Features | Politics | Central Asia

When Two Ayatollahs Kiss

Was there more to the kiss between Mesbah Yazdi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani than just the usual Iranian niceties?

Anyone who has read Western tabloid newspapers will be familiar with one portion of the typical diet they serve up for readers—extramarital affairs by actors, sportsmen and politicians. In the UK for example, readers' attention is these days being steered toward the alleged affair between Manchester United superstar Wayne Rooney and a call girl who claims to have slept with him last year while his wife was pregnant. 

The Iranian press, in contrast, almost never reports on such news. Indeed, the last time any similar such tidbit was covered was back in 2008, when Gen. Reza Zarei, then head of Tehran's police force and responsible for enforcing anti-vice laws, was caught in the act with six prostitutes. Aside from this, talk of suspected extramarital affairs engaged in by Iranian politicians and members of the clergy never make it past the public's lips to the newspapers.

So it's interesting now that a recent friendly peck on the cheek between two men has managed to attract the attention of the media. Who is it that's had the media chattering? Ayatollahs Mesbah Yazdi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In Iran, a kiss on the cheek between two men is simply a sign of respectful friendship. Many Iranian men kiss on the cheek when they meet (as Arab men do). Before the revolution, the custom was two kisses, one on each cheek. After the revolution, though, this turned to three. No official explanation has been provided for the change, although some Iranians—especially monarchists—believe that the extra kiss was a sign of defiance to the previous regime.

So why has something that millions of Iranians do on a regular basis been getting so much attention now?

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Iranian satirists would say that it's because it was the first kiss of its kind—between a crocodile and a shark. Crocodile (temsah in Persian), is the nickname that was given to Mesbah Yazdi by renowned Iranian caricaturist Nikahang Kowsar, who included him in one of his sketches in the mid-1990s. The drawing showed Yazdi the crocodile suffocating Iranian journalists with his tail, an image that was enough to earn Kowsar seven days in jail. But the nickname stuck, as not only does temsah rhyme with Mesbah in Persian, but because many also believe that it's a fitting image for a messianic ayatollah known for his often violent ultra-conservative ideologies.

Rafsanjani for his part earned the nickname the Shark (kooseh) long before Mesbah earned his moniker. It was adopted by much of the Iranian public in the mid-1980s largely, it's said, because of his hairless face; although many also believe it's because of his political cunning. There may be something in the idea that, much like a shark, Rafsanjani circles his enemy at a distance, biding his time before a sudden strike.

Some political analysts maintain that the Yazdi-Rafsanjani peck is nothing to get excited about. Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts of which Yazdi is a member. So on the surface, there's nothing out of the ordinary about two people at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and who have crossed swords in recent meetings of this body, deciding to show respect for each other for the sake of stability in the Islamic Republic.

But other observers believe the kiss is an indication that the old shark (Rafsanjani) might be up to his old tricks again. Bruised from his initial battle with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the 2009 elections, Rafsanjani could now be smelling blood emanating from the wounds Ahmadinejad has been dealt during his recurring battles with conservatives. Is it possible that Rafsanjani, aware of talk that Ahmadinejad has fallen out with his old mentor Yazdi, is trying to hurt the president by putting their differences behind them as part of a grand scheme to form a robust coalition against Ahmadinejad?

Only time will tell if Rafsanjani is readying to strike.

But even setting aside Rafsanjani's rumoured schemes against Ahmadinejad, it seems that he's now trying to use the Assembly of Experts to shore up his position. His opening statement for the assembly on September 14 warned that 'for the last 30 years, despite a long war, we have never witnessed global arrogance…(and) such calculated and comprehensive attacks against us.'

Rafsanjani is believed to have tried to use this opening statement to suggest that Iran's position has usually been stronger when the clergy has had a bigger say in matters. He also warned that international sanctions should be taken seriously, in marked contrast with Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who have both tried to play down their impact.

Regardless of what happens next, the kissing tradition will continue in Iranian society and politics. When it comes to his leader, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad also kisses his hand, as a sign of gratitude. However one has to wonder if one day, much like like the way he has turned against his former allies, Ahmadinejad may turn against Khamenei too. For now that seems a distant reality. However if the Danish proverb 'a man often kisses the hand he would like to see cut off' has any truth in it, then Khamenei may one day find that his Judas is much closer to him than he realizes.