Accessibility links

Iran: Politicians Change Their Vocabulary, Albeit Slowly

  • Vahid Sepehri --> Campaigning for the 2004 parliamentary elections 25 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The discourse of Iranian politicians has diversified since the country's 1979 revolution. The language of revolutionary struggle has come to include the terminology of civic rights, rule of law, and open government, as some politicians have sought to respond to growing demands by Iranians for more liberties and less meddling in their lives.

Those who have adapted -- the reformers -- reflect in their discourse an increasing acceptance of the principles of competitive politics and accountability.

The conservatives, who largely opposed the now defunct process of "political development" pursued by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami after his 1997 election, face a challenge in stating their views without alienating the people. While they say they stand for "principles" or "fundamental" values, hence a claim to be "fundamentalist," only some conservatives state those principles in public without compunction. With a presidential election due in June and an increasing concern over widespread voter apathy, others have sought a more statesmanlike discourse, mixing generalizations, revolutionary rhetoric, and the vocabulary of participatory politics.

The outspoken among the conservatives include prominent clerics like ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Guardians Council, the body that confirms the legality of elections and legislation; Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi; and Mohammad Yazdi, the former judiciary chief.
References to "the people" also help gauge the conservative political vision. They like to see Iranians as a revolutionary mass acting collectively, ready to heed their leaders' calls to "slap" or "punch" Iran's enemies in the face, as Ayatollah Khamenei likes to say, or just vote.

Jannati said in Tehran on 4 February that the next president must obey the supreme leader. That is "a red line," he said, and "no joke." Nobody "should think he will become president and just form a cabinet and government," he added. Iranians "should not vote for just anyone," even if "anyone" is approved by the Guardians Council, Fars reported Jannati as saying on 7 February. His bluntness stands out beside the consensual tone of many Iranian public figures.

Sinister Worldview?

The language of conservatives often reveals a worldview filled with danger, sinister plots, and subterfuge. Great Britain, Jannati said on 4 February, is "the father of the great Satan, unequalled in its foxy nature," ISNA reported. Mesbah-Yazdi warned electoral supervisors in Qom on 4 February to watch out for "domestic devils" undermining religion in Iran. They probably come from "the jungles of Brazil," ISNA reported him as saying. There are hidden traitors, he said, and "interestingly, some of them wear turbans and are presidential candidates." The Guardians Council, he said, must not approve hopefuls "who have devoted a lifetime to treachery and abuse in the system," IRNA reported. Some observers believe he might have been alluding to Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker and main reformist candidate in June. "Unfortunately," Mesbah-Yazdi said, presidential hopefuls "do not mention Islam, but are looking to see what people want."

Uphold religion, conservatives say, and feed the people. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in Bam, in southeastern Iran on 3 May, that job creation must be one of the next government's "most essential tasks," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 4 May. He urged officials not to "distract people with useless political and factional issues" that have "no effect on [their] real lives." The targets, Khamenei said, are "discrimination" and "corruption." Discrimination is often mentioned, but many in Iran would argue forcefully over who is discriminating against whom.

Factions and party politics are suspect: Conservatives maintain that Iranians are tired of "factional squabbles," their "real" concerns being money and jobs. Ali Larijani, a presidential hopeful, said on 1 February in Esfahan that legislators could resolve the economic problems of Iranians if they "do not become overpoliticized [siasat-zadeh] nor engage in political games [siasi-bazi]," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day.

Mohsen Rezai, another conservative presidential aspirant, implied on 31 January that the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini would have disapproved of factions. There "has been a certain deviation from the imam's path," IRNA reported him as saying. Khomeini "had an extraordinary belief in the people [and believed] politics should be centered on people, but...factions have taken the people's place." Iran, Rezai said, is now a "monarchy of factions." Forget reforms and functioning institutions: here is a vision of a system where the people and their leader are in touch, or would be if not for politicians.

Conservatives have recently mentioned "democracy" when objecting to Larijani's hasty selection by the Coordination Council of Revolutionary Forces, an umbrella group of conservatives, as the main "fundamentalist" candidate. Some have compared its deliberations to a conclave of cardinals. They say they are looking for the "white smoke," in the form of a candidate that satisfies most conservatives.

The conservatives express concern for the "system" (nezam) which, alongside the "revolution," has become a transcendent value requiring the resilient loyalty of generations of Iranians. The prosecutor-general, Qorban Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, said on 20 February that public participation in "revolutionary arenas," like voting, would be a great act of virtue, Fars News Agency reported.

Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said on 10 March that without unity, "we have betrayed the revolution," IRNA reported.

'The People'

References to "the people" also help gauge the conservative political vision. They like to see Iranians as a revolutionary mass acting collectively, ready to heed their leaders' calls to "slap" or "punch" Iran's enemies in the face, as Ayatollah Khamenei likes to say, or just vote. Alaeddin Borujerdi, a legislator, told IRNA on 21 February that voter turnout at the presidential polls should "break the enemy" and "give [U.S. President George W.] Bush a slap in the mouth for saying there is little popular support in" Iran.

This differs with the more quotidian discourse of some reformers. Moving along an imaginary line from conservatives to traditionalist reformers or the former left, to more liberal reformers currently on the fringes of power and on to members of the public, the language simplifies.

Instead of "the people," reformers use "civil" (madani), "civic" (shahrvandi), or civic rights. Hussein Ansari-Rad, a member of the sixth parliament, urged on 31 January greater respect for "public wishes and the enjoyment by citizens of all legal rights," ILNA reported. Rajabali Mazrui, a former member of parliament, said on 2 May in Tehran that conservative control of all government branches after June would threaten "the interests of citizens," ILNA reported that day. He urged people to vote, to forward "the transition to democracy." Compare that with legislator Mohammad Mehdi Purfatemi's remark on 4 May that mass voter turnout would "stop the nonsense and threats uttered by the enemies of the system," IRNA reported that day.

Plain language is to be found in the readers' messages column in "Aftab-i Yazd," which has given the public a precarious outlet for anonymous expression. A reader asked in the 13 February issue why there is "so much insistence on people [voting]," when Jannati has told them not to vote for just anyone. "Leave the people alone. You control the government,... so just carry on as you please," the reader said. Another complained in the 15 February issue that "some of these gentlemen" think they are "people's representatives and executive agents." Another cited on 22 February rejects a politician's assertion that "the silent majority is assessing [presidential] candidates." Not at all, says the reader, "the silent majority knows [the candidates] and will not be voting." Another said there is backwardness and poverty in Iran, because "certain officials, instead of serving the people, like to play with words."

Whatever it is that Iranians lack, it is not a way with words.