Reading the Iranian press last week after the International Atomic Energy Agency released its report on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program elicited a sense of déjà vu: It could have been the year 2002, when the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (Holy Warriors for the Masses) revealed to the world the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Back then, the clerical regime did not try to censor coverage of the Mujahedin’s discovery in the domestic press. Last week, the Iranian press similarly regurgitated in detail Western reporting on the IAEA’s revelations about nuclear weaponization.
The regime can, and usually does, set stringent guidelines on what the media can report. In 2001, when Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government still influenced what could be printed, a sensitive censorship guide for book publishers got released as a book and became a minor bestseller. Its title gives a good idea of how the clerical regime likes to control what Iranians read: Censorship: A review of 1,400 documents from the Office of Book Censorship. This guide brilliantly reveals the regime’s eccentricities. When it comes to internal politics, sex, and the machinations of foreigners, the Iranian censors have demanding standards. So when the ruling mullahs and their praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, decide to give the Iranian people full access to a Western discussion through officially approved media outlets, they do so for a reason.
In 2002 the regime allowed the Natanz revelations to be fully aired because doing so made the government, in particular Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, look good. Average Iranians, let alone the civilian elite, thought then, as they think now, that the Islamic Republic is far from a first-world country. In a land where quality control is almost nonexistent, where people who have any money always buy foreign-made goods, people expect little from their government. For a regime that had collapsed the country’s living standards in just a few years to be capable, nevertheless, of building a gleaming, stainless-steel facility that could enrich uranium verged on the miraculous.
Before the 2009 presidential election made foreign journalists more aware that many Iranians do not love their government and can, quite easily, separate their deep patriotism from the aspirations of the ruling elite, the Western media—especially the BBC—loved to conflate Iranians’ pride in technical nuclear achievement with a popular endorsement of the government’s nuclear policy, if not the government itself.
Although Tehran had tried to conceal its nuclear ambitions (violating in so doing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a party), it reversed gears after the Mujahedin-e Khalq’s revelations. The regime adopted a new openness—IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit regularly and install cameras at Natanz—undoubtedly in part out of fear of George W. Bush, who’d taken down the Taliban and was preparing to invade Iraq. But Khamenei and the ruling elite also liked the attention.
Above all else, the supreme leader sees himself as the protector of the Islamic revolution. He is the Muslim paladin turning back the Westernization of his homeland and defying the West’s great power, the United States. Uranium enrichment was and is an expression of Khamenei’s and the Islamic Republic’s religious virility.
It is impossible not to see the same emotions at play in the -Iranian media’s extensive coverage of the IAEA’s latest revelations. The regime wants the Iranian -people to know about its progress with nuclear triggers, explosive computer -modeling, and ballistic-missile -warheads. The regime is proud of these achievements.
Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, conveyed this pride pithily just before the IAEA report was released. Formerly a senior nuclear official and undoubtedly a man familiar with the gap between what Iran says it’s doing and what it’s actually done, Salehi remarked: “Let them publish and see what happens.” Tehran may well think that its public defiance of the IAEA is a crowd pleaser at home, and it probably is with the government’s revolutionary base (perhaps 20 percent of the population). But Khamenei—whose personality and preferences increasingly dominate the regime—doesn’t play primarily to the people; he plays to himself, to his Manichean division of the world.
Periodically, when the temperature rises in the West about Iran’s nuclear program, some scholars and commentators focus on the supreme leader’s supposed fatwa against nuclear weapons (it’s bad for anyone to have them, especially bad for Muslims, absolutely haram to use one). Although Islamic scholars in Iran have debated the propriety of nukes, among political clerics the question was settled in the early 1990s after a vigorous debate about whether Iran should proceed with a nuclear-weapons program. Led by Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—then the major-domo of the mullah establishment and the man who in 1989 arranged Khamenei’s succession as supreme leader—the ruling clergy decided to back the clandestine program. All of the revelations in the new IAEA report about nuclear triggers and warhead designs—rather strong proof that Khamenei hasn’t had a religious problem with at least building and possessing a nuclear bomb—ought to tell Western observers that Khamenei’s august political-religious office doesn’t denote the veracity one might expect from saintly pope or worldly rabbi.
Reflexively, Westerners assume a certain probity in men of the cloth (despite a superabundance of evidence that churchmen too are sinners). For Iranian mullahs the assumption is woefully misplaced, at least when it comes to honesty (and sex). Iranians have never regarded clerics—except perhaps the most accomplished scholars—as ever being above sin. They are lawyers who, as the great poet Hafez famously remarked, “don’t practice in private what they preach in public.” Even so, public esteem for the clergy has probably fallen in 30 years of theocracy. It’s a good guess that the assessment of the Emperor Charles V’s ambassador to London of English sentiment towards their clergy is close to the truth in Iran: “Nearly all the people hate the priests.”
The enormous disconnect between public attitudes and official rhetoric has introduced a pervasive surreality into the world of Iran’s political clerics, who rule but no longer reign. To say that the Iranian governing elite are mendacious just doesn’t capture the distance between words and deeds.
Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa was not to be taken seriously. It was meant partly for Western consumption. More important, it reflected the surreal Islam-vs.-the-West theater that is a never-ending spectacle in the Islamic Republic. America unleashed the atom bomb in war; the Islamic Republic wouldn’t do such a thing. The West is overflowing with homosexuals; in Iran, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad informed the students of Columbia University in 2007, “We don’t have that.” Ahmadinejad, a man of considerable earthy Persian wit, probably has told innumerable homosexual jokes about the towns of Qazvin and Shiraz—a mainstay of Persian working-class humor. But at Columbia, at that moment, homosexuality in his homeland didn’t exist. Ahmadinejad probably could have passed a polygraph test on the question.
The same for Khamenei on the nuclear issue. Khamenei lives in two worlds: In one, his minions work arduously to build nuclear weapons; in the other they do research on medical isotopes. In one, he sends his minions abroad to slaughter Jews in Argentina, blow up Americans at Khobar Towers, liaise with al Qaeda, and in all probability assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.; in the other, he’s defending the Palestinian people and all Muslims against aggressive Zionists, peacefully deploring the presence of American troops in Arabia, condemning the bigotry of Sunni extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and revealing to all the long track record of American terrorism inside Iran. Khamenei moves between these two worlds effortlessly, without friction, without awareness that he’s crossed the border between fiction and fact.
The Iranian media’s coverage of the IAEA report reflects Khamenei’s most cherished conception of himself and his country. That conception is dangerous because it is insular, disconnected from and at odds with reality as understood in the West. When the supreme leader gets his hands on a nuclear weapon, this self-centeredness may get much worse. If the United States and the Islamic Republic ever go to war, this will surely be why.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).