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Deciphering Rafsanjani

by HANA H. in Tehran

25 Feb 2010 03:0221 Comments
moghimi20100223191036375.jpg[ analysis ] Iranians are a complex people. Talking in riddles and metaphors is a cultural thing that everyone learns from a young age.

Iranian politicians have mastered this 'art of riddle-talk.' Most foreign journalists reporting on Iran do not realize that in order to understand the truth of the political situation in the country they must first learn to crack the code of the 'Iranian way of speaking,' as true intentions are often lost in translation.

I remember right after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced the winner of the presidential race, in his first press conference, a foreign reporter asked him if he was willing to guarantee the safety of his rivals. Ahmadinejad replied by saying that when one passes a red light he gets a ticket for speeding. That British journalist walked away huffing and puffing and infuriated by what she later described as Ahmadinejad's unwillingness to be logical, interpreting his response as a sign of his arrogance.

If that journalist had been acquainted with Iranian riddle-talk he would have known that Ahmadinejad was saying, "My rivals are part of the system, therefore they will be safe. However, if they persist in their demands for a vote-recount they will get a slap on the wrist." In other words, Ahmadinejad was saying that no one goes to prison or is executed for speeding.

Iran is the set of a soap opera with the characters continuously rearranging alliances and being cast in new roles. There are the 'good guys', the 'bad guys', the 'repenting villains' and the saints who come back as villains after a few episodes.

In order to fully comprehend which Iranian politician supports what side one must learn to read between the lines.

On Tuesday, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly of Experts and Expediency Council, whom many believe is the power behind the scene in Iran, addressed the meeting of the Experts with a speech that was viewed as mostly moderate and pertaining to general political developments in the country.

What was overlooked, however, were the threats made to Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei by the head of the assembly, who is essentially tasked with supervising Iran's Leader.

Rafsanjani opened his speech by extending his condolences over the martyrdom of the 11th Shia Imam. "After his martyrdom the Muslim Ummah was deprived of its late leader, even though [his successor] the Hidden Imam, who God has saved, is there for the Muslim Ummah," he said.

Rafsanjani used the word "rahel" meaning "the late" to refer to the 11th Imam, Hassan Asgari, who was 'martyred' by lethal poison. Shiite Iranians feel very strongly about the martyrdom of their religious leaders and would never use the word 'rahel', meaning passed away from natural causes, to refer to a martyred Imam. Being a cleric Rafsanjani knows this all too well.

As far as Iranians are concerned, there is only one Imam-e rahel and that is the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini.

The Islamic Republic has taught Iranians that the teachings of the Shiite Imams are necessary in every aspect of life and comprehensive enough to provide answers to trivial as well as important matters.

Rafsanjani next said, "Imam Mahdi is like the sun hidden behind clouds and in time of need we will make use of his words of guidance."

His choice of words in Persian, however, could mean 'If there is ever need, we also have the option of referring to what Imam Mahdi (the 12th Imam) said," which stands in stark contrast to the preachings of the Islamic Republic.

Clearly, Rafsanjani was telling Ayatollah Khamenei 'we can handle things on our own and if there is ever need we will ask your opinion as the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Persian speakers know that most times when one is reprimanded by elders, they are first reminded of the good things they have done and then told off. For instance if a child gets bad grades in school, he is told "You got good grades in math last year and even this year when you were sick you still studied and got a good mark." Then comes the warning that only Iranians understand: "I know you know how important it is to study your math lessons." The hidden message is, 'If you do it next time you will get the spanking you deserve.'

"The important thing for us is to keep this collection [i.e. establishment] on the scene and we must not allow attacks to target the leadership and the establishment and for him [the Leader] to become the target. I know better than anyone else that the leadership does not want the scene to become too heated and for anyone to be hurt just as after the Kahrizak incident he [the Leader] issued a statement and requested consolation [for the victims] and punishment for the perpetrators [of the crime]," Rafsanjani said.

Rafsanjani went on: "The Leader is still careful not to have an overflow [of sentiment] or the utterance of useless words."

Rafsanjani used the Persian-style reprimand on the Supreme Leader. He also used the word "toghyan," which translates as "overflow of sentiments or rebellion and revolt."

He was not just stating facts, Rafsanjani was telling the leader to watch his moves and to be careful with his decisions or else there will be a rebellion and the whole establishment and all its keepers will meet the fate of the Pahlavi regime after the 1979 Revolution.

Iranians also have a way of dealing with situations by stating that their "hands are tied because of what higher powers want."

"Today I know of no one better than the Leader to be the axis of unity," Rafsanjani said. "Of course everyone can be of help and if he [the Leader] accepts the responsibility of guide, which he has, the Assembly of Experts, which has great influence on the people, can use his [the leader's] guidance to move forward."

In this case, the higher power is the people. By saying that the Assembly of Experts has great influence on the people, Rafsanjani meant to say we can unite the people to demand you gone and as they are the higher power if they want you gone we will have no choice but to unseat you.

So really, Rafsanjani used his final statement to tell Ayatollah Khamenei, "Your fate is in my hands because I head the Assembly of Experts" and "therefore, I set the rules."

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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21 Comments

Thank you for this explanation. Very much.

Observer / February 25, 2010 4:34 AM

Thank you, Hana, for the fascinating analysis!

When I heard early reporting of Rafsanjani's comments, there was accompanying comment that somehow this meant he had capitulated to Khamenei. Knowing how wily Raffers is, I knew there had to be more to the story.

While I'm sure others may differ in their analysis, I have no doubt that Rafsanjani's central message is the same: look out.

I love these Persian/Jedi mind tricks!

Mormon Socialist / February 25, 2010 6:31 AM

Can the author please provide the Persian transcript which she is translating? I read Rafsanjani's speech in full here: http://www.lahzehnews.com/index.php?news=7653 and he doesn't quite talk the way the author claims.

Granted that Iranian politicians speaks in riddles, the writer of this piece seems to take the game too seriously. A lot of this is her - very - personal interpretation.

Pedestrian / February 25, 2010 7:04 AM

What Ped said.

Pirouz / February 25, 2010 8:24 PM

I would be careful with writings that claim they know Iranian psyche. First, it is only the mollahs that talk in riddles with double meaning when they have other mollahs or important people in mind. They are experts in obfuscation. However, when it comes to ordinary Iranians the same is not necessarily true. The other point about Iranians first giving the good points then hit you with the bad, if anything, is modern western value. What I remember if I did anything wrong at home or didn't do my homework, in both cases I would get punished and was never complimented for any good points I might have had. Again if anything prior to punishment, they always told me "you are just terrible, you never do anything good". But it is true if we don't want to be accused of other bad habits, we start with compliments before we embark on criticism of the person, particularly if of the person is of the same rank.

As for that funny English (British) reporter not knowing what Ahmadi meant by "when one passes a red light he gets a ticket for speeding" it is on the reporter not realizing that Ahmadi meant exactly what he said, except the tickets were very very expensive, sometimes as expensive as one's life.

I do not claim to be an expert on our national idiosyncrasies but at least I know the writer of the piece can not but have less claim to them.

His or her point, as I implied above, is only relevant to mollahs, and Rafsanjani is one of them.

Anonymous / February 25, 2010 9:29 PM

Interesting. A part of me wants to believe that Raf. criticized, warned, and pulled rank on Khamanei, albeit in riddles. Perhaps this is true. But it feels hollow nonetheless, even if "Rafsanjani meant to say we can unite the people to demand you gone and as they are the higher power if they want you gone we will have no choice but to unseat you." I mean, he kind of lost his chance to do this, no? After all the people went out and protested the elections and were violently suppressed? What is he waiting for? The cynic in me says that Raf. is a sellout, and has been a sellout. A bunch of empty words is all... But looking forward to be proved wrong on this.

Kaveh / February 25, 2010 10:28 PM

"If that journalist had been acquainted with Iranian riddle-talk he would have known that Ahmadinejad was saying, "My rivals are part of the system, therefore they will be safe. However, if they persist in their demands for a vote-recount they will get a slap on the wrist." In other words, Ahmadinejad was saying that no one goes to prison or is executed for speeding."

Would you like to see this British journalist for yourselves? There he is,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC3Zq1hYDkU

oooppss, he is a she and no other than our own Christian Amanpour. Does she know Persian? Yes she does. Is she acquainted with Iranian riddle-talk? Yes she is. Then why was she mad? Because he was talking nonsense.

This piece clearly shows the primitive nature of the Iranian politics. It is shameful to see what has become of us.

Niloofar / February 25, 2010 11:13 PM

Pedestrian: the ILNA link to the speech has been added per your request. It is usually a more accurate source than the one you cite. For further evidence of Mr. Rafsanjani's apparent references, please note the exchange at the meeting between the Supreme Leader and the Assembly of Experts today.

Hana H. / February 26, 2010 2:03 AM

Great analysis Hana.

Ahvaz / February 26, 2010 2:55 AM

Explaining this is as simple as: one gang leader telling the other that if you don't give our share of the loot, there will be trouble.

RafsanJani mafia in the guise of reformers stole Iranian nation's wealth for 16 years and now the military-industrial fascists doing it and not giving any to the older mafia.

Also, Islamic Republic regime is "the set of a soap opera" and not Iran.

Maziar Irani / February 26, 2010 3:05 AM

The reader must be weary of this type of Pseudo analysis. This is the type of neo-orientalist mumbo jambo that we must refrain from in analysing complex matter of Iranian politics! There is no cryptic message, Rafsanjani does not have the political muscle to either remove, reprimand, or contain the leader. His glory days are long over, that was the whole point of the "coup" to sideline him and other influential pragmatists and reformists. Now it is up to the fledgling democratic movement to consolidate and clarify its position regarding the next step of the struggle to establish democracy in Iran.

fariba / February 26, 2010 6:15 AM

can't agree to commentors saying Rafsanjani has no more power.
I think he has more power than EVER and besides all hopes of democracy and freedom - do you really think karroubi, mousavi, khatami or any exiled politican is going to be the next leader??? It's Rafsanjani holding power in his hands and waiting for his chance to put the sword in the supreme leaders back, so he can climb the thrown.
I am really feared of that vision - this guy is so smart, he can harm iran more than khamenei ever could.

hans / February 26, 2010 3:47 PM


There is no question there has been a major shift in power and control of wealth from Rafsanjani to Ahmadinejad (IRCG) and ultracons (Janati, Mesbah).

It seemsRafsanjani's major card is his insider knowledge and evidence of corruption (and crimes) of unltrarights. An example was his threat to release documents of corruption of Yazdi this month which sent the ultras scrambling and begging for "unity" (i.e. mercy).

Interesting analysis on Rafsanjani on asia times:

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/LA29Ak01.html


Ahvaz / February 26, 2010 8:07 PM

"It seems Rafsanjani's major card is his insider knowledge and evidence of corruption..."

I'm sure Raf does have "insider knowledge" of corruption since he is the most corrupt politician in the history of the IRI.

Samuel / February 26, 2010 9:19 PM

The way I see it, the two parties left in the system are Rafsanjani's gang and IRCG/Ultracon Mullahs. Moussavi and Karoubi (and PPL) are now "outsiders" of the system (in the words of Khamanai on his Tues speech).

The infighting between the system insiders is at the expense of the system and to the benefit of the "outsiders".

Rafsanjani is being pushed out, but will not go down without a fight. He has deep hatred for Ahmadinejad; He has had his name and honor insulted in newspapers; had his daughter thrown in jail and harassed on streets by bassij; had his son sent into exile and threatened with arrest upon return to Iran... This is all very very personal stuff.

WHEN and IF he goes down he will take them all down with him.

This is all so great to watch.

Ahvazi / February 26, 2010 10:19 PM

Could You please "translate" the answer of the Supreme Leader in his speech to the Assembly?

Nazan / February 27, 2010 12:05 AM

Samuel,

Re "[raffers] is the most corrupt politician in the history of the IRI "

---Thank you captain obvious...

Ahvaz / February 27, 2010 1:41 AM

what a decipher it was,wow.please decipher what supreme leader said after rafsanjani issued that, smartly deciphered by you, warning. in essence, he shut the door on rafsanjani and his allies face by announcing leaders of nrest have lost theirposition in the system. no need to read between the lines. analysis is not only writing a nice looking composition, but needs substance, especially when it comes to iranian politics. you got that red light thing completely wrong by the way. ticket is punishment. yu pt death or prison against slap on the wrist only because you got it wrong. look deeper please.

smart-but-stupid / February 27, 2010 4:28 AM

If Persian Christiane Amanpour had not asked Ahmadinejad about guaranteeing the safety of Mousavi he would have been in prison or dead today. This question focused world attention on the issue of safety of the opposition. If anything happens to Mousavi it will be harder for the Ahmadinejad government to claim legitimacy internally and internationally.

outsider / February 28, 2010 2:11 AM

Nice try on an exit strategy....calling the kettle black.

This guy is the butcher of Tehran.

He was President during the most bloody internal purges: including prison massacres of 4,000+, exiles, '88 prison raping/murder of boys/girls.

He is a walking dead man and he knows it.

The gallows of the green revolution tribunal await him.

Googles members list of the Guardian Council, Expediency Council, IRGC High Command, and All Ministers is the best future funeral prediction list completed in modern times.

Trading in their Life Insurance policies is going to soon be quoted in structured life settlements trading worldwide.

Shah / March 1, 2010 12:16 AM

@ shah: Preparing the next murderous regime?
This is exactly the reason why many Europeans stay at home instead of protesting in favor of the "Greens". Neither Khomeini's gallows nor IRI's gallows could make us trust.
Your gallows wouldn't either.
Revengefulness must have an end. See nowadays what is growing out of this feeling.

Lews / March 1, 2010 1:15 AM