The Magazine

The Myth of Moderate Mullahs

It's still Khomeini's Iran.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

If the Reagan administration had learned in 1987 that the clerical regime in Tehran was doing what it is doing today, would Washington have approved of preventive strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities? If Reagan and company had seen Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rapidly constructing uranium-enrichment centrifuges in underground facilities, pushing doggedly ahead on heavy-water research and a plutonium-making nuclear reactor, and spending profusely on the development of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that are effective weapons only if topped with WMD warheads, would more of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment have urged our European allies to support severe sanctions to dissuade the mullahs from developing the bomb? Would leading members of the Democratic party, who then controlled the House and the Senate, have been sympathetic to a military response to the mullahs' nuclear ambitions, or would they have argued for another round of engagement, quickly forgetting their disparagement of the White House's and the CIA's 1985 search for bribable "moderates" in a terrorist-supporting state with American blood on its hands?

Even with the Cold War fear of Soviet reactions, Reagan might well have ordered a strike by the United States--probably with the encouragement of his secretary of state, George Shultz, the most farsighted official ever about the dangers of terrorism, and a man not averse to using force in international affairs. The odds are good that many Democrats in Congress would have applauded any aggressive decision--with or without accompanying protests about neglect of the War Powers Act and Congress's monopoly on declarations of war. The Western Europeans might have expressed their dismay at American cowboyism, although the criticism might have been short-lived since the clerical regime then was regularly unleashing terrorism in Europe. Twenty years ago the Western Europeans had not so fully entered their post-Kantian world where soft power always trumps hard. Also, the French and the Germans were massively invested in Iraq, then at war with Iran. The Soviets, of course, would have been furious, their distaste for American unilateralism checked somewhat by their concern for Saddam Hussein. The U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, Vernon Walters, would no doubt have had to live through a public excoriation of Reagan's America as a lawless, aggressive, third-world-thumping rogue state.

Things are obviously different now, primarily because the Islamic Republic has changed. One could see the changes beginning in the 1980s, as the wreckage of the Iran-Iraq war was slowly dissolving the violent love affair that young Iranian Shiite males had had with God and the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But back then it was too early to tell how losing the war would play out on the clerical elite.

For those who believe in "diplomacy first, diplomacy only" for dealing with the mullahs' quest for nuclear weaponry, the perceived changes in the Islamic Republic are what make the dovish case compelling. Khomeini with a nuke, even more than Saddam with atomic weapons, would have been just too unsettling for us to have reposed our confidence in the theory of deterrence. But in 2007, Ali Khamenei, the clerical leader of Iran, his president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the most politically adept mullah of the revolution, seem somehow less threatening, allowing many to accept what would have been unacceptable 20 years ago. Together, they just don't have the right mix of charisma, white-hot faith, unpredictable power, and history to make us, and Iranians, tremble the way we all did with the Imam. If Ahmadinejad were the sole ruler of Iran, then American and Israeli fighter-bombers probably would have already annihilated the principal nuclear sites--even with American soldiers in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tied to the other two men, and to the disputatious clerical elite below them, Ahmadinejad just isn't perceived by many (outside of Israel) as a sufficient threat.

Is this perception correct? Has the clerical regime sufficiently moderated to quell the worst fears? Are the "realists" right when they suggest that we can negotiate with the mullahs--at least more intelligently and successfully than we did in 1979, 1985, and 1999-2000, when President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state Madeleine Albright downplayed Iranian responsibility for the deaths of 19 American servicemen and the wounding of 372 others at Khobar Towers in the hope of reaching out to moderates within the regime? Or is such an opening conceivable, a real possibility for pragmatists willing to offer the right incentives to the clerical elite?

The CIA and the State Department absolutely didn't foresee the short-lived "Tehran spring" of Mohammad Khatami, a clerical reformist who rose to the presidency in May 1997. Perhaps the U.S. government is again blind and doesn't see the possibility of a "grand bargain" with a regime that understands the revolution is over and now just wants to be recognized as a regional great power. Nixon's détente with the Soviet Union looks rather thin in its achievements when compared with Ronald Reagan's rhetorical and occasionally covert policy of armed confrontation. But the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Union are not the same country. Perhaps there might be a successful détente with the mullahs, a modus vivendi that would neutralize the menace of their nuclear weapons, their terrorism, and their dubious dealings with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Iraq's militant Shiites, and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.

Let us look at the religious dimension of this problem, and then at its more mundane aspects. Are the clerical elite and their praetorians--the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the thuggish Basij, and the killers of the Ministry of Intelligence--still running a revolutionary enterprise within which they see themselves as the ideological vanguard of the nation and Islam? Yes, absolutely. To a striking degree, the ruling elite has maintained its sense of religious mission, while the Iranian people, especially the young who don't remember the charisma of Khomeini, have gone cold. That the Iranian people remain faithful Shiite Muslims is beyond doubt. A majority may even remain vaguely faithful to the Islamic revolution and still believe that clerics as a class, no matter how despised for their postrevolutionary greed and despotic manners, retain a special, didactic place between God and man. But for the vast majority of Iranians, an Islamic missionary spirit is no longer happily married to the national identity.

For the ruling mullahs and their supporters, just the opposite appears true. The clerics still seem quite determined to see themselves as the elite of Islam, faithful inheritors of Khomeini's most sacred legacy--political power. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the head of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the radical clergy's indispensable guarantors of the religious order, who in great part shaped the manhood and ethics of Ahmadinejad, put it well when he said: "The geographic heart of the Islamic world is in Mecca and Medina. But, the political heart of the Islamic world is in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is the flag-bearer of the front of the Islamic awakening and the fronts of the awakening of third-world nations."

This is a basic point, often not seen by Western "realist" commentators on foreign affairs: The seizing of power by Khomeini and his clerical minions was a sacred act, proof that God isn't dead. The maintenance of clerical power in Iran is a sacred mission: It is what separates the revolutionaries from the detested traditional clergy, who wanted to hold government to high ethical standards but also to keep their distance from the corrupting institutions and exercise of power.

For the revolutionary clergy, and its loyal minions like Ahmadinejad, power is Allah. In clerical eyes, the new mullahs, led by Khomeini, drove the revolution. They--not the people, who often were unreliable servants of God against the shah and counterrevolutionaries--are the engine of progress. Khamenei and the ruling clerical elite will always thwart the exercise of meaningful democracy in Iran, in part because the people, repeatedly, have shown themselves unfaithful to the religious revolution. Iranians, whose capacity for ferocious religious zeal is undermined constantly by a desire for happy lethargy and little sins, cannot be trusted.

The superiority of theocracy over democracy derives not only from the clergy's greater knowledge of the Holy Law and its special, frequently charismatic role in Iranian history (Khomeini was not the first magnetic mullah in modern times), but also from the Iranian people's craving for satellite dishes and morally debased Western programming. This is one reason the early revolutionary reflex to label all Iranians and foreigners who opposed any aspect of clerical rule "criminals against God" or "enemies of Islam" came back with vigor in the late 1990s, when reformist pressure, partly unleashed by the presidential election of 1997, threatened the regime. The Iranian reform movement in the 1990s was, among other things, a self-conscious embrace of the Western conception of civil society. As weak as the reform movement actually was, it was enough to provoke Safavi to warn that the Guards Corps would "rip the tongues" out of reformers who threatened the Islamic Republic's God-ordained order.

During Khatami's presidency (1997-2005), leading clerical dissidents like Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's former favorite, and his disciple, Abdullah Nuri, the former interior minister who'd become a provocative newspaper editor, were corralled; Nuri, a faithful child of Khomeini who became the boldest clerical dissident, was arrested in 1999 and mentally ruined in prison. It's worthwhile to note that one of Nuri's most egregious sins, which he committed during his nationally televised trial (the last time the regime would be so stupid as to give a dissident a national platform), was to mock on religious grounds the regime's refusal to restore relations with the United States. Was God's Islamic revolution so weak, Nuri implied, that it could not sustain the reopening of an American embassy in downtown Tehran?

It is astonishing that some Western analysts of Iran, and some senior U.S. government officials, actually believe that Khamenei and his kind--and there are many influential mullahs who are even more perfervid in the belief that America is diabolical--would be willing to restore relations with the United States. Such a restoration would be, as Nuri correctly implied, an end to the revolution as we have known it. For the mullahs and for God, this would be an unbearable defeat. Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Rafsanjani have no intention of letting this happen.

Although they can be obstreperous, and are politically becoming a force to be reckoned with, the Guards Corps, like Iran's much-feared intelligence service, has been loyal to the clerical regime. There is simply no information anywhere--not even fifth-hand recycled gossip--that suggests the Guards, or as they are known in Persian, the Pasdaran, are amenable to the idea of restored relations with the United States. Just the opposite. Read Pasdaran publications and the speeches (or outbursts) of senior members of the Corps, and the revolution still seems hot and under siege. It's doubtful there is a single mullah in Iran who would dare tell the Pasdaran to abandon its continuing occupation of the U.S. embassy and stand to attention before a raised American flag.

The guardians of the revolution--among whom one counts first Khamenei and Rafsanjani--struck hard against Iranian liberals as well as dissident clerics during Khatami's presidency. These attacks confirm the unchanging religious nature of the regime. Liberals, though they posed no organized threat to the status quo, were regularly murdered, often brazenly. In religious terms, they were seen as a cross between atheists and apostates who openly admired and emulated Western ways. One has to be enormously careful analyzing the commentary of the intrepid and fearless dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, but his suggestion that Rafsanjani had a controlling hand in the organized crackdown in the last four years of Khatami's presidency should be treated seriously. Rafsanjani, the great revolutionary pragmatist, who has probably done more than any other mullah to ensure clerical dominion, needed to ensure the Islamic Republic's balance, which was being unsettled by men and women who wanted to transform the country into something like a democracy. This is why more Iranian dissidents were murdered abroad during Rafsanjani's first three years as president (1989-92) than during the previous ten years under Khomeini.

Many Western observers of Rafsanjani have viewed his attention to more effective administration and his family business empire as evidence that he is a pragmatist who really wants to build a two-way bridge between Iran and the West, but especially between Tehran and Washington. For many Western observers, the cleric who has probably done more than any other to ensure the resources for Iran's nuclear-weapons program was supposed to be the mullah who was going to halt the program--if he'd only defeated Ahmadinejad for the presidency in 2005.

For some Westerners, Rafsanjani and his allies are still the dreamed-of Trojan Horse that would bring more capitalism to Iran and guarantee its admission--if only the United States would allow it--to the World Trade Organization. Rafsanjani would thus become the Iranian Gorbachev, putting the Islamic Republic on an economic slippery slope to greater freedom and responsible international behavior. (Many Western and Iranian observers once embraced Khatami as the Iranian Gorbachev, but Khamenei's greater power and Khatami's political ineptitude, spinelessness, and faithfulness to the country's institutions and elite collapsed this illusion pretty quickly.)

Rafsanjani is the indispensable mullah for those who envision the Islamic Republic as a normal, ambitious regional power. These hopeful souls are untroubled by Rafsanjani's voluminous writings where he shows himself, just like Khamenei, to be deeply impregnated with the idea of an Islam-destroying, globe-trotting, American tyranny that has its roots in the Jewish capitalist domination of the United States. For the optimistic, Rafsanjani is corrupt and power-hungry (undoubtedly true), and he is therefore not a soldier of God (undoubtedly false). It is as if Henry Plantagenet, because he was a worldly man with enormous ambition, good business sense, an unrivaled appetite for women, and a brood of independent and sometimes decadent children, could not also have been seriously committed to advancing Christendom's great counterattack against Islam, the Crusades. If Rafsanjani had been a statesman, and not a dedicated revolutionary cleric, he would have tried a bit harder to integrate Iran peacefully into the world; he wouldn't have killed so many of his own people, at home and abroad, or aligned his nation with the Middle East's worst terrorist groups, or clandestinely advanced a nuclear-weapons program, or crushed his former comrades who actually wanted to reform the Islamic Republic. Simply put, Rafsanjani is a modern revolutionary cleric-cum-warrior, serving the cause of Iran and Islam against those forces, preeminently the United States, that are antithetical to his conception of progress.

And let us return to the World Trade Organization, perhaps the favorite hobbyhorse for those who think the Islamic Republic can be tamed economically. Whether or not the WTO can be a soft-power engine of democratic regime change, Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who both backed Iran's admission to the organization in 1996, don't view it as likely to convulse what they consider holy--at least not before the clerical regime develops nuclear weapons. It's worth noting that Iran formally made its application to the WTO in July 1996; the clerical regime, with Khamenei and Rafsanjani firmly in command, bombed the Americans at Khobar Towers three weeks earlier. If there is a contradiction between terrorism and trade, it is one that escapes Iran's clerical vanguard.

Eager to attack the Bush administration, many "realists" and liberals rallied around the "missed opportunity" of a "semi-official" Iranian letter delivered to the United States by Switzerland's ambassador to Iran, Tim Guldimann, in 2003. The letter, never made public, supposedly details how the Islamic Republic was ready to settle all of its differences with the United States--including terrorism, nuclear weapons, and aid to nefarious organizations--if only the Bush administration would listen. No one was so rude as to point out that it was an open secret in the European diplomatic community in Tehran that Ambassador Guldimann was the primary drafter of this correspondence and that he, "a leftist child of 1968," as one European ambassador who served with Guldimann in Tehran told me, "liked the Iranians as much as he disliked the Americans." The "realists" avoid at all cost references to Iran's pre-9/11 dealings with al Qaeda (see page 240 in the 9/11 Commission report), which make Iran at least complicit in facilitating al Qaeda's terrorist operations against the United States. When it comes to Iran today, when we look at the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan, then consider the gut-wrenching option of striking militarily the clerical regime's nuclear facilities, many of us play games with ourselves.

The common and optimistic view that the clerical regime is capable of flexibility is now lethally playing out in our discussions of Iranian operations in Iraq. Without a doubt, the Bush administration could have been more organized in presenting its case against Tehran, particularly with regard to the delivery of explosive devices that have killed Americans. But this isn't rocket science. Principal questions: Is the Iranian-manufactured weaponry found in Iraq available in sufficient quantities in the global arms bazaar? Is there any evidence that groups that have used this weaponry against American soldiers in Iraq have imported other sophisticated weaponry from outside Iraq? Do we have strong evidence of arms shipments from Iran over a protracted period of time?

If the answers to these questions are "no," "no," and "yes," then the case is closed. The idea that the Revolutionary Guards Corps or the Iranian intelligence ministry--both of which have proven themselves overseas to be faithful and lethal servants of the clerical regime--is delivering weaponry to groups in Iraq without the approval of Iran's leadership just isn't believable. This is not how these two institutions work. Over 20 years we have certainly gleaned sufficient information about the hierarchy, rules, and personnel of the Pasdaran and Iran's intelligence service to know that they are not rogue warriors. The clerical regime, following in the footsteps of the shah, likes bureaucracy. Its national security council isn't a social club. When it comes to killing people abroad, the Guards and intelligence operatives do what Ali Khamenei tells them to do. The idea that the Qods Force, the nasty elite of the Pasdaran, is delivering materiel to Iraq without Khamenei's approval makes the clerical regime sound like a banana republic--casual about the security services essential to its survival. There is a reason Khamenei has an ever-expanding private office overseeing both the Pasdaran and the intelligence ministry: When so inclined, he runs them.

The real question for the Bush administration is, When did it learn about these arms shipments? President Bush decided to take a harder line against the Iranians in Iraq in September 2006. Did the administration know earlier that the Iranians were delivering lethal supplies to anti-American Iraqi groups? If so, the administration ought to be scorched not for its bellicosity, but for its timidity. (The same question might be asked about al Qaeda camps in northern Pakistan. Is the administration sure of this information? Do we know where they are? If so, then have we informed the Pakistanis that if they don't deal with this problem promptly, we will, through a continuous bombing campaign?)

It's damning if an administration that has defined itself by its vigorous, preventive approach to terrorist groups and state-sponsors of terrorism has reverted to a Clintonian policy of caution where American lives are at stake, doing nothing or too little too late. One must hope that we have conveyed to the Swiss, who look after our interests in Tehran, or to Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who knows the Iranian ruling elite well, that America can make life very difficult for Iran, in Iraq and elsewhere, unless these shipments stop.

It's likely that Iran will get itself into serious trouble in Iraq. The temptation to meddle--to try to spread radical thinking in Iraq and create organizations the ruling clergy is comfortable working with, along the lines of Hezbollah--is very great. Like Lebanon, and unlike the rest of the Sunni Arab world, Iraq has a clergy that it may be possible to coopt. The Iraqi clergy could conceivably, if properly formed, fed, and intimidated, see the world more or less as the Iranian revolutionary mullahs do. Clerical Iran in Iraq has a chance. It's not a big chance, given the Arab-Persian and intra-Shiite historical baggage, but it's more of a chance than the regime has had elsewhere since 1982, when Hezbollah started to consume the Lebanese Shiite community.

The odds are that Tehran's mullahs are going to try to pick a winner in Iraq. If the Iranians can "take" Mesopotamia, then they will finally have a substantial opening to the Arab world. Religiously and geopolitically, they will have their day. Iran's ruling elite and their Iraqi friends, along with their Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian allies, will then define the anti-American/anti-Israeli rejectionist camp. They could conceivably cause enormous problems for the Jordanians, assuming the Hashemite regime survives the Sunni exodus from Iraq. Ditto for the Saudis and Egyptians. This picture is complicated by the Sunni-Shiite bloodletting in Mesopotamia. But it's foreordained that Tehran would respond by being even more anti-American and, among Muslims, even more ecumenically radical. (Khamenei has always been much more careful to avoid uniquely Shiite allusions in his calls for Islamic solidarity against the United States and the West than was Khomeini.)

Confronted with dissatisfaction and dissent at home, Iran's ruling clergy will, the odds are good, go abroad to seek victories and fulfill their undimmed mission to be God's true vanguard in the Muslim world. The American presence in Iraq impedes this task because it gives Iraqi Shiites a non-Iranian option, particularly in the face of the Sunni insurgency and holy war against the Shia.

If the United States can develop a successful counterinsurgency against Iraq's Sunnis, Iraq's Shiite clergy may grow more independent and open in its internal debates about proper governance and its own role in an Iraqi democracy. Friendly and dependent Iraqi groups like SCIRI may fairly quickly become difficult for Tehran. Right now, SCIRI has no firm idea of what it is. It has had no test of its democratic commitment. It doesn't really know what its relationship will be with Iraq's moderate senior clergy in Najaf. This process of discovery for SCIRI, and for other Shiites in Iraq, may come with speed if the Sunni violence can be checked. This could go badly for Tehran. In any case, the Iranians will do what they can to prevent the success of moderate Shiites next door.

We may well be on a collision course with Iran in Mesopotamia. But what the clerical regime and many Western observers have been slow to appreciate is that Iraq raises the odds that Washington (and Jerusalem) will view Iranian actions in Iraq as inseparable from the nuclear question. If American and European sanctions don't make the clerical regime give up its atomic ambitions--and especially if the Iranians gain the upper hand in Iraq--Iraq may well become the factor that tilts the Americans or Israelis toward preventive military strikes against Tehran's nuclear installations.

What should be clear, however, is that a clerical Iran sensing victory in Iraq--victory defined by the withdrawal of U.S. forces--would have no incentive to negotiate on its nuclear-weapons program. The United States should not fear talking to Iran--we have done so repeatedly since 1979. But in the past, we have almost always done so poorly. It's hard to imagine U.S. diplomats being any more successful today, unless the Bush administration underscores its willingness to use force against the mullahs (the exact opposite of the approach many senior officials in the Pentagon and State Department have so far used). If we do this, the clerical regime will certainly respect us more. And unless they respect us--unless they fear us--diplomacy will have no chance. This is Middle Eastern Politics 101. If we don't know this rule--if we unlearn it because of Iraq--the clerical regime will again painfully educate us about what "constructive engagement" means for men who still believe they are the cutting edge of a new Islamic civilization.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor toTHE WEEKLY STANDARD.