Here we go again! Many will recall the former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, referred to by the Western media as "controversial." Recently – with the sort of Foreign Office understatement which is both admirable and infuriating – the UK's paper of record described his eight year hold on the presidency as "turbulent." One has to wonders what it would take for them to describe a regime as "murderous," "terrorist" or "crazed."
Anyhow – with the "controversial" and "turbulent" presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad behind us, we now have the "moderate" and "reforming" presidency of Hassan Rouhani to look forward to. We know that it will be "moderate" and "reforming" because that is what, again, all the Western media has told everyone.
A few weeks ago, when this new "moderate" and "reforming" leader had just been elected, the British columnist and publisher Melanie Phillips found herself on the BBC's main political discussion show, "Question Time." During the program, the question of Syria and thus Iran came up. Phillips outlined the terrible ideology of the Iranian revolutionary regime. She pointed out, among other things, the intense and genocidal hatred which is at the root of its actions as well as its rhetoric. She even attempted to explain the peculiar end-time Shiite fantasies of the Iranian leadership. But the rest of the hall in London were having none of it. For her explanation, she was rewarded with boos and cat-calls from the audience and of course an unhealthy dose of incomprehension and disdain from her fellow panelists.
One of these fellow-panelists – a man so unremarkable that he is unremarkable even in his own Liberal Democrat party – Ed Davey, poured especial scorn on her. Without answering her charges, he explained that Melanie Phillips' comments were not merely wrong but "couldn't be more poorly timed." After all, he explained, the Iranian people had just gone to the polls and voted in a new president. And everybody knows that this is the time for the obligatory outpouring of optimism and mass idiocy.
And this, unfortunately, is the way in which the Western elites behave in relation to Iran. If there is a problem, it is pinned onto an individual rather than the regime. If there is a problem with the regime it is seen as something that can correct itself through – among other things – the miraculous and healing process of "an election."
It is hard to know where to start with this narrative. Of course it presumes that Iranian elections more closely resemble the British or American elections than they do, say, those in Zimbabwe. True the mullahs are more clever than Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF. Last week's Zimbabwean "election" saw the ruling party declare overwhelming victory over their opponents, not merely before the votes had been counted but before they had been cast. It is true that Tehran has a subtler approach. There is a process which looks like candidate selection. There is a slate of candidates (all approved by the mullahs) who are presented as representative of a varied slate of opinions. And there is the sweet pretense that once the people have gone to the polls, the results can be forever "unexpected" and "surprising" – as though an election like that of President Rouhani can have come out of nowhere and leave the Supreme Leader smacking his forehead and saying, "Wow! How did that happen?!"
So yes – as electoral charades go the Iranian process is an intelligent and subtle one, but it is a charade nonetheless. Yet in this perpetual tyrant "reboot" phase of American and Western foreign policy, perhaps even charades like these need to be welcomed, even though the illusion of a democratic process is not the same as actually having one, and merely serves to legitimize the deceit.
The White House even went so far as to congratulate President Rouhani on his swearing-in. They said he would find "a willing partner" in the United States. How unfortunate then, yet how unsurprising, that poor Mr. Rouhani had to go through another new tradition of West-Iran relations even before the tradition of his swearing-in. That tradition is the new saga of the perpetual "mis-quote."
For if one thing dogged the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and made it even more "turbulent" than it might have been, that issue was, surely, the issue of quotes. And in particular the issue of whether or not routine and repeated threats to annihilate another UN member state comprised a threat or not. There were those – like Juan Cole in the US and much of the press corps in the UK – who insisted for almost eight years that the words "wipe off the map" or "wipe from the page of time" or just plain "wipe," in fact meant something pleasant. Or that the words were merely a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini (true) and that quoting these words did not necessarily endorse them (false).
So it is almost touching that two days before even getting sworn in, the then Mr. Rouhani was quoted saying, at an 'Al-Quds day' event, "The occupation of Palestine and Jerusalem is a wound that has sat on the body of the Muslim world for years and needs to be removed."
Of course apart from in Israel, most of the world tried to ignore this quote. And before the day was up, there were denials from Iran and the rest of the world that the words reported to have come out of Mr. Rouhani's mouth were in fact the words that had come out of his mouth.
"Hear no evil, see no evil," the old saying goes. And so the new presidency of Iran continues as the old one intended to go on. And the West continues the pretense that it wishes to go on pretending. For with Rouhani, as with Ahmadinejad, there will always be those – officials, semi-officials, non-officials – who will claim that the leader has been misrepresented or mistranslated, and then the rest will all go away. Won't it? Or was the very presence of Rouhani at al-Quds day, like that of the North Korean officials at the swearing-in and the promise of greater cooperation between these rogue regimes against the US and its allies, all just misspeak too?
The root of the problem with our relations with Iran is not a problem of mishearing or mis-speaking. It is a problem of our not listening. Not listening to the words that have repeatedly come from their mouths. And not recognizing that the whirring noise in the background is not the noise of their subtle brains working overtime, but of their centrifuges performing that very task.