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Fundamentalist Charm? Don't Let Your Guard Down On Iran

Compared to radical Sunni terrorist organizations like ISIS, the regime in Tehran can seem relatively tame. But don't be fooled.

Former and current Iranian presidents Rafsanjani Rouhani in Tehran last year
Former and current Iranian presidents Rafsanjani Rouhani in Tehran last year
Hannes Stein

In the "Islamic Republic of Iran" the stoning of adulteresses is currently suspended after long and profound discussion as to whether the practice was civilized or barbaric. Praise be to Allah! Progress!

It is said of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was the second-in-command under supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that he is genuinely interested in literature. And Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, is supposedly an amusing, polite guest you'd be delighted to have to dinner.

There are no YouTube videos of fighters with the Shia Hezbollah militia that is linked to Iran hacking off people’s heads with relish. There are also no Shia suicide bombers. Many millions of Iranians (and other Shia Muslims) live in the West, yet nowhere does one read that they are streaming to Middle Eastern killing fields to help with the massacres.

There are apparently even Iranian politicians who will shake the hands of non-Muslim male visitors from the West.

Yes, Iran! A large, ancient, wonderful land of culture. If you don’t know the Shahnameh by Persian poet Hakim Abu "l-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi (940-1020), if you don’t love Omar Khayyám’s (1048-1131) Rubaiyat, you’re truly missing out. And anybody who’s tried "Khoresh-e fesenjan" or "Ghormeh Sabzi" knows that Iranian cuisine is easily up there with French.

Of course the "Islamic Republic of Iran" is more civilized than Saudi Arabia, not to mention the murdering ISIS barbarians across the borderlands of Syria and Iraq. There’s even a parliament in Iran (which has about as much freedom as the one in the former East Germany, but still). A tiny Jewish minority is allowed to survive — although, as in the former Soviet Union, it has to swear about every five minutes to being anti-Zionist, but still, again!

Rage and reform

So it’s therefore understandable that a war-weary United States is now espousing the notion of a very low-key alliance of convenience with Iran. And it’s not just left-leaning leaders on board: Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, seriously floated the idea that henceforth the U.S. should agree on its Middle East policies with Iran. O sancta simplicitas.

Again: It is true that the "Islamic Republic of Iran" is more civilized than Saudi Arabia. Mainly, the Iranians are more refined. But even those who just know the basics of the country will tell you that Iranian mullahs are capable of switching in a nanosecond back-and-forth from bigots frothing with rage to modest gentle sanctimoniousness, and then without pausing for breath, toward utter cynicism about world politics.

The reason for this schizophrenic behavior is not to be sought in individual personality disorders but rather in history. The marriage between Islam and Iran was never easy, and was always marked by conflict — Persia was, after all, imbued with 2,000 years of Zoroastrianism. Yet from these conflicts and contradictions the grandeur of Iranian culture was born.

The "Islamic Revolution" of 1979 was an attempt to drown all inconsistency in a cleansing bath of blood. And from the violence emerged an Iran that is less nation-state than a program for world revolution — just the way France was after 1789.

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A demonstration in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian revolution — Photo: Ras67

The mess we see today in the Middle East has been generated in good part by the "Islamic Republic." After the Americans went into Iraq, the Iranian regime had a vital interest in the failure of the democratic experiment in Baghdad, Karbala, Kirkuk and Samarra. A democratic republic right next door, and to top it off in a state where most people were Shias? That would have been pure poison for the "Islamic Republic."

So the Quds Force was right from the start intent on putting every spoke it could in American wheels. The regime even supplied Shia and Sunni terrorists with money and arms. The religious difference was of lesser importance than the fact that this was the perfect way to produce total chaos.

Qasem Soleimani, that amusing dinner guest, was the mastermind and softly handed out the orders. He was the whisperer behind Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (just bowled out of his job, much too late) as he did everything to humiliate Sunni Arabs and thus drive them straight into the arms of the ISIS lunatics. Qasem Soleimani also organized support for the Ba’ath regime in Syria when the first — non-violent — demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

And of course Soleimani was clever enough to understand that the main danger for Iran was not Sunni fundamentalists but rather the fighters in the Free Syrian Army. That they were hemmed in on two sides and practically worn out is also down to him. There’s more to this man than gentle modesty.

Then again the triumphant text message he sent American David Petraeus in 2007 shows that. He wrote: "General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qasem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who's going to replace him is a Quds Force member."

We haven’t mentioned Israel yet. Here Iran has been the driving force for a long time. Let’s take the tunnels under the Gaza Strip. These aren’t simple holes in the ground but cemented passageways with electrical lighting. Basically, a second city was built under the Gaza Strip that was exclusively in the service of terrorism.

The biggest danger

When Israeli soldiers marched temporarily into south Lebanon in 2006 they found the same infrastructure there. Who were the master builders? The Quds Force (who had in turn learned the tricks of the trade from the North Koreans) under Qasem Soleimani. The aim of the tunnels is clear: annihilation of the state of Israel.

It’s true that Jews in Iran have a modest right to life as a tolerated minority. (Members of the Bahai religion have it significantly worse, and are relentlessly persecuted.) What the Iranians can’t tolerate are Jews that are the masters of their own homes, their own nation.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the lover of literature who is celebrated in the West as the representative of a moderate faction within the regime, said in December 2001: "Should one day the Islamic world also possess weapons that Israel already possesses, the imperialist’s strategy would come to a standstill because just one bomb would destroy Israel. The Islamic world would merely suffer damage. It is not irrational to consider this possibility."

When the bands of murdering ISIS fighters emerged from the chaos, something the Iranians were instrumental in fomenting, members of the Iranian Council of Guardians must have thought that Allah was giving them a particularly beautiful gift. Finally they had become rather charming fundamentalists by comparison! Finally Iran was in a position to serve the West as a reasonable, stabilizing force!

How practical that Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon learned to make sure there were no cameras around when they slaughtered their enemies. So the big game that Iran is playing can now go on to the next round. And if the Tehran regime plays with even just a little bit of savvy, it will be able to present the crowning glory of a civilization thousands of years old: the pride of Iranian engineering arts, a gleaming, brand-new atomic bomb.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

A Profound And Simple Reason That Negotiations Are Not An Option For Ukraine

The escalation of war in the Middle East and the stagnation of the Ukrainian counteroffensive have left many leaders in the West, who once supported Ukraine unequivocally, to look toward ceasefire talks with Russia. For Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Piotr Andrusieczko argues that Ukraine simply cannot afford this.

Photo of Ukrainian soldiers in winter gear, marching behind a tank in a snowy landscape

Ukrainian soldiers ploughing through the snow on the frontlines

Volodymyr Zelensky's official Facebook account
Piotr Andrusieczko


KYIVUkraine is fighting for its very existence, and the war will not end soon. What should be done in the face of this reality? How can Kyiv regain its advantage on the front lines?

It's hard to deny that pessimism has been spreading among supporters of the Ukrainian cause, with some even predicting ultimate defeat for Kyiv. It's difficult to agree with this, considering how this war began and what was at stake. Yes, Ukraine has not won yet, but Ukrainians have no choice for now but to continue fighting.

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

These assessments are the result of statements by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and an interview with him in the British weekly The Economist, where the General analyzes the causes of failures on the front, notes the transition of the war to the positional phase, and, critically, evaluates the prospects and possibilities of breaking the deadlock.

Earlier, an article appeared in the American weekly TIME analyzing the challenges facing President Volodymyr Zelensky. His responses indicate that he is disappointed with the attitude of Western partners, and at the same time remains so determined that, somewhat lying to himself, he unequivocally believes in victory.

Combined, these two publications sparked discussions about the future course of the conflict and whether Ukraine can win at all.

Some people outright predict that what has been known from the beginning will happen: Russia will ultimately win, and Ukraine has already failed.

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