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Is Iran pursuing deception or diplomacy?

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took the rostrum of the UN General Assembly annual meeting, in his first public address in front of the world body, he was the consummate ice-breaker. Having replaced the abrasive and holocaust denying Ahmedinejad, he admitted that the Nazi crimes were ‘reprehensible’. He portrayed himself as a ‘centrist cleric’ and he encouraged Iran’s adversaries to seize the opportunity “presented by his election to engage Iran in constructive dialogue”. Nations needed to find “win-win outcomes” instead of resorting to “brute force” to combat terrorism, extremism and cybercrime, he implored. His intentions have special import, particularly at this time, due to the pivotal role Iran exercises in Syria. Iran has sent its Republican guards to fight alongside their ally, Bashar Assad and supplies weapons to Hizbollah in Lebanon, who have also joined actively in the Syrian war.

Rouhani’s offer which was published in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, to facilitate talks between the Syrian government and the opposition forces is tantalizing, as it could open doors to extend the diplomatic solution there and possibly lead to a solution to Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

So how should world leaders react to Rouhani’s apparent moderation and seemingly well-meaning words, which seek ‘peace and friendship in the region’. Should we accept his assurances that his country would never develop nuclear weapons?

Well American President Barack Obama, seems prepared to acknowledge the change in rhetoric from Iran, since Rouhani’s election in June. It appeared certain that he would meet Rouhani at a dinner after their speeches, but Rouhani failed to turn up. In any event Obama has instructed Kerry to initiate talks.

Ever watchful and suspicious of Iran’s true intentions are the Israelis, who would advise Obama not to be beguiled by these overtures and to err on the side of caution. Iran’s nemesis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, through his office warned that “One should not be taken in by Rouhani’s deceptive words. The same Rouhani boasted in the past how he deceived the international community with nuclear talks, even as Iran was continuing with its nuclear program.” After Rouhani’s speech, Netanyahu wasted no time to point out that while his words appeared to promote peace in Syria and the region, his country was actively involved in the fighting alongside Assad and exporting arms to radicals and terrorists throughout the region. ‘Judge him by his deeds, not his words’, cautioned Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Shaul Chorev, the head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission said, “The picture that the Iranian representatives are portraying regarding openness and transparency of their nuclear program, stands in sharp contradiction with Iran’s actual actions and the facts on the ground.”

The issue was not whether Iran has “modified its diplomatic vocabulary, but whether it is addressing seriously and in a timely manner outstanding issues that have remained unresolved for too long.”

Chorev went on to accuse Iran of “deception and concealment,” warning the international community that the Islamic Republic was looking to buy time for its nuclear military program.

Could it be possible that Rouhani, this so called ‘moderate’ Shia Cleric, who is totally immersed in Koranic studies, is applying the ‘deception and concealment’ allowed and mandated under Shia Islam, known as ‘taqiyah’? This ‘Doctrine of holy hypocrisy’, defined by “requires Shiahs to conceal and disguise their true beliefs, operates in every department of their lives. Hypocrisy or Nifaaq permeates the veins of Shiahs like blood flows through the body.”

The practice of ‘Taqiya’ which literally means ‘guarding against fear’ was initially meant to be implemented in order to save lives when faced with religious persecution. However, particularly amongst Shia Muslims it is frequently associated with the concept of ‘dissimulation’, which allows Muslims to pretend to accept what is contrary to their belief.

The first precedent for this law is found in the Hadith which relates how the Prophet Muhammed allowed Ammar ibn Yasir to ‘dissumulate’ when he was placed in danger.

Presumably, the term “taqiya” originates from this verse of the Koran : “Let not the believers take disbelievers for their friends in preference to believers. Whoso doeth that hath no connection with Allah unless (it be) that ye but guard yourselves against them, taking (as it were) security [tuqatan the same root as taqiya]. Allah biddeth you beware (only) of Himself. “(Quran, III, 28).

This history would appear to indicate that Taqiyah is especially allowed in the case of dealings with nonbelievers and that it is possible to excuse lying on almost any ground that is consistent, with the obligatory spread of the Muslim faith.  

It is the nature of the Koran to be esoteric and poetic, which leads most Sunnis to be critical of the applicability of the “Ammar” case and consequently to question the reliability of the precedent. They are able to provide many cases of Muslims who were tortured and murdered based on their beliefs during the time of Muhammed, (as in the case of Ammar’s parents) and yet did not abdicate their faith.

There is an example where Taqiyah is apparently sanctioned by the Sunni Muslim medieval theologian, Abu Hāmed Mohammad ibn Mohammad al-Ghazzālī of the Shafi school. In this quotation from Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri’s handbook, the context is clearly much wider than the saving of lives.

Speaking is a means to achieve objectives. If a praiseworthy aim is attainable through both telling the truth and lying, it is unlawful to accomplish it through lying because there is no need for it. When it is possible to achieve such an aim by lying but not by telling the truth, it is permissible to lie if attaining the goal is permissible…, and obligatory to lie if the goal is obligatory. …One should compare the bad consequences entailed by lying to those entailed by telling the truth, and if the consequences of telling the truth are more damaging, one is entitled to lie.

The practice of Taqiya obviously arouses certain moral and political concerns, in that it appears to make it impossible to trust the word of a Muslim in a treaty if the practice is accepted. It is significant in this context to note that religious authorities consider Taqiya to be allowed in war and in reconciliation.

One of the purest types of Taqiya according to some authorities is Tawriah, which allows the speaker to make the listener believe that they are agreeing with them through ambiguity, whereas in fact they may be saying the opposite. The catch phrase that “Islam is the religion of peace” has just such an ambiguous meaning, since for Muslims, the ‘peace’ is to be found only through surrender to Allah.

So while it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the highest religious authority in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has granted his permission and blessing to Rouhani to apply this principle in Iran’s dealings with non-Muslim states, it complicates and compounds suspicions of the true intents behind every political statement and manoeuvre. Equally, it must be admitted, that similar skulduggery could also be part of Western diplomacy, which sets the stage for a dangerous zero-sum diplomatic game.

Western leaders are faced with a Scylla and Charybdis dilemma which makes it vital to understand the mind set of Rouhani, which still blames Israel for ‘destabilizing’ the region and the West for supporting Israel and is unrelenting in its pursuit of nuclearization. Under the circumstances, Rouhani’s overtures to achieve a thaw in relations with the West have to be reciprocated and given every chance of hopefully leading to a diplomatic solution. In view of the fast approaching critical ability to produce nuclear weapons, the West must however decide if Iran is playing a game of dissimulation or of genuine diplomacy. 

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