By Amir Taheri
February 15, 2020
Since the 19th century, caricature has been used to highlight in a humorous mode the key features of famous persons or even a whole nation. In the latter case some well-known examples include Uncle Sam with his top-hat and carefully trimmed Van Dyke representing the United States. England is represented by John Bull with his bowler hat, rosy cheeks and belly. The French are made fun of with Gaston Dupont, wearing a beret, with a baguette under his arm and a Gauloise in his mouth, who doesn’t know whether his name should end with a D or a T neither of which are pronounced in any case. For its part Iran is represented by Ouyar Hassan wearing a felt cap, long shirt and baggy trousers.
Ouyar Hassan, first appeared in satirical magazines in the 1900s when 80 percent of Iranians lived in rural areas, is a peasant. He is constantly boasting about his glorious past but is terrified of his uncertain future. As for his present, his chief, not to say sole, concern is to survive on a day-to-day hand-to-mouth basis. To survive, Ouyar Hassan depends on his instincts which dictate that he should have no opinions on anything, not have any expectations from anybody and, more importantly, not to antagonize the city where “those better than us” live and rule the world.
Since his first appearance, Ouyar Hassan has lived through two revolutions, two World Wars, two changes of ruling dynasty, and an eightfold increase in his nation’s population. In the meantime, Iran has been transformed into a highly urbanized country where people like Ouyar Hassan account for no more than 20 percent of the population.
What is remarkable, however, is that the main attributes of Ouyar Hassan, as depicted in satirical magazines like Mullah Nasreddin, Baba Shamal, Towfiq and Ashofteh continue to reflect some key attributes of the average Iranian, assuming that any Iranian is modest enough to see himself as average. The question now is whether the caricature, a century after its first appearance, still represents a people who boast about past glories, are terrified of the future and hate their rulers while trying not to ruffle any feathers in order to survive, living and partly living?
One could find ample evidence that would dictate “yes” as an answer. After all, for four decades, Ouyar Hassan has put up with an ochlocracy disguised as a theocracy. Wearing an Anatolian smile, he has seen Iran become the only country in the world, perhaps with the exception of Zimbabwe, poorer than it was 40 years ago. He has seen Iran top the list of infamy in the word for the number of political prisoners and executions. He has witnessed the establishment of widespread corruption not as an aberration but as a way of life. For four decades, Ouyar Hassan has turned up at polling stations to cast his vote in fake elections for an ersatz parliament and an actor playing President of the Republic.
Once again, the kleptocrat ruling elite is now trying to organize a general election to burnish its so-called “Islamic democracy”.
The “Supreme Guide” has called for “the largest ever turnout” of voters as a means of wiping out the memory of the most recent national uprising against the regime. Originally, the coming “elections” were supposed to be held as a tribute to the “martyr” Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a close aide of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. Bootlickers of both professional and amateur ilk had tried to re-cast Soleimani as a nationalist soldier who sought to revive the ancient Persian Empire by seizing control of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and parts of Yemen.
However, the angelic masks fabricated for Soleimani have been torn apart one by one. Leaks from within the regime have provided a glimpse of the corrupt empire that Soleimani had built with the help of his Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni agents and associates. Worse still, Gen. Aziz-Jaafari, former Commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, and thus theoretically Soleimani’s boss, has publicly stated that the “Sufi chief” had been personally involved in the massacre of protesters in the streets of Tehran.
I don’t wish to make predictions, something a journalist should leave to futurologists. But my guess is that, far from inspiring Iranians to vote, Soleimani’s exposure as a charlatan may discourage even Ouyar Hassan who has always voted in order not to run into trouble.
Khamenei and his entourage had counted on another factor in shaping their hopes of a high voter turnout. The voting comes close to Now-Ruz, the Iranian New Year when Ouyar Hassan tries to be in festive mood even when his only cow has passed away. At Now-Ruz, the government gives special cash bonuses to its 5.5million employees who, in turn, embark on a shopping spree that injects some life into a moribund economy, fostering a feel-good atmosphere for a couple of weeks.
This year, however, the bonuses are likely to be far less generous than ever. The easy money provided by oil is drying up as oil exports have fallen to their lowest in 50 years.
A third factor may dash the mullahs’ hopes of a high turnout. For the first time since the mullahs seized power, almost all political groups associated with them from the beginning, including various Communist outfits, the Mussadeqist circles and remnants of the so-called “Nationalist-Religious” cabal, have publicly called for a boycott of the polls. Even some of the so-called “moderate-reformists”, better known for their sheer opportunism than their moral courage, are calling for a boycott of the fake elections.
This time round, an estimated 60 million Iranians are eligible to vote. As usual, the authorities could try to manipulate the results in a number of ways such as refusing to register many would-be voters, pre-filling polling boxes and inflating the number of ballots cast in the provinces. Nevertheless, a massive boycott would be hard to camouflage. Such a massive refusal to play extras in a sinister masquerade would show that Ouyar Hassan is no longer prepared to let “those better than us” walk all over him.