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Two Views on Iran: Hopeful, yes, but is he in charge?

Excitement about a possible thaw in relations between Iran and America has become a prisoner of the old Washington trap of confusing the message with the messenger.

Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may be the nicest guy in the nation of 80 million mainly Shiite Muslims. But he may have zero power to influence the trajectory of events as the two countries whirl past each other frozen in a dance of hostility, anger and fear. The real power belongs to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who remains hostile to America, Israel and the Sunni Muslim nations.

I recall a previous nice guy at the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran — Mohammad Khatami. He brought a message as sweet as the strong Persian tea people drink every hour of the day in Tehran, Mashed, Tabriz, Shiraz and other cities.

Khatami preached: Let's respect civilizations and admit that America has some top-quality folks and ideas. But Khatami was a front man shown to the world as the sweet face of Iran's theocratic state.

I saw the real bottom line one day in Tehran while reporting for an American newspaper. A mob of angry young men in the Majlis — regime thugs — were bused in from the countryside to demonstrate at the gates of the parliament and threaten any legislator who defied the supreme leader.

They surrounded me and carefully checked my press pass — obtained after weeks of phone calls to Iran's mission to the United Nations — before letting me continue my interviews. And one leader warned me: your pass expires tomorrow. Better get it renewed.

Soon after, the angry young men changed their tune and became friendly. They vied for the chance to rant and rail at enemies of Islam — whether real or perceived. When my pen ran out of ink someone thrust an arm through the mini-mob to offer me a fresh pen.

The threatening mob was sent to the gates of parliament one day after the real power of Iran showed how weak the reformists — people like Rouhani — really are. I was the only Western journalist in the press gallery that day as the Majlis or parliament — mainly clerics wearing turbans and robes — was expected to debate a bill protecting newspapers from closure by the justice ministry.

A popular pastime in Tehran played out every week or so was for the security services to raid liberal newspapers, arrest the editors and shut them down. Even one operated by Khatami's brother was closed. The goal was to ensure that liberal, critical, secular or pro-western views not reach too many ears.

Instead, the government-run press harped on the usual correct views: America is a nest of spies. Israel and America try to defeat Islam. The Sunni Islamic nations that support America such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are simply lackeys of the West.


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