By Faramarz Davar
October 29, 2020
Key political figures in the Islamic Republic of Iran have long cited the Shia Imams as role models and mimicked their policies in their governance of the country. Most recently, on the anniversary of the death of Imam Hassan, President Hassan Rouhani made a pointed reference to “Hassan’s Peace” during a discussion about potential reconciliation and fresh talks with the United States.
At a cabinet meeting in mid-October, Rouhani told those present: “Imam Hassan, in response to the objections of some of his companions to a peace treaty, said ‘The overwhelming majority of society and people want peace. I choose peace’.”
The treaty Rouhani was referring to, known as Imam Hassan’s Peace, was a historic accord reached between Imam Hassan and his military forces and Muawiyah I, then-governor of the Levant and the first caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate, in the year 661. Hassan’s move to avoid further bloodshed is often cited as exemplary in pushing for peace and learning to coexist with one’s enemies.
But because Rouhani had invoked Imam Hassan in the fraught context of relations with the US, his opponents seized on the remarks. Mojtaba Zonnour, the conservative head of the Iranian parliament’s National Security Committee, rebuked him: “If you’re saying the reason Imam Hassan made peace with Muawiyah was a request from the majority of his people, and you’re using that as an excuse to negotiate with the enemy, [know] that most Iranians want you removed from the office and punished. The Supreme Leader would have to have you executed a thousand times over to satisfy people’s demands.”
Despite Zonnour’s outburst, in the last six months Ayatollah Khameini himself has also invoked the second Shai Imam in the context of US negotiations. “I believe Imam Hassan was the bravest person in Islamic history,” he wrote in May. “He agreed to sacrifice himself and his name in the interests of Islam. He accepted peace so as to be the guardian of Islam, to protect the Quran, and to guide future generations when the time was right.”
Khamenei’s mention of Imam Hassan had fallen on the Imam’s birthday. The fact that both Khamenei and Rouhani have both recently referred to Hassan’s Peace in discussions on Iran-US relations has given rise to speculation that the two countries might be negotiating in secret.
Turning Away from Hossein’s War
The two leaders’ recent rhetoric over Iran-US relations stands in contrast to their previous invocations of “Hossein’s War” when talking about the same subject. Hossein’s War refers to the refusal of Imam Hussein, the third Shia Imam, to back down from the conflict with Muawiyah’s son Yazid, despite fighting an unequal war and facing the prospect of both losing and death. By not capitulating to the enemy and thus becoming a martyr, Imam Hossein was afforded immortality in Shia culture and belief.
In the past, Ayatollah Khamenei has said the Iranian regime will fight against “imposing powers” just “as Imam Hussein did”. That is to say, that even if Iran loses in its “fight” with powerful perceived enemies, this will still not be regarded as a failure.
Most Iranian politicians fall squarely into either the “Imam Hassan” or “Imam Hussein” school of thought – preferring either to reconcile with the enemy or confront the enemy headlong in the knowledge that they may lose. Iran’s former president Sayyid Mohammad Khatami, for instance, is in the Imam Hassan camp, while Khamenei has traditionally been called a “Husseini Sayyid” by his supporters. Even though he has written a book about the second Shia Imam and has theorized on the notion of reconciling with the enemy, based on Imam Hassan’s teachings, his proponents have long known him as an uncompromising man who follows Imam Hussein’s footsteps.
Appealing to the First Imam for Added Prestige
To muddy the waters further, some of Khamenei’s supporters have gone so far as to compare his governing policies to those of Imam Ali, the first Shia Imam, his namesake. Khamenei seems to enjoy this comparison. At times when his authority has been contested, supporters have gathered at his house to chant “We are not like the men of Kufa, who left Ali alone” – in reference to the murder of Imam Ali by a person from the city of Kufa.
In 2009, amid widespread demonstrations over the contested outcome of the presidential election in Iran, Khamenei embarked on a well-publicized visit to Qom to meet with Shia clerics in Iran’s most important religious center. Both state-controlled media outlets and politicians such as Mohammah-Ali Ramin, a member of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, described the trip as “Ghadir Qom”: a reference to Ghadir Khumm, a famous sermon delivered by the Prophet Muhammad in 632AD in which he named Ali, his son-in-law, as his successor. Following Khamenei’s trip, rumors accordingly spread that while in Qom he had spoken about naming his son Mojtaba as Supreme Leader-in-waiting.
During this period, it was also becoming apparent that Khamenei would be siding with the less popular faction of Iranian politicians. In an attempt to bolster the Supreme Leader’s reputation in turbulent times, Qom’s Friday Imam – who is appointed by the Supreme Leader – gave a sermon claiming that Khamenei had been miraculously born with the ability to speak, and that he had called on Imam Ali. Months later, after the death of Iran’s former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, sources close to ex-presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi said Rafsanjani had raised this bizarre claim with Khamenei, concerned it was making people superstitious. In response Khamenei doubled down on the lie, stating that his own sister had confirmed he had called upon Imam Ali at birth.
From Bloody Conflict to Entreaties for Peace
As international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program were coming into effect towards the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the Governor of the Central Bank of Iran lavishly compared the situation to the 616AD Meccan boycott of the Hashemites, during which the prophet and his followers had been sanctioned by the rulers of Mecca. In this case, the comparison attracted the public ire of Khamenei – who countered that Iran’s predicament was more like the Battles of Badr or Khaybar at the dawn of Islam. In the Battle of Badr, Muslims led by the Prophet Muhammad won a war against the army of Abu Sufyan despite their low numbers. The Battle of Khaybar was fought between Muslims and Jews, with the latter losing the battle.
Despite this conflict-heavy rhetoric, today Khamanei has pivoted toward the teachings of Imam Hassan when discussing negotiations with the United States. Hassan’s approach chimes in with his newly-stated policy of “heroic flexibility” in times of national crisis. While Rouhani’s invocation of Imam Hassan’s legacy drew criticism, in the face of near-unbearable economic woes and a pandemic, the two figureheads appear to have finally found something they agree on – for now.