Of the vast volumes of press Iran got this week, it was an op-ed on Al-Sharq al-Awsat that caught our eye. The analysis, by veteran journalist Amir Taheri, shed light on the nature of the rift between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his hardline opponents – and the reason his attempts to justify the nuclear negotiations with the West aren’t really getting through to them.
The cause, wrote Taheri, lies in the Western-educated Rouhani’s interpretation – or rather, misinterpretation – of the revolution on which post-1979 Iran is built.
Calling Rouhani’s policy of engagement on the nuclear issue “divisive,” Taheri noted that recently, Rouhani had tried to use the story of Hussein, the martyr whose death would eventually spark the Sunni-Shi’a split, to justify negotiating with “infidel.”
Rouhani said Hussein, the son of the Prophet Muhammad, had “negotiated” with the emissary of his stronger political rival – but perished in the ensuing battle after their conversation ended in acrimony.
In Shi’a Islam, Hussein’s decision not to heed his rival’s warning and accept his authority is depicted as exemplary, to be followed by Shi’ite believers – and nations. It is no wonder, therefore, that Rouhani’s interpretation of it provoked a “polemical storm” in Iran, with clerics branding it as the “Glasgow version” of the story of Shi’a Islam – a slur directed squarely at the Scottish-educated president.
One critic went so far as to point out that unlike Rouhani, Hussein had no intention of signing any “additional protocols” with his enemies. Others said the true lesson of the battle, known as Karbala, was that “truce with the Infidel” must be rejected as per the tenets of Shi’a Islam and the Iranian Revolution, with its “message of combat and martyrdom.”
With the deadline for a nuclear deal growing ever closer, will Rouhani succeed in bridging this ideological gap?