That Smile: Rouhani Knows What He’s Doing

This article/interview was published six days after my piece below.  It is about the Iranian translator who has translated for all Iranian presidents since Rafsanjani, including Rouhani’s interview with CNN:

To Deny, Or Not To Deny

Earlier this week, the 24-hour news cycle yet again made a mountain out of a mole hole.  In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (a class act and top-notch journalist, in my opinion), Iranian President Rouhani fielded a question about his predecessor’s vehement Holocaust denial.  Rouhani chose to speak in Farsi and use a translator throughout the entire interview, despite being fluent in English.  The translation of his answer to Amanpour’s question caused quite the stir—CNN’s version used the word “Holocaust,” followed by this statement, “Whatever criminality they [Nazis] committed against the Jews, we condemn.”  According to Fars News Agency’s English-language site, those words were entirely fabricated by CNN.  And before you condemn that news outlet as being state-run, consider that The Wall Street Journal backed Fars News against CNN.

Still, this is making a mountain out of a mole hole.  Did Rouhani wholeheartedly embrace the Holocaust’s occurrence?  No, but neither did he outright deny it the way Ahmadinejad did and still does.

ahmadin holocaust denial

Rouhani’s answer, while equivocating, was still a positive step towards reason and rationality from Tehran (or, as skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will argue, a well-acted bit of theatre designed to lull the West into a false sense of security while the mullahs back home work feverishly to get a nuclear bomb).

But the real story here isn’t what was said: it’s what happened between the question and answer.

Rouhani Smiled

And as soon as he did, I knew exactly what he was thinking.

Anyone who’s ever competed in debate knows that smile.

Student Congress debate


Anyone who’s ever been a mock trial witness on cross-examination knows that smile. 


mock trial witness


It’s the smile of someone who anticipated the question and is about to give a prepared answer.


Rouhanis Smile

Now consider the fact that the translator of this interview is the official translator for the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Seems odd that Iran’s own translator would inadvertently misinterpret the president, doesn’t it?  Which begs the question: was the “misinterpretation” intentional?

I think this entire episode (the answer, its “misinterpretation,” and the Fars News response) was a calculated move; the latest jab in the Charm Offensive.

This Just Happened

Let us consider the last time that a leading Iranian was “caught making sense” and immediately issued a retraction.  Just last month, days after Syrian President and brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad poisoned the suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons, most of Iran’s hardliners came to his defense (F).[1]  At best, they argued that we can’t know who used the CWs: at worst, they argued that the rebels gassed themselves (F) to frame the regime.[2]

rafsanjaniBut then, former-President and current Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council—a club of advisors to the Supreme Leader—Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani broke the party line, accusing “a government” of the large-scale CW use.  After roughly a week of political attacks and threats from Iranians, and much befuddlement and surprise from the West, Rafsanjani retracted his statements.

The Iran experts I trust suggest that the entire episode was a calculated feint to make Assad second-guess Iran’s support, which would then hopefully push him to some sort of negotiating table, decrease the likelihood of American-led military strikes, and end the crisis that much more quickly.

If that really was Rafsanjani’s intention, then he’s two for three; and only time will tell if his third goal comes to fruition.

“Rafsanjani Is My Homeboy”

To my mind, the Rafsanjani tactic of State and Retract (the Iranian rhetorical version of Shock and Awe, I suppose) was replicated by Rouhani in the CNN interview.  Again, his smile is just all too telling.

Rouhanis Smile

It also makes complete sense that Rouhani would take a page out of Rafsanjani’s playbook.  After all, Rafsanjani is Rouhani’s mentor.  In fact, after the Guardian Council rejected Rafsanjani’s candidacy for president in the most recent election, Rafsanjani vetted and fully backed Rouhani.

rafsan rouhani

For Rouhani, this was the equivalent of the Colbert Bump: he went on to emerge from dark-horse status to undisputed victor, amassing an impressive 18 million votes (give or take, since we can’t be sure the Islamic Republic actually counts all the votes).

So what’s the takeaway here?  Rouhani, Zarif, and the puppet master Rafsanjani are chess masters (for that matter, so is Khamenei).  Diplomats, academics, policymakers, and experts the world over disagree about their current sincerity.  But everyone should think twice before labeling any of their words and/or actions as “mistakes” or “accidents.”  And CNN should stop playing checkers.

Charming?  Or Offensive?

I’ll conclude with some thoughts on the Charm Offensive.  I understand why some are skeptical and why others still are cynical.  It is impossible to forget the 444-day hostage crisis.  That event was a gargantuan breach of diplomatic immunity, and those who stormed the embassy are the very ones who are in power in Tehran and Qom today: why on earth should we believe their diplomatic overtures?  Iran’s suspicion of America is equally strong, because it is equally impossible to forget that the CIA orchestrated a coup against then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh to secure Britain’s steady supply of Iranian oil without, you know, paying the Iranians for it.

These are just two examples of a long history of US-Iran relations.  The complete list of reasons-to-be-suspicious is quite long and includes: Allied occupation of Iran in WWII; America’s complicit support of Saddam Hussein‘s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war; the Islamic Republic’s funding of Hezbollah terrorism against Israel and throughout the Middle East; Iran’s hosting al-Qaeda; etc.

Iran_Israel_Cartoon_Flag_Mana_NeyestaniBut I also understand those who are hopeful.  Because while neither the US nor Iran can forget, perhaps they can forgive?  When former hostages themselves are pushing for forgiveness, you know it’s possible.

Winston Churchill is often misquoted as having said, If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re older, you have no brain.  Facts aside, I like this (mis)quote.  And so, being young and naïve, I dare to hope.  There’ll be plenty of time for skepticism when I’m older and wiser.

Regardless of my age, I believe that true progress in US-Iran relations cannot be made until these suspicions are set aside.  The Berlin Wall didn’t fall out of the blue.  Extensive and sustained efforts from Americans and Soviets led to that watershed event.  Iran’s leaders, if they are sincere, have a long way to go; and so do their American counterparts.  Words must be met with transparent action, The Shadow War must halt, Israel’s influence needs to be reckoned with, and a whole host of other confidence-building measures are needed.  But if there’s one variable that can serve as a Berlin-Wall-fall-esque catalyst, it is the mutual suspicion that’s hamstringing American and Iranian policymakers.

Mr Obama, Mr. Rouhani, tear down this mutual suspicion.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to my uncle, Bob Friedel, for inspiring this post. 

[1] (F) indicates that this is a Farsi source.

[2] It is interesting to note that both of these positions were espoused by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif: he made the latter statement on August 22 and the former on August 27.