When not pursuing an illicit nuclear-weapons program, the Iranian leadership is engaged in another task of national importance. It is known, in the words of former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, as the “Dialogue of Civilizations.”
A simpler English translation would be the “Iranian Sales Pitch.” The Iranian leadership has embarked on a duplicitous campaign to present itself as a beacon of liberalism and modernism in the Middle East. In a speech given at Harvard in September, for instance, Khatami preached an end to violence. He also spoke at length of democratic reform in his own country and about tolerance and human rights. Khatami even went so far as to deplore terrorism and suicide bombings and he suggested everyone should “condemn the violation of human rights wherever it takes place.”
But it would be a mistake to see Khatami’s P.R. campaign as a signal of Iranian moderation. Instead, it should be regarded as part of a government attempt to suppress the genuine voices of moderation inside Iran. Fear of precisely such voices has already led Iranian authorities to order the closure of more than 100 newspapers associated with the reformist and opposition camps in the last four years. A recent victim of that campaign was Shargh, Iran’s leading reformist newspaper, and the political journal Nameh. Shargh published a cartoon that appeared to lampoon Iranian nuclear negotiations; Nameh was forcibly closed for the publication of a poem by dissident female poet Simin Behbahani.
While dissenting voices are silenced, the national stage is open to an official Iranian message. That message is kept in accordance with the Iranian practice of “separate but consistent”: one set of consistent messages to the West, another to the good people of Iran. Thus, Khatami’s “moderate” remarks at Harvard neglected to mention Iran’s “Army of Martyrs.” Recently, some 40,000 people have signed a declaration to become “suicide volunteers.” The commander of that “army” stated: “We have identified some 29 weak points for attacks in the U.S. and in the West. We intend to explode some 6,000 American atomic warheads.”
In Iranian school textbooks and particularly in those written during the tenure of Khatami, the issue of martyrdom is further stressed. Books that were recently reviewed by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, a non-governmental organization that examines the content of school textbooks used in the Middle East, encourage collective martyrdom and an unavoidable war. “Initiative Jihad is, then, a kind of defense as well, defense of the deprived people’s rights, defense of the people’s honor, and defense of the rights of the oppressed,” concludes a children’s religious instruction book, bearing Khatami’s personal seal.
The vast difference between Iranian officials’ statements and actions can be explained in the context of their core mission, a mission that began in 1979 with Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. These objectives become evident when statements and documents produced by Iranian leadership are examined. A review of Iranian speeches, textbooks and media shows consistent parallels between Khomeini’s revolutionary era and the current Iranian Republic. Khomeini’s legacy – that of velayat-e faqih (absolute rule of the clergy) – is still the driving force in Iran, not democratic principles. Khomeini’s revolution is not complete and its major rival is the West.
Accordingly, Iranians are instructed to prepare themselves for a life-or-death global war against the infidel oppressors. In another quotation that appears in the Iranian curriculum, Khomeini further explains his political conviction, saying, “O Muslims of all countries of the world! Since under the foreigners’ dominance you have been inflicted with gradual death, you should overcome the fear of death and make use of the existence of the passionate and the martyrdom-seeking youths, who are ready to break the frontiers of infidelity… Glory and life are in fighting… After that, there is the decision that you forbid yourselves of [submission to] the supremacy of world infidelity and polytheism, especially America.”
Altogether different is the message communicated to the West. Appearing before the United Nations, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke of moderate and peaceful co-existence of sovereign nations. He omitted any reference to his previous declarations that Israel must be erased from the world map and that its sovereignty cannot be acknowledged. Ahmadinejad described Hezbollah as a resistance movement fighting for the “territorial integrity” of Lebanon. He made no mention of Hezbollah’s stated purpose: the destruction of Israel and the imposition of an Islamic state in Lebanon. Nor did he address Lebanon’s demand to disarm Hezbollah, an organization equipped with Iranian weapons superior to those of “sovereign” Lebanon.
To properly understand Iran’s bid for nuclear status, one must approach the regime’s statements as a form of advertising: To find the truth, read the small print. When a government professes its interest in regional stability but endlessly harps on American vulnerabilities in Iraq; when it claims to favor peace but calls for the destruction of Israel; and when it rhetorically dissociates itself from terrorism while promising the detonation of atomic warheads and pledging support for suicide bombers, the truth of Iran’s dangerous agenda stands revealed.
Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Richard Lafayette is the host of Global Crisis Watch, a weekly radio program on terrorism and freedom