The Magazine

The Myth of Moderate Mullahs

It's still Khomeini's Iran.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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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.