Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran saying Eid Fitr prayers on 15 June 2018. (IRNA)

By Amir Taheri

January 25, 2020

“He died, so that Iran lives!’ this is the slogan attached to posters and T-shirts distributed in Tehran as the Islamic Republic prepares to mark the 40th day of General Qassem Soleimani’s “martyrdom” in accordance with religious mourning traditions.

Whoever invented the slogan may not have known about the Persian literary device known as “iham” or double-entendre that enables the poet or writer to say something that might sound as if he intended the opposite.

The Tehran slogan writer must have hoped to persuade the Iranians that Soleimani somehow sacrificed himself in order to ensure Iran’s continued existence. However, the slogan could also be read as a statement that for Iran to continue to live, it was imperative that Soleimani should die.

In that second reading the slogan makes much sense although it would be wrong to limit it to the person of the dead general. After all, Soleimani, though a talented political and public relations operator, was not the inventor of or chief decision-maker in strategy that has led Iran to the edge of precipice both at home and abroad.

Thus, for Iran to continue to live, and hopefully even prosper, one must hope and pray for the end of the strategy of which Soleimani was the poster-boy.

That strategy has been built on three big fantasies.

The first of these is that Iranians as a nation are united behind Khomeini’s messianic regime and ready to put up with poverty, injustice and even oppression in order to keep “The Revolution” alive. Over the past few years that fantasy has been punctured by almost continuous protests, strikes and socio-political turmoil at various levels throughout Iran. For the first time in its long history, Iran has experienced simultaneous revolts in over 100 towns and cities, involving people from all walks of life and all social and ideological backgrounds.

We don’t know the exact level of support that Khomeinism may still attract in Iran; that would only be possible if elections are held in an atmosphere of freedom and plurality. But even regime apologists now admit that the Khomeinist support base is in melting mode.

The second fantasy on which Tehran’s illusions are based relates to the claim, often peddled by the late Soleimani, that the Muslim world, even the world as a whole, is somehow thirsty for leadership, if not actual control, from Tehran and see the Islamic Republic’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei as a savior of mankind.

For years, that fantasy has been fed by foreign leaders and groups who have revived the ancient industry of flattery in a new form.

Islamic Republic media broadcast statements by people like Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, Ismail Haniyah of Hamas or Abdul-Malik al-Houthi of Sanaa, praising Khamenei in terms that would have made Haroun al-Rashid blush with embarrassment. Outside the Muslim world, Tehran media are constantly on the lookout for people who could be persuaded or bribed into feeding the monster that is Khamenei’s cult of personality.

However, that fantasy too may have reached its outer limits. Access to pluralist sources of information enables more and more people to form a judgment of their own on almost any subject of interest. The idea that a majority of Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis and Syrians love the Islamic Republic and adulate Khamenei may still deceive the “Supreme Guide”. But more and more Iranians now realize that Khamenei, and through him, the Islamic Republic as a whole, have been sold a bill of goods.

Ten years ago, more than half a million Iranian pilgrims went to Damascus for pilgrimage at the shrine of Sayyeda Zaynab. Today, however, would-be pilgrims are told to stay away from Syria where the majority of Syrians are supposed to be seething with love for Iranians. A similar situation exists in Iraq where Iranians are supposed to be loved for having saved the Iraqis from both Saddam Hussein and ISIS.

And, yet, the Tehran authorities have all but stopped pilgrims from going to Iraq and posted heavy security for Iranian businesses and government offices in Iraqi cities. In Yemen, too, virtually the entire Iranian “community” of some 600 people have been transferred from Sanaa to Muscat in Oman for “security reasons”, although Yemenis are supposed to be passionately in love with Iran and Khamenei. The handful of countries that still accepted visa-free travel by Iranian visitors are re-imposing visas one after another. In other words, our empire-building enterprise, which has cost us billions, much of it spent under Soleimani’s stewardship, has earned Iranians, nothing but suspicion, not say hatred, across the globe.

The third fantasy in the fable of which Soleimani is but the latest propagator-cum-victim, is that the Islamic Republic’s strategy of “exporting the revolution”, which in practice means madness and mayhem, is virtually cost free and that, shaking in fear, the rest of the world won’t dare oppose it.

That fantasy was generously fed by people like former US President Barack Obama and former European Union foreign policy tsarina Federica Mogherini who, perhaps with good intentions, treated the Islamic Republic like an unruly teenager who should be cajoled into more reasonable behavior through kind inducements rather than parental punishment.

Tehran’s state-controlled media are on the lookout for anything that might sustain their claim that the outside world, especially the United States, is “trembling” in front of the might Khomeinist revolution. That quest could produce surrealistic results. Earlier this month the daily Kayhan, reflecting Khamenei’s views, ran a front-page story about an American lady called Barbara Slavin announcing that she has decided to “unfollow’ President Donald Trump’s Twitter account to protest the killing of Gen. Soleimani. The “unfollowing event” was claimed to be a sign that “America’s thinking elites” are opposing Trump’s tough policy on Iran. However, few Iranians know who the lady in question is and whether or not she is a leader of America’s “intellectual” elites or whether her “unfollowing” really made Trump tremble.

When it comes to Tehran media they often cite a single Palestinian journalist in exile as “the leading intellectual of the Arab world”, praising the Islamic Republic and flattering Khamenei as “the greatest leader in recent Islamic history.”

The 40th day, or “arba’een” of Soleimani’s death is designed to perpetuate those moribund fantasies. Reports we get indicate that the regime is mobilizing its maximum resources to put on a big show including the usual photoshop funerals. In other words, Khamenei’s entourage still refuse to abandon their fantasy world.

This means that news from the Islamic Republic is not as bad as sober heads in Tehran believe. It is much worse.

Asharq Al-Awsat

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.