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The purpose of vague Iranian threats

If Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were to be specific about the “punishment” he vowed for the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and then failed to deliver, he would be humiliated.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends the Great Conference of Basij members at Azadi stadium in Tehran, Oct. 4, 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends the Great Conference of Basij members at Azadi stadium in Tehran, Oct. 4, 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Harold Rhode (Credit: Wikipedia)
Harold Rhode
Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Ottoman history and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that there must be a “definite punishment” for the assassination on Friday of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program.

It was a vague statement, as he didn’t mention whom he thought was responsible or specify the punishment. But why be so vague?

The regime’s failure to prevent this—as other past assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists—makes it look powerless. And powerlessness, in Iranian culture, equals humiliation, which must be avoided at all costs. Avoiding humiliation is a daily struggle for Iranians, who consider death preferable.

If Khamenei were to be specific about the “punishment” he mentioned and then failed to deliver on it, Iranians would see him as powerless and he would be humiliated.

So, when something like Fakhrizadeh’s assassination takes place, senior leaders such as Khamenei automatically shift the blame to lower officials. Those underlings do the same to those below them in status. The blame, then, continues to be pushed down the ladder, as everyone is engaged in humiliation avoidance.

Many lower-level officials have accused Israel of having perpetrated the assassination, without any knowledge of what actually happened or investigation into it. Facts and evidence are not important in Mideast culture; what matters most in that part of the world is preserving one’s honor.

But honor has a different meaning in the Middle East than it does in the West. To the former, honor is connected to what other people say about you; to the latter, it involves doing the right thing.

Honor and shame are not words commonly bandied about in the West, whereas in Iran, they are a key part of everyone’s language and discourse.

In the West, when something goes wrong, we might say, “never mind” and then go about our business, often not giving the mishap a second thought.

In Iran, on the other hand, when something goes wrong, people use the Persian phrase “eib na-dare,” which roughly translates as, “Don’t worry; what you did won’t cause you shame and humiliation.”

In other words, avoiding shame for an incident matters more than the incident itself.

By using the vague phrase “definite punishment,” then, Khamenei was avoiding blame for his government’s failure to prevent the assassination of Fakhrizadeh.

Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Islamic history and later served as an Advisor on Islamic Culture for 28 years in the Office of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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