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Mandela's funeral sparks paranoia in Tehran

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Calling the Dec. 15 funeral of South African civil right activist Nelson Mandela a “trap” for 64-year-old Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, Iran’s conservative Kayhan newspaper warned that it could put Rouhani face-to-face with “the great Satan government.” Reflecting more the views of Iran’s Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Kayhan Daily wasn’t happy with the recent Geneva deal with the P5+1 [U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany] that contained some of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing up of punitive U.N. sanctions. “Some domestic and foreign media outlets are using the funeral ceremony as a pretext to push Rouhani towards a meeting with the head of the Great Satan Government,” said Kayhan, showing the kind of paranoia that’s left Iran isolated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Only since Rouhani replaced hothead Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Aug. 4 have things improved.

What frightens the conservative Mullah-backed government is the bad democratic influence of the United States. Most Iranians seek better relations with the West, especially the U.S. housing the world’s largest expat Iranian community. Unlike Iran’s mullah government, the Iranian people want better ties with the West to travel freely and pursue unrestricted business activities abroad. Under current U.N. sanctions, it’s difficult for Iranians to pursue international business activities. Kayhan’s off-the-wall editorial mirrors the same paranoia that’s kept Iran a pariah nation since evicting the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Rouhani and his 52-year-old U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif give hope. Kayhan’s editorial puts Rouhani and Zarif on notice that they’re not at liberty to cozy up to President Barack Obama. When Obama and Rouhani held a 15-minute phone call after the U.N. General Assembly in Sept., Iranian conservatives objected.

Defeating a slew of conservative candidates, Rouhani’s election mirrored voters’ wish to resume better ties with the West, especially the U.S. What conservatives fear most in Iran is that they’ll eventually lose their grip on power. “Satan lays a trap, this time in Johannesburg,” the conservative daily hoped to intimidate Rouhani and Zarif that Big Brother is watching. Khamenei, speaking like American conservatives on Capitol Hill, found it “inappropriate” that the Iranian president spoke directly to U.S. President Barack Obama. If world leaders can’t speak directly to each other, then there’s little hope of improved relations. Geneva’s deal threw Iranian conservatives for a loop, fearing more compromises with the West down the road. “Some of what happened in the New York trip was not appropriate,” said Khamenei, exposing his distaste for any kind of reconciliation with the West. Conservative mullahs don’t trust Rouhani and Zarif.

` Attending Mandela’s funeral is itself a slap in the face to Iran’s conservatis, too concerned about holding onto power to worry about principles of freedom and civil rights. U.S. officials, during the Cold War years, didn’t like everything about Mandela, especially his close relationship with Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other Cuban revolutionaries. Mandela had no problems before and during his 1964 incarceration encouraging Castro’s mobile mercenary force from sponsoring communist revolution in Africa. While Khamenei worries about Rouhani’s brief conversation with Obama, the Iranian public waits for the day that the mullahs stop their paranoia over losing their grip on power. Most Iranians don’t share the mullahs’ religious fanaticism and only seek better business and family ties. When Khamenei calls Rouhani’s conversation with Obama “inappropriate,” he’s referring to his own fears of losing relevance.

Iran’s Nov. 23 nuke-deal in Geneva opened up a can of worms for Iran’s mullahs. While Khamenei no doubt approved the deal, it raises bigger implications for the continuation of Iran’s conservative politics. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran watched its world standing sink to new post-revolutionary lows. His overtly hostile rhetoric toward Israel and aggressive approach pushing Iran’s nuclear program hit Iran with the most punitive sanctions ever. Iran’s economy suffered under Ahmadinejad’s leadership. Rouhani’s conciliatory tone causes more insecurity in conservative circles, where there’s renewed threats to the mullah’s power or at least relevance. Rouhani and Zarif walk a dangerous tightrope trying to appease Khamenei, and, at the same time, moving Iran back to the mainstream. Letting Rouhani and Zarif mingle on the world stage raises more fears in Iran’s conservatives. While they hide inside the mosques, the business of Iran goes forward.

Whether “appropriate” or not, Iran’s new leaders seek to underscore Iran’s return to the world community. “We in Iran join the people of South Africa in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela who inspired humanity with his courage & compassion,” Tweeted Zarif, serving notice that Iran’s moderate government wants to join the world community. For those in Iran’s cloistered conservative circles, they’re lucky to have Rouhani and Zarif extend Iran’s condolences on the world stage. Given Mandela’s lifelong battle against South Africa’s status quo, Iran’s new leadership faces the same kind of challenge, returning Iran back to relevance in the international community. Iran’s Ayatollah Khaemei should send his own condolences before worrying whether or not Rouhani or Zarif make contact with the “Great Satan.” Whatever relevance Mandela’s plight in Iran, conservative and moderates should shelve their differences and show “appropriate” respect.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.

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