by Shervin Malekzadeh
It was a lion’s tail that made Trump roar. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in a televised speech this past Sunday, warned the US that it harmed its own interests by preventing Iran from exporting oil to the international market. “Do not forget that we have maintained the security of this waterway [Strait of Hormuz] throughout history. We have historically secured the route of oil transit. Do not forget it.” Facing growing pressure at home from his hardline rivals and a restless population, Rouhani offered the American president both carrot and stick. “Do not play with the lion’s tail or else you will regret it,” he warned. “Peace with Iran would be the mother of all peace and war with Iran would be the mother of all wars.”
Trump responded by turning the volume to 11. Early Monday morning, he issued the mother of all tweets, an all-caps social media blast that, over the course of the day, birthed a million memes. The episode startled supporters and critics alike, and left them wondering whether the US was finally nearing war with Iran, or the prospect of a president losing his grip.
That Rouhani had not, in fact, threatened the United States, was lost in all of the shouting. As Arash Karami pointed out, the full passage and context of Rouhani’s speech makes it clear that he was preparing the country for a defensive war on Iranian soil, set against economic disintegration and renewed sanctions.
One can never be certain if Trump’s misrepresentations of provable facts are deliberate or made in passing, more crimes of omission than commission. It is widely reported, after all, that the American president is not much of a reader, and that all efforts at remediation, including the use of “models, physical demonstrations and extensive use of photographs” have been to no avail. Perhaps the metaphor of the lion was lost in translation, made inscrutable by Trump’s preternatural distraction and lack of attention to detail.
A different approach is needed. In the spirit of reconciliation and of fostering understanding between the two governments, I offer here alternative parables drawn from Iran’s elementary school curriculum, past and present. These animal fables illustrate the meaning of Rouhani’s allegory and emphasize the virtues of self-defense and national integrity espoused by Iranian leaders since the early twentieth century. Children’s stories may not have the sophistication of a President’s Daily Brief or Fox and Friends, but perhaps these lessons can better appeal to Trump’s nature, if not his attention span.
Birds of a Feather
Rouhani might have exchanged the lion for a bird, a tail for a feather, as the early textbooks were filled with examples of freedom represented by birds. One lesson at his disposal was “Way to Victory,” a second grade story about a desert flock whose lives are put at risk by a stomping and uncaring elephant. With their nests nearly all destroyed and the remainder of their unhatched eggs in jeopardy, many of the birds are ready to give up and abandon their homes.
But their leader implores his followers to stand up to their tormentor. “This desert is our vatan, our homeland,” he proclaims. “We have to protect our children.”
The other birds are hesitant. “But who can stand up to such a strong elephant?” they ask. “When we all work together,” the leader replies, “we can do anything.”
And so the birds set off together to meet the elephant face to face, to reason with him peacefully, to show him the error of his ways. It does not go well. The elephant loudly rejects their appeals. In possession of unstoppable strength, he trumpets that he can go wherever and do whatever he likes.
Without hesitation, without warning, the birds surround the elephant in concert, swarming and pecking at his eyes without mercy. Blind with arrogance, now made blind in the flesh, the doomed beast tumbles into a ditch, where he meets his demise. It is a gruesome scene with a vivid message for the young reader: When reason and patience fail to protect, violent attack is permitted.
Permitted, but not required. Alongside stories of defense and preparation, the Iranian curriculum contains countervailing narratives of restraint, stories that impress upon children the importance of discretion and reason as a way to avoid unnecessary violence.
The weak once again prevail over the strong, albeit in a more peaceful fashion, in the ironically titled third-grade story, “The Strongest Bird in the World.” A mother sparrow, the eponymous “strongest bird,” is awoken from her slumber by (yet another!) elephant, ramming his head against the tree where she is brooding. Despite her pleas that the elephant is putting her newly hatched chicks at risk of falling to their doom, he refuses to stop. As if this weren’t bad enough, the mother is unable to draw water from a nearby river because a crocodile is guarding it. Just like the elephant, the crocodile refuses to be persuaded by the mother’s peaceful appeal.
So the mother turns to guile. She challenges the elephant to a contest of strength, a tug of war to determine who will possess the tree. Incredulous, the elephant accepts the offer, not realizing that at the other end of the rope is the crocodile, also fooled into participating in what appears to be an easy contest. The two pull and pull with all of their might, confounded that such a tiny bird would be in possession of such unexpected power, and so are defeated by their mutual arrogance.
Representing the great powers of the world, the elephant and the crocodile did not have it in their natures to relent to the weak. The story provides students with an allegorical explanation for how Iran operates in the real world. As Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary explain in their important new book, Triple Axis: China, Russia, Iran and Power Politics, the post-revolutionary policy of self-sufficiency, of belonging to “neither east nor west,” was born as much out of necessity as it was of ideology. The Islamic Republic of Iran has shown a consistent willingness to enter into geopolitical relationships based on contingency and convenience, playing much stronger countries off of each other in a balancing act of manipulation in order to preserve the country’s national sovereignty.
Self-Defense as a Virtue
Self-defense is no replacement for self-reliance, however. This is the message of the second-grade story “Cow and Wolf,” one of several lessons in which scary wolves stand in for predatory western powers. Penned during the Shah’s reign and carried over by the new regime following the 1979 revolution, the story is part of a longstanding effort to impress upon young children the importance of standing on one’s own feet and national strength in an anarchic world.
The lesson introduces the character of Amu Hussein, a simple farmer who wonders if the time has come to relieve his prized cow of its horns, which, although useful, have become a possible safety hazard. Before the farmer can make up his mind, a wolf takes advantage of Amu Huseein’s absence to attack the farm and pin his young daughter Mariam and a tiny calf against a tree. The family cow who nearly lost its horns comes to their rescue in the nick of time, fending off the wolf with ease. Elated by God’s protection and compassion, Amu Hussein marvels at how close he had almost come to disaster. “God,” he thinks to himself, “never does anything without a reason [and so he thanked] God that he had not cut off the cow’s horns.”
Holy intervention and luck were no replacement, however, for prudence and a program of national defense and self-protection, as the questions that appear at the end of the lesson make abundantly clear:
What does the bee use for defense?
What does the dog use for defense?
What does the cat use for defense?
What does the human use for defense?
Smoke without Fire
The Trump administration appears determined to keep military invasion and regime change as available options, egged on by its feckless allies in the diaspora. Whether or not Trump is serious about following through on his ultimatums is another matter. By Tuesday, Trump had already retreated from his Monday threats, telling a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that “We’re ready to make a deal.”
It was all very much on brand, and suggested that when it came to Iran the president was prepared to repeat the same ad hoc tactics that he used against the North Koreans and the Europeans: arbitrary escalation, followed by offers of conciliation and a return to the status quo ante, or worse. The rest of the world has caught on that this is a White House adept at issuing fiery and furious rhetoric signifying nothing, producing only smoke.
For its part, Tehran was nonplussed by the latest controversy. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif subtweeted Trump on Monday with a message of “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED.” In a subtle jab at the historical youth of the United States he went on to quietly conflate an immemorial Iran with the Islamic Republic: “The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago. And Iranians have heard them —albeit more civilized ones—for 40 yrs. We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, [including] our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries.”
Rouhani, for his part, refused to respond directly, stating that Trump’s “nonsensical comment” and “empty threats” would be met by actions, not words. More ominously, on Thursday senior Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani called the “Gambler Trump” on his bluff to inflict suffering on Iran. Speaking on behalf of Rouhani, as it was “not in our president’s dignity to respond to you,” Suleimani addressed Trump in his capacity as a soldier. “We, the Iranian nation, have gone through tough events,” Suleimani said before a crowd in the ancient city of Hamedan. “You may begin a war, but it is us who will end it.”
The President Who Cried Wolf
Wolves, it would seem, are very much in favor when it comes to talking about Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently described Iran’s centrist president as a “sheep in wolf’s clothing,” repeating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s formulation several years ago at the UN.
“I would much rather have one beautiful lion devour me,” an Iranian confessed to me years ago in an interview, referencing the United States, “than be torn apart by a band of ugly wolves.” My informant simply could no longer tolerate the small and large cruelties of life under the Islamic banner, and so looked to the US military to set him free.
It is a powerful sentiment but one without significant support within Iran, or among the American public. Trump’s choleric tweets and missives, dangerous as they are, are difficult to take seriously in such an environment.
In this regard, there is one more wolf’s tale that Trump and his enablers in Congress might take as instructive. Appearing in the third-grade primer, it cautions children that lying for personal amusement or gain needlessly causes panic in the community, and lays out the path to ruin.
Titled “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” it is a story that should already be familiar to even a professed non-reader such as Trump.