Is the Iranian President Wearing a Purim Mask?

While Netanyahu paints the Iranian president as a secret extremist, Rohani is trying to convince Iranians that he is a real moderate.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Persian New Year, Nowruz, begins on Friday, a day before Purim. While Israelis are dressing up, Iranians are spring cleaning, visiting family, buying new clothes and feasting, as well as visiting fairs where food and other products are sold at discounts of 20 to 30 percent. Yet the effect of international sanctions is still being felt. If in the past, many Iranians spent Nowuz in hotels or at the Caspian Sea, this year, most will stay home.

Despite the sanctions relief bought by Iran’s interim nuclear deal with the world six powers — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — there hasn’t yet been any real improvement in Iran’s economy. Agreements were signed with European carmakers Peugeot and Renault to restart local production lines, and airlines have purchased needed spare parts. But while this has produced an atmosphere of hope, more substantive sanctions relief will be needed to produce real change.

Recent visits, the first in many years, by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski were covered widely by the Iranian media as signs of the new era. Yet even the visits had some sour moments. Ashton’s meeting with human rights activists infuriated hardliners in parliament, while Sikorski told a press conference about trying to read a Polish newspaper online and being blocked by Iran’s Internet controls.

Against the background of Tehran’s enormous efforts to regain international acceptance — including among the Arab states — Israel’s capture of the Klos C garnered little attention in Iran. Though it denied Israel’s claim that the ship was carrying Iranian arms to Gaza, Tehran seemed more impressed by the international apathy toward the shipment than by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive statements.

But if the capture of the arms ship barely caused a ripple in Iran, the growing domestic criticism of Rohani, eight months after taking office, is making waves.

“There are many indications that people with power and money in this country are seeking to uproot the revolutionary spirit from society to bolster their status by branding the revolutionary forces as extremists,” complained Yadollah Javani, who is one of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s close allies in the Revolutionary Guards and formerly headed the Guards’ political bureau. “We must keep watch that the rhetoric of extremism doesn’t equate the revolutionary spirit with extremism.”

Javani, who was writing in the newspaper Javan, also warned against allowing the doctrines of Ayatollah Khomeini, father of the Iranian revolution, to be consigned to the history books, the distancing of Iranian citizens from the rule of the clerics and moving closer to America and adopting Western principles of human rights. “The way of the revolution is to confront the U.S. and American-style Islam,” he declared.

All this conflicts with Rohani’s statement following a National Security Council meeting two weeks ago that repeated military exercises involving missile launches are bad for the country. “We must not act in a way that intimidates others,” he said. “We must reduce tensions and build confidence with the world ... Firing a single bullet is liable to destroy everything.

This public spat, and many others like it, indicates that if the Revolutionary Guard was indeed behind the weapon-laden Klos C ship that Israel seized in the Red Sea last week, they may well have sent it not only without Rohani’s knowledge, but in defiance of his views.

Such battles are not confined to the fields of foreign and defense policy. Rohani and the hardliners are also at odds on domestic policy. For instance, Rohani infuriated the hardliners when, at a meeting with media editors, he urged them to “expose corruption in the country ... The names of corrupt officials must be reported to the public via our newspapers.” He also promised them the government’s “moral backing” in this endeavor — though he declined to explain what such backing might consist of, especially given his very limp criticism of the closure of two liberal newspapers earlier this month.

Similarly, in an implicit response to Khamenei’s statement that religion and the Islamic revolution should be emphasized in cultural matters, Rohani demanded sarcastically, “If all the investments we have made in the culture sector had been effective, why are we still so worried about cultural issues” 35 years after the revolution?

These public disputes, which reflect real power struggles, obviously don’t interest Israel’s decision makers, who have set themselves the goal of “tearing the mask off Rohani’s face” even as the Iranian president strives to convince his domestic rivals that he is not wearing one. It sometimes seems like Netanyahu’s rhetorical attacks are actually helping Rohani stand up to his opponents by giving him a “kashrut certificate” as someone loyal to Iran’s traditional policies.

The Revolutionary Guards would surely be happy to discover that Rohani’s policies really are just a Purim mask and that he’s every bit as hard-line as Netanyahu tries to paint him. So far, they haven’t succeeded. Perhaps they’re hoping Netanyahu will do the job for them.

Activists from the global advocacy group Avaaz, dressed as Presidents Obama and Rohani, demand ceasefire to the Syrian crisis during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.Credit: AP

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