Iran deal viewed through the prism of Shiite history

Mohamad Bazzi writes: In early July, as his negotiators were working around the clock in Vienna to reach an agreement with world powers on limiting Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was back in Tehran recalling an event that happened nearly 1,400 years ago. In a speech, Rouhani invoked the historic compromise made in the year 661 by his namesake, Imam Hassan, Shiism’s second imam, to step down and prevent a new war between the then-emerging Sunni and Shiite sects. “Imam Hassan made an important decision during difficult circumstances that could have destroyed the Muslim community,” Rouhani said, “and led to a long period of bloodshed.”

Rouhani wasn’t alone in citing Imam Hassan’s legacy. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who has final say in all political and national security matters — also began to invoke the imam in setting the stage for Tuesday’s compromise, calling it a policy of “heroic flexibility.” By repeating this term several times, Khamenei reached back into Shiite history to offer theological rationales for the prospect of a rapprochement with Iran’s Western adversaries.

It is striking that, throughout the past 12 years of on-and-off negotiations with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program, Iranian leaders have used references to Imam Hassan and his younger brother Imam Hussein — and the two historical models for settling conflicts that these figures represent — to signal their intentions, both hardline and soft, and provide theological justifications for their actions. Hassan’s path emphasizes compromise (or, to its hardline critics, accommodation), while Hussein chose rebellion and martyrdom. These two trends defined Shiite history — and they are an important part of the religious and ideological debates within the Iranian regime. [Continue reading…]

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