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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Interpreting Ahmadinejad

Last week, in the wake of some contentious actions by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatolah Kameni ordered that the president retract his recently appointed intelligence chief and reinstate the predecessor or tender his resignation. At the same time, the regime accused three of the president’s close associates of sorcery and demanded that they be removed from their political positions.

These events came on the heels of a period of silence on the part of Ahmadinejad himself (relative silence, at least - I suspect the man is incapable of actually shutting up) Subsequently, Ahmadinejad made some seemingly straightforward pronouncements insisting that the Iranian people loved the supreme leader and that he himself was committed to the supreme leader, while kowtowing to the leader’s authority by removing his controversial appointees. It seems that he has lost this particular power struggle, and he sat down for an interesting interview two days ago where he ranted for a while about how great everything in Iran is without really saying anything new or particularly true.

Ahmadinejad has long been notorious for his provocative and often outrageous rhetoric. Comments like “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” have inspired public debate over their actual and perceived meaning. As the global audience attempts to interpret and understand Ahmadinejad’s true intentions they will do well to keep the Iranian concept of “Zerangi” in mind as a tool for decoding his pronouncements.

On the surface, zerangi can be simply translated as “cleverness”, or “wiliness”. A man who is able to make more money doing less work is zerang; so is a man who successfully cheats on his taxes. This, however, is an overly simplistic understanding of zerangi that fails to capture the essential Iranian-ness of the term. Writing on the topic of “Iranian national character”, anthropologist William Beeman states, “zerangi is an operation on the part of an adroit operator which involves thwarting direct interpretation of one's own actions or deliberately leading others to an erroneous interpretation of those actions while being able to successfully interpret the actions of others.”

In Iranian linguistic culture, context is oftentimes more important than content -- a single sentence can carry a multitude of meanings. As a result, zerangi enters into every interpersonal situation as a potential, foreseeable communication element. At its most sophisticated, effective zerangi allows control over messaging to multiple audiences without ever revealing true intent. Ahmadinejad has shown himself to be a sophisticated practitioner of zerangi, which helps to explain his seemingly erratic proclamations towards not only the West, but towards his own people, and towards the wider Islamic world.

For example, in his most recent address to the United Nations Ahmadinejad presented three alternative 9/11 scenarios thusly:

1- “A very powerful and complex terrorist group, able to successfully cross all layers of the American intelligence and security, carried out the attack. This is the main viewpoint advocated by American statesmen.”

2- “Some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order also to save the Zionist regime. The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view.”

3- “It was carried out by a terrorist group but the American government supported and took advantage of the situation. Apparently, this viewpoint has fewer proponents.”

Nowhere in this or any other part of the speech did Ahmadinejad ever actually reveal his own opinion regarding which of the three scenarios he believed to be true. Assumptions about his opinion can be made, but he speaks carefully enough that there is rarely any guarantee that these assumptions are correct -- if directly challenged on any specific point he always leaves room to qualify his statements after the fact.

When attempting to understand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements we must remember that he is actively sending multiple messages to multiple audiences as part of a larger process of misdirection and manipulation. To take his public statements at face value is to fall victim to his mastery of zerangi.

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