Behind the belligerent words of Iran’s Supreme Leader, there’s a subtle shift in attitude

Roya Hakakian, Iranian-American poet and writer, sees buried conciliation in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s bombastic rhetoric

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Lo, the [Supreme] Leader hath spoken! For the first time since the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly addressed the “deal” and America on Thursday, at times as if discussing a bucking horse. (After all, his Supremeship does own an impressive collection of equines). When asked for his position on the matter, he retorted: “Nothing requiring a position one way or another has yet been reached … Our counterpart in these talks is stubborn, disloyal, untrustworthy and accustomed to stabbing one in the back, and likely to trap us in the process of ironing out the details … so too early for congratulations.”

And so the headlines received with foreboding in the West.

But ceremonial insults are to be expected from Iran’s officialdom. Irreverent rhetoric has been the hallmark of the country’s politics since 1979. Arguably ridicule was  the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s most effective weapon against the monarchy. Beyond such attention-grabbing political theater, though, literature also played a key role in the lead up to the Iranian revolution. While the late Ayatollah’s nearly vulgar speeches then were stripping the king and the royal family of respect in the eyes of his less sophisticated followers, secular intellectuals were composing fiery literature to lure the educated to the revolutionary arena. Modern poetry was the kindling that set the minds of the cosmopolitans on fire. And it was through the inherent ambiguity of poetic language that the bizarre consensus was reached for the revolution  between the contemptuous cleric and the secular elite.

Passions ran high – but for the love of what? It was never clear. (I’ve learned since then that while poetry is a wonderful addition to a good drink by a warm fire, it is mighty dangerous fuel for a revolutionary inferno.)

In pre-revolutionary Iran, modern poetry was in full rebellion, manufacturing socially inflammatory imagery and metaphors for the “cause:” For sacrifice and blood, a reference to any shade of crimson served. For martyrs, red flowers, especially tulips, were preferred symbols.

The uncompromising Ayatollah Khomeini vowed never to give in, never to engage any element within the monarchy, never to negotiate a transition on any terms. With this lyrical and heated rhetoric of isolation came a toxic dose of utopianism, which celebrated an even more poisonous international lone-wolfism. Thirty-six years from that time, the fire has died. The tulips have wilted. Today, in an unprecedented break with their cultural history, Iranians, betrayed by the fiery rhetoric of 1979 and beyond, are far less interested in literature. The stock of poetry has plummeted, which is one reason why, for the first time, all other arts—painting, design, music, and film—are thriving.

But among officialdom, the speeches and the rhetorical posture of contumely had endured  through all the years —until now after Lausanne. In his latest remarks on the topic, the Supreme Leader speaks with the old irreverence. But the words are hollow; he injects his speech with a subtle, less noticed, shift in the uncompromising stance of the past: “These negotiations are only about the nuclear issue … but if they succeed, we can take up other issues similarly …”

If dead ayatollahs turn in their graves, then Iran’s founding cleric must have spun wildly upon hearing these words from his successor’s mouth. Khomeini, after the 1979 coup, ordered imprisonment or execution of several of his own dedicated disciples just for speaking with the Americans, but Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, having just done that in Lausanne, received a hero’s welcome at home on returning.  His profile appeared next to the profile of the beloved Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who wrested Iran’s oil industry from the British some decades ago.

In thirty-six years, the United States never managed to end the theocratic rule in Iran. But in Lausanne, it does finally seem to have managed to get the chief cleric to reconsider the old attitudes. To even consider negotiations as a means to conduct business with the world is a major, celebrated departure for Iran.


Roya Hakakian’s most recent book is Assassins of the Turquoise Palace


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