These are some of the questions raised in a heated
debate that has pitted key figures of the Khomeinist
establishment in Tehran against one another in what
promises to become a massive washing of dirty laundry
The debate was triggered earlier this month during
a gathering of some 1,300 Iranian exiles, who had come
to Tehran for an “ introductory visit” at the
invitation of the government.
The man who raised the issue is Esfandiar Rahim
Mashai, a self-styled philosopher who serves as
Cabinet Director for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Initially, Ahmadinejad had appointed Mashai as his
First Vice President.
Ahmadinejad was forced to backtrack after top
figures, including the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei,
publicly said that they would not tolerate Mashai in
However, the change of titles made little
difference insofar as Mashai’s power and influence, as
Ahamdinejad’s ideological mentor, is concerned.
The two men, who are lifelong friends, are also
related because Mashai’s daughter is married to
Addressing the visiting exiles, Mashai adopted a
nationalistic tone, speaking of Iran as a great
civilization with a universal message and “global
leadership responsibilities”. He ended up by calling
on the guests to return to their places of exile to
preach “the Iranian school” and “ the Iranian
The quotations used in the speech came from Persian
poets and philosophers, in sharp contrast with the
official discourse that is peppered with citations
from the Koran and various imams and ayatollahs. Nor
were there any references to the late Khomeini, the
mullah who created the regime, or the present “Supreme
More significantly, there was little mention of
Islam, the leitmotif of the Khomeinist regime since
the mullahs seized power in 1979.
Mashai’s speech could have come out of the
literature of the pan-Iranist party, a nationalist
movement that reached its peak in the 1950s and was
eventually dissolved by the Shah in 1975.
Mashai touched a number of raw nerves, especially
among the mullahs.
They knew that if the emphasis was shifted from the
idea of Islam to that of Iran, their centuries’ old
boutique might face a loss of customers.
Thus a battery of attacks were launched against
Mashai by radical mullahs like Ahmad Janati and Ahmad
Khatami who devoted their Friday sermons to denouncing
the president’s closest friend as “ a suspicious
character” and even “possibly an agent of foreign
Then it was the turn of Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi
Mesbah-Yazdi, believed to be Ahmadinejad’s principal
source of support within the Shi’ite clergy, to attack
Mashai as a “shadowy figure with an unknown agenda.”
The final barrage came from The Chief of Staff of
the Armed Forces Major-General Hassan Firuzabadi who
called for Mashai to be prosecuted on charges
approaching treason. Mashai retaliated by announcing
he would sue Firuzabadi for libel.
Scores of lesser mullahs and jackboots, not to
mention the part of the media controlled by the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have also
joined the lynch mob organised against Mashai.
Well, what is all the fuss about?
Mashai’s speech included nothing that could be
regarded as illegal even under the Khomeinist
constitution. Nor did he say anything that might
threaten the existence of the beleaguered regime.
The trouble, however, is that in Khomeinist-controlled
Iran, as in so many other so-called “developing
countries”, no decent political debate is possible. In
such countries, people who disagree with you do not
attack your ideas but your person. Thus no one bothers
to examine Mashai’s ideas if only to refute them.
Everyone takes the easy way of accusing him of being
deranged or acting on orders from the CIA and Mossad.
Mashai’s speech could be seen as a manoeuvre by
Ahmadinejad to deprive the opponents of the regime of
at least part of their nationalist aura.
To demonstrators who march with cries of “ The
Iranian Republic, Not The Islamic Republic”, he is
saying that he could be as Iranians as they are.
He also wants to pretend that the sanctions imposed
on the Islamic Republic by the United Nations, the
United States and the European Union, in fact, target
the Iranian nation not the Khomeinist regime.
Last year, when supporters of the defeated
presidential candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, adopted
green, the colour of Islam, as their standard
Ahmadinejad retaliated by wearing blue, the national
colour of pre-Islamic Iran.
To bolster his Iranian credentials, Ahmadinejad has
proposed the creation of a Union of Persian-Speaking
Nations; that is to say Iran, Afghanistan and
The irony in all this is that the conceptual tandem
of Iran-Islam has been the centrepiece of Iranian
existence as a nation for over 14 centuries.
To most Iranians, the Arab invasion and brief
conquest of Iran remains an open wound. And, yet, most
Iranians are proud, not to say boastful, of their
ancestors’ contribution to the development of Islamic
Few want Islam to be scripted out of their history
This double identity, some would say split
personality or national schizophrenia, has been at the
heart of Iran's existence as a nation for over 1,400
years and it is unlikely to be resolved one way or
Some intellectuals, like the great jurist and
historian, Ahmad Kasrvai, and the philosopher Hussein
Kazemzadeh, wanted to de-Islamicise Iran so that it
could “become itself, once again.”
They failed because most Iranians did not wish to
abandon Islam as long as it was not pushed down their
throats by force. Iran was “ itself” all the time,
happy and unhappy at the same time with its historic
The late Ruhallah Khomeini was no philosopher. But
he, too, made the mistake that only philosophers can
make. He took Marx’s advice about changing the world
rather than interpreting it and tried to de-Iranise
Iran. However, despite his boundless hatred for the
idea of Iran, the agitator from Khomein, the luckiest
adventurer in our history, also failed.
The question "Islam or Iran?" has been a hot topic
in Iranian politics during several conjectures in
history. When Iranians were angry at a regime that
beat the drum of Iranian-ness as the core of its
legitimacy, they emphasised the concept of Islam in
opposition. They grew beards, flocked to the mosques,
bought rosaries and brought the mullahs out of the
backyards of forgotten neighbourhoods to oppose
despotism based on nationalism.
This time, Iranians are emphasising the concept of
Iran in opposition to a regime that wrongly claims
Islam as its source of legitimacy.
This time, too, the fight is against despotism, not
In other words, nothing has changed in Iranian
politics. The schizophrenia continues as does the