Iran’s most famous scribe keeps the flame of the Revolution—and of hatred against the Great Satan

A demagogue with charm
A demagogue with charm
Image: Bobby Ghosh
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Teheran, Iran

For a man often described as the attack-dog of the Islamic Republic, Hossein Shariatmadari comes across as something of a pussycat. The editor of Kayhan, the arch-conservative newspaper and quasi-official organ of the Iranian regime, is small of stature, avuncular in appearance, and gracious in demeanor. The boyishly mischievous smile with which he greets me in the door of his large, book-lined office never leaves his face throughout our meeting, not even when he is firing off verbal fusillades against his country’s foes, both the familiar (the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia) and the fresh (ISIL).

Iran’s most famous journalist is used to meeting fellow scribes from the West, and sees these encounters as opportunities to tell us—ever so gently—what is wrong with our countries. I’ve barely opened my notebook before Shariatmadari begins a practiced polemic on how the United States and its minions are trying to destroy Iran, and how they are doomed to fail.

I try to tell him my interest lies in the growing Shia-Sunni violence across the Middle East, and not in Iran’s relations with the US or the West. But to Shariatmadari’s mind, sectarian tensions in the world of Islam are the product of American perfidy. “Da’esh [ISIL] is a creation of America and Israel,” he hells me, his voice never rising, his smile never fading. “Da’esh, like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, was created to act against us.”

No matter how often I steer the conversation away from the US, Shariatmadari always, but always, circles back. Iran doesn’t need the West, he tells me, adding that some members of parliament “want to pass a bill forbidding the improvement of relations with the US and its allies.”

A law mandating anti-Americanism would suit Shariatmadari. As a sentinel of the Islamic Republic, he regards it as his job to make sure his countrymen never forget who their real enemy is. This is the stuff of his editorials in Kayhan, interspersed with warnings against the efforts of reformists within the Iranian political elite. Often, the two become one: reformists become agents, willing or otherwise, of America.

But these days, when Shariatmadari, 66, launches into one of his polemics, he gives the impression of a man raging against the dying of the light. Although his countrymen remain deeply suspicious of US intentions, there are signs that reflexive anti-Americanism is giving way to more complex attitudes.

Besides, Kayhan is not the force it was when Shariatmadari became its editor, over two decades ago: other papers have overtaken it in circulation, and it is scorned at by young Iranians, as much for its clunky website as its retro revolutionary zeal.

Perhaps more damaging to Shariatmadari is the fact that people are even questioning his most important credential, his connection to Iran’s Supreme Leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

One of Shariatmadari’s formal titles is “Representative of the Supreme Leader,” and he has long gloried in his role as Khamenei’s mouthpiece. “When something appeared in Kayhan with Shariatmadari’s byline, it as assumed he was conveying [Khamenei’s] own opinions,” one Iranian journalist tells me. “We used to joke that Shariatmadari must be very good at taking dictation.”

Many regarded Kayhan’s editorials as a gauge of Khamenei’s attitude to every twist and turn in the long negotiations toward the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers. But Shariatmadari may have gone too far when he claimed, a month after the deal was signed, that the Supreme Leader was ”not at all satisfied with the text of the agreement.”

Other hardliners were not amused. A senior adviser to the Revolutionary Guards wrote an editorial in another paper, lambasting Shariatmadari. Just days later, Khamenei’s office issued a public statement supporting the deal, adding that, “anything else attributed to the Supreme Leader is false.” This was assumed to be a repudiation of Shariatmadari’s editorial.

One view is that Shariatmadari presumed to know his Leader’s mind. A more charitable take, offered by another Iranian journalist, is that Khamenei used the Kayhan editorial as a trial balloon: “Once they realized that the public and the business community were behind the deal, they were able, conveniently, to blame Shariatmadari for the editorial.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, at our meeting, Shariatmadari gives no indication that his own views on nuclear agreement have changed. “The negotiations were a pretext, and the deal will not solve our problems,” he says. “There will be a continuation of antagonism.”

On his part, for sure.