The daily Kayhan, commonly believed to reflect Khamenei's views, is even calling for gallows to be erected to hang "evil-doers" in public, regardless of the numbers involved.
As for "foreign enemies' supposedly behind the uprising that shook over 120 cities and claimed the lives of at least 300 people, Khamenei's recipe calls for "energetic riposte". The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' news website FARS translates that enigmatic phrase into a plan for revenge against a number of countries regarded as enemies of the Khomeinist regime.
"Our enemies live in glass houses and their most sensitive and strategic economic and military assets are within our range," the editorial says. "By inflicting heavy financial and military damage on the enemy we can push him into desperation and force him to kneel in front of us."
The editorial assumes that "the enemies" who are thus targeted would not retaliate and simply wait for the right moment when they have to kneel down.
The IRGC spokesman General Ramazan Sharif, however, boasts that "the guardians of our sacred revolution" are ready for all eventualities "until the last drop of blood."
The problem is that he does not specify whose blood he means.
For his part President Hojat al-Islam Hassan Rouhani threatens unspecified action against unnamed "foreign enemies."
"If we have no security, no one shall have security," he says.
In an address in Tehran to chiefs of the Baseej volunteer militia last Wednesday, Khamenei implied a readiness to adopt what political circles in Tehran refer to as "the Samson option." The previous Friday, a number of mullahs leading official prayers across the country threatened that attempts at destroying the Islamic Republic would mean destruction for everybody else as well.
It is hard to see whether the "Samson option" that has captivated Khomeinist ideologues in Tehran is directly inspired by the Biblical tale in the Old Testament or by Cecile B De Mille's Cinemascope version with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. I suspect the latter must be the case, as Khamenei, a teenager when the movie was released in Iran, has often indicated a taste for old stories re-told in new works of fiction. That taste made him a passionate reader of such authors as Alexandre Dumas, Michel Zevaco and Rafael Sabatini, all masters of swashbuckling yarns based on historic or biblical events.
In De Mille's version, the story's catharsis comes with the destruction of the temple by Samson, who was blinded by Philistines after having lost his divinely-bestowed powers; in other words, we are told a tale of revenge pure and simple. The Biblical version, however, has various layers of ethical, moral and, of course, theological messages that put the episode of destroying the temple in a transcendental context. Samson, roaming eyeless in Gaza, does take revenge, but only after he has paid for deviance from the wishes of the divine.
Khamenei's "Samson option" reminds one of Hermann Goering, the German Nazi grandee who boasted that whenever he faces a cultural problem he cannot understand he reaches for his gun.
However, a one-trick pony cannot amuse everyone all the time.
This is why, not everyone shares Khamenei's version of events and recipe for coping with the aftermath.
The most straightforward rejection of the "Samson option" came from Saeed Haddadian, one of Khamenei's own favourite "maddahin" (professionals writing poems in praise of the Ahl e Beit or the Family of the Prophet).
A qasida (ode) he recited to a crowd of several thousand marching in support of Khamenei in Tehran last month ended with these lines:
"We are protesters, not brigades of opponents
Our problem is with your ineptitude
The catastrophe that happened resulted from your incompetence
For once, admit it, say all was your own fault!"
Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli has also had the temerity to diverge, albeit ever so slightly, from Khamenei's version.
"Only part of our problems are due to foreign intervention," he said in a speech in Tehran Monday. "Most of our economic and living standard problems are due to structural defects."
Ahmad Tavakkoli, a former Commerce Minister and a grandee of the Fedayeen Islam, also begs to differ. In an essay, he argues that the regime's attempt at imposing a tripling of the petrol prices by fiat was wrong in both political and economic terms. He offers a list of alternative measures that could have achieved all the supposed objectives of the move without angering the poorest masses and triggering hyperinflation.
Another critical analysis has come from Massoud Nili, an economist and former adviser to Rouhani. He laments the fact that the Rouhani team lacked the courage to behave like a proper government, and opted for imposing an unpopular measure. For him, restoring the true price of public utilities should take place in the context of a general liberalization of the economy and not as an ad hoc measure within a closed system dominated by monopolies.
Azari Jahromi, the Minister for Communication and a rising star in the new generation of apparatchiki raised by Islamic Security, offers his own alternative to the "Samson option". One could call this "the Samsung option" as Jahromi, who masterminded the cutting of the Internet for several days to break the uprising's momentum, has a plan to make it difficult if not impossible for millions of poor Iranians to use mobile phones and have access to the Internet. In other words, "Samsung" ought to be treated as a weapon only reserved for the 30 percent of the population that, according to Rouhani, are "content with the good life they have."
Once again we witness the duality of the Islamic Republic's reality, a regime that does not know whether to behave like an ideology, hence the "Samson option" or, act as a normal government with the "Samsung option."
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. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.