by Stephen Schwartz
Translations of this item:
The new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may unintentionally have helped undermine clerical rule in the country with his recent outrageous speeches and remarks against Israel.
Ahmadinejad's scandalous comments came on an Iranian holiday instituted by Ayatollah Khomeini at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan and known as Jerusalem Day; it is intended to agitate Iranian Muslims against the Jewish state and the Zionist concept. This year it fell on October 26. A former Revolutionary Guard who had already stirred new global anxieties about the Iranian theocracy by his intractable promotion of the country's nuclear ambitions, Ahmadinejad used the opportunity to declare that Israel "must be wiped off the map," as fulfillment of the official Iranian vision of "a world without Zionism."
Suddenly, many Iranians felt they had been thrown a quarter of a century backward, to the worst excesses of Khomeini's rule. A United Nations Security Council resolution was almost immediately passed, condemning Ahmadinejad's rhetoric. The Israeli government called on the U.N. to expel Iran. Western governments--but also Iranian and other Shiite Muslims--began expressing their disgust with Tehran.
Not only that, but opposition to Ahmadinejad's posturing was expressed by the most vulnerable sector of the Iranian state itself, the diplomatic corps. Like Saudi Arabia and various Latin American tyrannies, Iran in recent years has often sent potential dissenters and "reformers" abroad as ambassadors. This has the dual advantage of removing individuals who might oppose the government's whims and presenting an ameliorative image of the Iranian power structure to a justly suspicious world.
Already, numerous Iranian diplomats had expressed concern about Ahmadinejad at the time of his election in June. Some of them had described the new chief executive as an uneducated, bumptious, immature, and rather stupid individual who can only reflect badly on Iranians. Notwithstanding the indignities to which they have been subjected by the governing clerics over the past 26 years, Iranians feel pride in their ancient culture and a profound desire for the world's respect, and they are embarrassed and repelled by so primitive a presidential style.
The first indication of the current rift between Ahmadinejad and the ambassadors came several weeks before the president's threats to Israel, when the official Islamic Republic News Agency announced that Javad Zarif, Iranian ambassador to the United Nations and head of the country's nuclear negotiating team, had resigned from the latter post. Zarif is a cosmopolitan individual with a reputation for moderation and a professed commitment to reform. Some Shiite Muslims close to the Iranians predicted that Ambassador Zarif would soon leave his U.N. post as well, but sources in Tehran say Ahmadinejad and others have beseeched him to stay. Rumors began to circulate that Iranian diplomats would resign en masse.
Ahmadinejad beat them to the punch. Soon after he repeated his diatribe against the Jewish state, four leading Iranian ambassadors were removed from their jobs: ambassador to France Sadegh Kharrazi (whose brother, Foreign Minister Kemal Kharrazi, had resigned after Ahmadinejad was elected), who comes from a clerical family that cannot be touched by reprisals; Shamsedin Khaghani in Germany; Hossein Adeli in Britain; and Mohammed Alborzi in Switzerland. Germany and Britain had gone furthest to sanitize Iran's image in Europe, with trade relations as their argument, but they had also expressed firm opposition to Tehran's acquiring nuclear weapons or, in the British case, interfering in Iraq.
Ahmadinejad's purge was widened to comprise a roster of 40 ambassadors and other senior diplomats by the end of October (although their assignments will officially end next March). The dismissed expressed frustration that they had not gone ahead and quit as a group. Others who anticipate the same fate insist privately that they will resign rather than let the Iranian authorities fire them, reiterating their distaste for serving the new president.
Meanwhile, top officials in Tehran, as well as some diplomats, tried to soften the impact of Ahmadinejad's belligerent comments. Some claimed that Iran would accept a peace process supported by Palestinians, and that Iran wants peace, not war. But this is not credible, given the absence of accountability in a theocracy that allows no alternation in power of competing political parties. Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, who prides himself on his international reputation as a reformist, went so far as to equate the new president's ideological outlook with "fascist values and principles in the name of Islam," which Khatami said were unacceptable.
Muslim leaders and intellectuals outside Iran also began protesting. Ali Alyami, an intrepid Saudi dissident in Washington, stated that his Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia rejects "the repulsive call by the extremist Iranian president to annihilate a whole people from the surface of the earth," and exhorted "all Arab and Muslim governments, the decent Iranian people, and all people to condemn this deadly dissemination of hate."
Alyami's observation that "the 60 million Iranian people deserve better representatives" was echoed by Saudi Shia dissidents prominent in the West.
Also in the United States, Shiite community activist Nawab Agha of the American Muslim Congress unequivocally repudiated Ahmadinejad. Among Albanians, the only European Muslim community with an important Shiite component, the government of Kosovo supported the U.N.'s anti-Iran resolution. Pakistani journalist Husain Haqqani, a Sunni Muslim affiliated with the Hudson Institute, commented, "The Iranian president's call for wiping Israel off the map comes at a time when governments of several Muslim countries are considering recognition of Israel. Mr. Ahmadinejad is clearly trying to fuel hatred. . . . The legacy of hatred against Israel and its people is immoral and contrary to the universal humanitarian principles that Islam also invokes."
Touchingly, a 29-year-old Iranian woman student at a Budapest university, whose name was not released, was reported to have written to the Israeli embassy in Hungary to offer her apologies for Ahmadinejad's gross comments.
Predicting Iranian outcomes is an unproductive endeavor. But it is clear that the majority of Iranians do not want to continue living as they are, and it may be that the clerics can no longer rule as they have. There is certainly no harm in hoping this to be the case, and in encouraging Iranian diplomats and other responsible personnel to defect and unburden themselves of their involvement with this hateful regime.