Jon Stewart’s ‘Persiastroika’ joke about Iran was funny, but it was also wrong

September 27, 2013

My recent writings on "The Daily Show" Middle East coverage, which I normally love, have probably gotten me banned from the show for life. So, I may as well continue with a nit-picky but significant point about host Jon Stewart's otherwise very funny segment from Thursday night on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's effort to find detente with the United States.

Stewart, in perhaps the segment's funniest moment, coins a great new word to describe Rouhani's outreach: "Persiastroika." It's a clever play off of Perestroika, the world-changing 1980s Soviet policy of opening and reform. The only problem, as Al-Monitor's Arash Karami pointed out to me, is that what Iran is doing right now is actually totally different from Perestroika, and in some ways the exact opposite.

Before you roll your eyes at my crankiness, hear me out: The distinction between Iran's current openness for detente and the Soviet Union's late-1980s reforms is vast, it matters and it's often missed.

Perestroika was all about Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's plan to change his country from within, to overhaul the economic and political system itself. It was not about making nice with the United States or otherwise shifting foreign policy. This is the opposite of what Rouhani seems to be doing: He is seeking to completely change his country's foreign policy, especially toward the United States. But he does not seem ready to make vast changes to the Iranian political system – nor could he, given that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is ultimately in charge.

That distinction is sometimes missed. Rouhani has talked about improving citizens' rights, but he's still very much of the Islamic Republic political system and does not appear interested in changing it at a foundational level, as Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union. So, don't look for Rouhani to pull down his country's authoritarianism from within, as Gorbachev did. Actually, if Rouhani does succeed at finding detente with the United States, it could ultimately serve the Iranian political system, curbing sanctions and making the Islamic Republic's survival more likely.

Still, it wouldn't really be fair to hold Stewart to a standard of quite this historical rigorousness. He was making a pun to get laughs, while covering an important story, and it worked. So this should not be taken as criticism, but rather as an effort to use Stewart's clever "Persiastroika" coinage as an excuse to make a larger point that needed to be made.

(Okay, I do have one substantive nitpick: Stewart laments that Rouhani dodged a question last week on whether he denies the Holocaust took place. Oddly, Stewart does not go on to note that a couple of days later Rouhani did acknowledge and condemn the Holocaust. Rouhani's responses to the Holocaust question are an important aspect of the Iranian president's struggle to reach out to Jews.)

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