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Michael Axworthy: The clerics are angry at this unifying lie

The social anthropologist Ernest Gellner wrote about the unifying power of falsehood. Truths are available to all, and thereby become trivial. But belief in an absurdity demands greater commitment, and collective commitment to an absurdity can thereby become a powerful binding-force.

The regime in Iran has resolved to unify their loyal supporters around a false election result. The rhetoric from Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, the accusations against foreigners, the sticks and tear gas that were used against the demonstrators, and the arrests of Iranians working at the British embassy all have served to flesh out the falsehood and encourage the mutual commitment of hard-line loyalists.

But the myths that helped define and unify a group naturally alienate others outside it. In Iran, those include many who were previously loyal. Most interestingly, those who reject the declared result also seem to include senior clerics. Most of the most respected ayatollahs have remained ominously silent about the election, but several have declared it unacceptable and invalid. The statement from Qom only further emphasises that new fracture. In addition, rumours are circulating that one of the central hard-line clerics, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, issued a ruling in the weeks before the election to the effect that all means were legitimate to preserve the prevailing form of the Islamic Republic.

Whatever the theoretical power of a lie, lies persisted in, against reason and in defiance of widely understood truths, serve only to discredit the partisans of the falsehood. It is an old lesson, but one that the hard-line leadership of Iran seems doomed to relearn.

The writer is director of the Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at Exeter University and author of 'Iran: Empire of the Mind'