Iran’s ambiguity

Hussam Khoshnevis, a high-ranking Iranian official is seen in this picture. (Photo: Courtesy of the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon)

The death earlier this week of a senior Iranian official in Syria has given rise to a flood of speculation and rumor, due mainly to Tehran’s refusal to practice a minimum level of transparency.

Such a policy might not be surprising, but ambiguity isn’t always constructive, as some politicians are fond of believing.

The first place to start is the man’s name. In Iran, high-ranking officials attended the funeral of Hasan Shateri, while in Lebanon, people visited the Iranian Embassy to offer their condolences for the man known locally as Hussam Khoshnevis.

Shateri was eulogized in Iran as a long-time member of the Revolutionary Guards, while in Lebanon, the embassy referred to Khoshnevis as an engineer heading reconstruction activities in south Lebanon.

Officials from the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah have been equally reticent in discussing exactly how Khoshnevis was killed, and the apparent fact that he met his end in Syria has only fueled the fire of speculation.

One account maintains that he was killed in Homs, with further speculation centered on the notion that he was overseeing an effort to anticipate Syria’s reconstruction. Or, as some are maintaining, Khoshnevis was busy studying the possibility of establishing an Alawite mini-state on the coast, and specifically, examining the infrastructure and related needs of such an entity, should it come to pass.

Other tales maintain that he had been in Aleppo – again, apparently straying beyond his official brief as the person responsible for reconstruction activities in southern Lebanon.

While the Iranian authorities have said that he was killed on his way from Damascus to Beirut, the terse statements that have been released do little to calm the rumor mill.

All of the rampant speculation comes from the method that Iran and its allies employ in such circumstances, namely releasing as little information as possible. This is why some speculate that, because a representative of Iran’s supreme leader and a top Revolutionary Guards commander were at the funeral, Khoshnevis’ death was somehow related to domestic rivalries in Iran. Others are maintaining that the Israelis did it, while the blanket condemnation of Syria’s rebels as “Zionist agents” further confuses the picture.

The only clear thing is that none of this benefits Tehran and its allies. While they might not be concerned about their credibility, and convinced that such matters involve national security and should remain secret, there are repercussions. The lack of transparency gives way to rumor-mongering, and some people who are inclined to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt might see the incident as a case of unjustified ambiguity. Was the man killed by Syrian rebels, and were they aware of the identity of their target? What exactly was he doing in Syria? Despite the confidence in playing things close to the vest, there are times when the tactic is truly counterproductive.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 16, 2013, on page 7.




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