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

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.