When Obama Adopts the Mullahs’ Style

Amir Taheri, Asharq Al-Awsat// Those who are sucked into big adversarial situations in history always run a number of risks. However, the biggest risk, I believe, is to have an evil adversary and end up looking, behaving and even thinking like them. If that happens to anyone, they could be sure that even if they win many battles, they would end up losing the war. In contrast, one might be lucky enough to end up resembling an adversary that is better than oneself.

The effect that “the other” has on one has been observed throughout history, even at the level of great empires. When ancient Rome and Iran became adversaries each learned a number of things from the other. Rome was a republic in conflict with Iran, a monarchy. When Marcus Licinius Crassus, in his time the greatest of Roman generals, was killed by the Persians in the battle of Harran in 53 BC, the Roman elite started thinking of adopting the monarchic system which they eventually did under Julius Caesar. At the other end of the spectrum, unlike the Romans, Iranians did not have a standing army. In time, however, they decided to imitate their adversary by creating precisely such a war machine.

In more recent times, the Soviet Union and the United States, two great powers engaged in the Cold War, reciprocally adopted aspects of each other’s system. The Soviet defense doctrine has been built on the deployment of mass armies, scorched earth and prolonged fighting on land that had been tested with success during the Napoleonic wars. The American doctrine was woven around the motto: Get in, Kill the enemy, Get out! It found its most tragic expression in the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. Six years later, the Soviets had built their own atom bomb.

The Soviets had a vast and brutal intelligence-security system built around the KGB, itself heir to the Tsarist Okhrana and the Leninist Cheka. In 1945, having disbanded the OSS, their wartime intelligence service, the Americans had nothing of the sort. Soon, however, they created the CUA which was to imitate the KGB in as many ways as America’s open society could tolerate. The Soviets practiced the black arts against their opponents in Eastern and Central Europe. Americans did similar things in Latin America.

Trouble for the Soviets started when more and more of their people, including some in the leadership, started to talk like the Americans. In 1989 together with four European newspaper editors we held a number of meetings in Moscow with Soviet leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexander Yakovlev and Yevgeny Primakov. We were all surprised how all of them talked like western Social Democrats, especially when they held forth about “universal values.”

“They have been contaminated by the Western bug,” I wrote at the time, only half in jest. “Let’s see if they really mean what they say.”

All that came back to my mind when reading the speech that US President Barack Obama gave in Washington the other day in defense of his “nuke deal” with the Islamic Republic. The first thing that struck me was how his discourse echoed that of the mullahs. He started by building a metaphysical heaven-and-hell duality about a very this-worldly issue. He warned that the choice was between accepting his deal (Heaven) and war (Hell). The beauty of life, however, lies in the fact that it is full of endless possibilities, including doing nothing when doing anything else could cause more harm.

Next, he imitated the mullahs by practicing “taqiyah” (dissimulation). He diligently avoided delving into the details of a convoluted “deal” every part of which is designed to deceive. He also hid the fact that his much advertised “deal” has not been officially accepted by the Iranian state.

More broadly, he practiced another mullahs’ trick known as “mohajah” which means drawing your adversary into the simulacrum of a battle which, even if they won, would offer them nothing but the simulacrum of a victory. Having already committed his administration through his sponsorship of a United Nations’ Security Council resolution endorsing the “deal”, Obama pretended that his fight with the Congress might end up conjuring some meaning.

Another mullahs’ tactic he used is known as “takhrib” which means attacking the person of your adversary rather than responding to their argument. Those who opposed the “deal”, he kept saying, were the same warmongers that provoked the invasion of Iraq and the “Death to America” crowd in Iran. The message was simple: Those are bad guys, so what they say about this good deal does not count!

He was repeating a favorite dictum the mullahs say: Do not see what is said, see who is saying it!

That dictum has generated two immense branches of knowledge: The Study of Men (Ilm Al-Rejal) and the Study of Pedigrees (Ilm al-Ansab).

Prove that someone is a good man with a good pedigree and you could take his narrative (hadith) on the most complex of subjects at face value. On the contrary, he who is proven to be a bad man with an inferior pedigree should be dismissed with disdain even if he said the most sensible thing.

Obama forgot that among the warmongers who pushed for the invasion of Iraq were two of his closest associates, Joe Biden, his vice president, and John Kerry, his secretary of state, along with the entire Democratic Party contingent in the Congress.

On the Iranian side, he forgot that President Hassan Rouhani and his patron former President Hashemi Rafsanjani built their entire career on “Death to America” slogans. Rouhani and his “moderate” ministers till have to walk on an American flag as they enter their offices every day.

The official Iran Daily ran an editorial the other day in support of Obama’s “campaign for the deal.”

“Obama is the nightmare of the Republicans because he wants to destroy the America they love,” it said. “His success will be a success for all those who want peace.” In other words, the Tehran editorialist was echoing Obama’s Manichaean jibe.

In any case, name-calling and accusing critics of harboring hidden agendas is another tactic of the mullahs known as “siahkari” (blackening) of the adversary.

I am embarrassed to talk of myself, but I have been more of “Long Live America” crowd than the “Death to America” one. And, yet I think the Vienna deal is bad for Iran, bad for America and bad for the world.

I also think that it is possible to forge a deal that is good for Iran, good for the US and good for the world.

I have also never asked the US or anybody else to invade Iran or any other country. I have also never been a Republican if only because I am not a US citizen, and never studied, worked or resided there.

I could assure Obama that, as far as I can gauge public opinion, the majority of Iranians have a good opinion of America and a bad opinion of the “deal”.

This is, perhaps, why, like Obama, the Rafsanjani faction, of which Rouhani is part, is trying to avoid the issue being debated even in their own ersatz parliament. This is also why Iranian papers critical of the deal are closed down or publicly warned. Rather than depending on the Khomeinist lobby in Washington, or even assertions by people like myself, Obama should conduct his own enquiries to gauge Iranian public opinion. He might well find out that he is making an alliance with a faction that does not represent majority opinion in Iran. His “deal” may disappoint if not anger a majority of Iranians who are still strongly pro-America.

Rouhani’s Cabinet is full of individuals who held the American diplomats hostage in Tehran for 444 days. Yet, they support Obama. Those who oppose the “deal”, however, include many Iranians who genuinely desire the closest of ties with the US.

Finally, another mullah concept, used by Obama, is that of “End of Discussion” (fasl al-khitab) once the big cheese has spoken. That may work in the Khomeinist dictatorship; it is not worthy of a mature democracy like the United States.