Hassan Nasrallah and the Iranian Civilization
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
13 Nov 2010 19:25
Puzzling motivations for denial of national heritage, belated release of video.
[ comment ] In late July 2006, I traveled to Tehran to see my family and relatives, and to work with several Iranian doctoral students whom I was advising at the time. The war between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters was at its height. The Islamic world and indeed the entire globe was mesmerized by what was happening, as Israel did not seem capable of gaining a quick victory over the Hezbollah irregulars.
When I arrived at Mehrabad Airport (international flights had not yet been transferred to the new Imam Khomeini Airport) and went to my parents' home in central Tehran, I was struck by an amazing new feature of the city: huge posters of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, were everywhere, in the airport and all along the route to my parents' residence.
The Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic -- as the national television and radio network is known -- was in full gear, reporting from Lebanon and lionizing Nasrallah and his fighters. He was being referred to as Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, rather than Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as he is known to the rest of the world. One of my students asked why he was being referred to in this manner. I responded that the reason was twofold. One is that Tehran's hardliners know that the word sheikh has taken on a very negative connotation in Iran. The second is that a sayyed is still respected by Muslims, as the title implies that the person is directly linked to the Prophet Muhammad. By applying the term to Nasrallah, the hardliners were thus killing two birds with one stone.
Although there was much discussion of the conflict in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the United States and its allies prevented the council from passing a ceasefire resolution during the war's initial stages. The reason was obvious: The George W. Bush administration was hoping that Israel would deliver a knockout blow to Hezbollah, which would have paved the way for the administration to ratchet up its rhetoric and threats of war against Iran without risking a Hezbollah attack on Israel. Indeed, the United States and Israel consider Hezbollah to be the Islamic Republic's first line of defense. In their view, its decapitation would substantially improve their odds in a war with Iran. Iran's military strategists similarly consider Hezbollah fighters as their "strategic depth."
But the war did not go the way Israel and the United States wanted. Israel could not dislodge Hezbollah's fighters from southern Lebanon. On August 14, UNSC Resolution 1701, mandating a ceasefire, went into effect, and Nasrallah became a folk hero in the Islamic world. The Islamic Republic considered the war and its outcome a great victory for itself, and even top U.S. generals seemed to agree -- one was quoted to the effect that the Iranians were demonstrating what would happen to the U.S. armed forces if they attacked Iran.
Hezbollah continues to enjoy significant support within Lebanon and the Arab world. Even if Iran's support were to be cut off at once, Hezbollah would remain a powerful force to be reckoned with, just as Cuba did not collapse in 1992, once its $5 billion in annual aid from the Soviet Union suddenly disappeared. But while it is true that Hezbollah's fighters are highly disciplined and well-trained, it is also true that they would not be as effective a force if the Islamic Republic did not provide Hezbollah with significant financial and military support.
In fact, many consider the Lebanese Hezbollah as the Islamic Republic's creature, although I believe that the most important factors that gave rise to the organization's birth were the discrimination against Shiites in Lebanon and the inability of the mainstream Amal Organization -- the main Lebanese Shia group in in the 1970s -- to defend and advance Shiites' rights, along with Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (following one in 1978) and its occupation of southern Lebanon, where most of the country's Shiites live. In any event, there is no doubt that Nasrallah is significantly indebted to the Islamic Republic.
Five days after last year's June 12 presidential election in Iran led to huge, peaceful demonstrations that attracted the world's attention, Nasrallah gave his first major post-election speech. He advised his March 14 coalition to "leave aside the issue of Iranian elections. They should not bother about an issue that they do not understand.... Iran will overcome this ordeal easily, God willing." It thus appeared that Nasrallah did not want to take sides in the Iranian presidential election.
So it was a shock to many when a video surfaced recently in which Nasrallah dismissed Iranian or Persian civilization. In the first part of the video, which shows a speech he delivered about 17 months ago, he says,
There is nothing in Iran called Persian or Persian civilization. What exists in Iran is Islamic civilization. What exists in Iran is Muhammad's religion from Arabia, from Tahami, from Makka, from Quraish, from Tamim and from Mathar, and the founder of the Islamic Republic [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] is an Arab, son of Arab, son of God's messenger. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic today is Imam Khamenei, sayyed from Quraish, from Hashim, son of God's messenger, son of Ali ibn-Abitaleb, son of Fatemeh Zahra [the Prophet's daughter and Imam Ali's wife], and they are [all] Arab.
Nasrallah is clearly referring to the fact that both Khomeini and Khamenei are sayyeds, hence direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. In the second part of the video, Nasrallah takes sides in Iran's presidential election of last year, saying,
In the last few weeks, some people waged [war] and some of them dreamed to end the Islamic Revolution and [fantasized] about the fall of the Islamic Republic in Iran. These are nothing but mirages. This Iran, which many in the world spoke widely about its events, I declare today to you that this Iran, its system, its state, its people, and its elite exist because of the blessing and existence of a wise leader who is brave, merciful, a mastermind leader, a historic leader -- this is Imam Al-Sayyed Al-Khamenei (may God grant him a long life) -- and the blessing and historic presence of [its] people over [the past] 30 years. Iran today is most powerful and toughest since that day [of the Revolution], and when it overcomes its crisis and its predicament, this Iran will stay at it is now.
Nasrallah is widely recognized as a shrewd strategist, including by American and Israeli experts. That he did not initially take sides in the immediate aftermath of last year's election in Iran was understandable. Five days after the rigged election, it was still not clear what was going to happen. The Islamic Republic's foundations seemed shaky, and Nasrallah did not want to antagonize any new government that might emerge in the aftermath of the huge demonstrations.
Once, however, it appeared to Nasrallah that the hardliners had won the battle of the day (though the long struggle is by no means over), he decided to take sides. That certainly explains the second part of his speech, in which he boasts about the strengths of the Islamic Republic.
But, why did Nasrallah, the shrewd strategist, deny that there is such a thing as Iranian or Persian civilization? Even a cursory glance at history reveals that the claim is utterly ridiculous. Iran has over 4,000 years of written history, and the Persians have lived in Iran for at least seven millennia. Pre-Islamic Iran was one of the most glorious civilizations. Even after the invasion of Iran by the Arabs, though Iranians accepted Islam as their religion, they largely preserved their language -- as opposed to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, which became Arabic-speaking after they were conquered by Islam -- and proudly remembered and preserved their pre-Islamic heritage. Why did Nasrallah make such a ridiculous claim that has rightly offended most Iranians, even those who are deeply pious Muslims?
Iranian culture has many elements of the pre-Islamic Persian civilization and empire, certain aspects of Islamic teaching and, similar to most other countries, features of modernity, which is why it is such a rich culture. Islam teaches us that what matters are not race and nationality, but knowledge, honesty, piety, and not acting against the interests of the common people. Nasrallah's boasting about Islamic civilization in Iran and the nonexistence of Iranian civilization is thus not only hurtful to Iranians, it also violates Islamic teachings.
Nasrallah is fully aware that the Arabs, especially those in the Middle East, are wary of the growing influence of the Islamic Republic in the region, given the fact that Shiites allied with Iran are in power in Iraq. Though popular because of its resistance against Israel's army, Hezbollah is still viewed by many Arabs as an extension of Iran in the Arab world. And the faith of the ruling Alawites in Syria is an offshoot of Shiism. King Abdullah of Jordan has spoken of a "Shia Crescent" from Iran to Lebanon, through Iraq.
By denying that Iranian or Persian civilization exists, Nasrallah was perhaps trying to enhance Iran's Islamic image and give it much more weight than its Iranian identity. If his attempt is successful it might make the Islamic Republic far less threatening to the Arabs and boost its image as "one of us" in the region.
Of course, as far as the vast majority of Iranians, including the author, are concerned, even if we assume that this was indeed Nasrallah's goal, insulting us seems to be a strange way of achieving it. A typical reaction to Nasrallah's ridiculous claim was that of Jafar Panahi, the distinguished movie director, who wrote on his Facebook page: "I am an Iranian, Mr. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. I will never put human beings on the weight scale of race, but I also do not allow you to deny the existence of my civilization." On the other hand, in reaction to the angry protests of many Iranians, the hardline websites in Iran took Nasrallah's side and attacked the Green Movement and its supporters for criticizing him.
Two intriguing questions still remain unanswered. Who released the video on the Internet? To my understanding, no one knows. And, given that the speech is about 17 months old, why release it now? Does it have to do with the fact that the United States has announced a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia in the name of "stability of the region," which is actually meant to deter the Islamic Republic (even though there is no evidence that Iran has any plan to threaten Saudi Arabia)? If there is such a link between the arms sale and the video's release, then the hypothesis that Nasrallah is trying to help Iran appear less scary to the Arabs makes sense. It might even help make the Saudis look bad for precipitating a massive arms race in an already unstable region.
It is also possible that the video was released by Hezbollah itself to bolster its position in Lebanon's internal politics. Nasrallah has said repeatedly that Hezbollah obeys the Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, represented by the Supreme Leader). In addition, during the recent trip of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon, the country was seemingly taken over by Farsi/Persian-speaking people and banners. Television stations controlled by both the Amal Organization and Hezbollah broadcast Iranian revolutionary songs. When he met with Ahmadinejad, Nasarallah used Farsi in his greeting. The release of the video at this time may thus be intended to emphasize that, despite all of the foregoing, Hezbollah is still an Arab organization.
Is it possible that a faction of the hardliners opposed to recent statements by Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's close aide and relative, and Ahmadinejad himself about maktab-e Irani (Iranian school of thought) -- versus maktab-e Eslami (Islamic school of thought) -- released the video to send the duo a message? Some of the top Revolutionary Guard commanders are very close to the reactionary Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who has attacked Mashaei for his statement. They include Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr -- now a deputy to Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief -- and Brigadier General Ebrahim Jabari, the new commander of the Guard division that protects Ayatollah Khamenei. Before his appointment to the post, Jabari commanded the Guard forces in Qom and had very close relations with Mesbah Yazdi.
Mashaei's promotion of the "Iranian school of thought" and Ahmadinejad's talk of "Iranian Islam" have created extensive negative reactions across the Islamic world. The release of the video might also be an attempt to counter this negative reaction.
These are, of course, speculations, but there are certainly some very intriguing questions that remain to be answered. Most interestingly, not a single high official of the Islamic Republic has taken a position regarding Nasrallah's speech.
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