The Magazine

On Top of a Volcano

The Iranian regime, after the crackdown.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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As Ali Fathi, the pseudonymous Iranian journalist for Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, has sadly observed, the most fearful words inside his homeland are now Gom shodeh ("he has disappeared"). In 1999 during student demonstrations against the regime, Fathi himself vanished into the country's secret prisons. He and some other lucky inmates eventually emerged. Many, like Fathi, left Iran, despairing of their future and remembering the fear and loneliness of being unpersons in the Islamic Republic's gulag. The regime probably believed until the elections of this past June 12 that it had eliminated the 1990s reform movement that blossomed under the presidency of Mohammed Khatami. Ali Khamenei, the regime's clerical generalissimo, now knows how difficult it is to suppress an increasingly vibrant democratic ethic that is championed by men who helped make the Islamic revolution.

Iran has not seen so much tumult since 1979. It is an odd twist of fate that, at the very moment when a wide swath of the Iranian people want an end to dictatorship, we have an American president who seeks to make peace with the country's supreme leader--if Khamenei would only make peace with him. True, every president since Ronald Reagan has been eager to get beyond the Islamic revolution. If Khamenei had ever sent his globe-trotting emissary Ali Larijani to Europe with an offer of a high-level, confidential chat, you can rest assured that George W. Bush would have had Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice on the plane to Geneva. (And he would have been right to do so.) This never happened because Khamenei and others--probably including many of the reformists who are now challenging Khamenei's rule--really do believe that the United States is "the Great Satan," "Satan Incarnate," "Global Arrogance," and "the Enemy of all Muslims."

The Obama administration is distressed by what has unfolded in Tehran. The president's tempered response to the demonstrations gradually approached outrage as Khamenei started crushing the protesters. Unfortunately there is little the United States can do to reinforce Iran's growing democratic tendencies. But there are things it definitely should not do, and President Barack Obama seems poised to err profoundly and dangerously.

Before discussing strategy and tactics, however, it is necessary to understand why the Islamic republic is irreversibly in transition, and why the internal tension that exploded after June 12 with a force few foresaw won't go away, despite the crackdown and despite behind-the-scenes efforts by Iran's two great political clerics--Khamenei and his brother-in-arms-turned foe, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani--to restore stability to the Islamic Republic.

When trying to understand clerical Iran, the first thing Americans need to realize is that this is not simply a Middle Eastern Muslim power that harbors some negotiable grudge against the United States. George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech, like the CIA-backed 1953 coup against Iran's secular nationalist prime minister, is only a footnote to the religious-ideological aversion that the Islamic Republic's elite has for America. When Khamenei and Larijani say they can see no difference between President Obama and his predecessors, they are being analytically accurate. For someone who believes in the Islamic revolution--who sees Iran as the vanguard Islamic nation, led by clerics who will keep the country on the divinely revealed "straight path"--abandoning the struggle against Obama's America would be the ultimate betrayal of God.

Yet President Obama so far does not appear to understand Khamenei and his allies nearly as well as they understand him. For Obama, who has turned his ecumenical autobiography, Dreams from My Father, into foreign policy, religion is not central to identity. As the French Arabist Gilles Kepel astutely noted in Le Monde, the president tried to "Americanize" Islam in his Cairo speech last month, to transform the Middle East's defining religion into something that could cohabit amicably with the West's secularized and latitudinarian creeds. Born to a fallen-away Muslim father (a sad turn of events for a faithful Muslim) and a secular mother, Obama joined a Christian church as an adult. In Cairo he promised to stand guard over Islam, to ensure that Westerners do not insult the faith. President Obama's history- and culture-bending speech was captivating, and for the tiers-mondiste crowd in the Middle East and the West who like their American oratory punctuated with apologies, it was heavenly music. But for Iran's faithful disciples of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, it had no appeal. Khamenei immediately attacked Obama for his arrogance.

Perhaps Obama will revise his views. He and the rest of us are witnessing the gom shodeh years of Iran's painful escape from theocracy. During the postelection protests, Khamenei gave shoot-to-kill orders to his security services. At least 20 individuals have so far died. Neither the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime's praetorians, nor its more thuggish appendage, the Basij, has shown any sign of siding with the opposition. The regime has not repeated the mistakes of the shah: Where the Pahlavi king had only the imperial army to keep order, Khamenei has numerous security units with their own chains of command. No one seems to know who actually controls the Robocop anti-riot units, which Tehranis often call merrikhiyan ("Martians"). Iranians I've spoken to tell of Azeri Turkish-speaking security forces, perhaps from the provinces of Qazvin and Zanjan, being deployed in Persian-speaking areas of Tehran--a time-tested imperial practice, using "foreigners" against the natives.

Iran's religiously grounded authoritarianism has again driven the country's angry educated youth from the streets and progressive voices from the press. The bravest of the demonstrators will continue to annoy the security forces, but probably won't seriously challenge them. Prominent dissidents and hitherto loyal members of the establishment are being forced to confess their conspiracies and errors of judgment. Most of Iran's most senior ayatollahs, who have never shown any affection for Khamenei, have not actively thrown their support to Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the runner-up in the rigged elections and the de facto leader of the opposition.

Prime minister during the war with Iraq (1980-88), Mousavi continues to reject the balloting, and has strongly implied that the whole structure of dictatorial government with Khamenei's office at the pinnacle--not just the election results--is illegitimate. The odds are good that Khamenei, who has so far refrained from damning Mousavi by name, will make him pay dearly for the assault on the regime. Mousavi's lack of charisma--he makes John Glenn seem an inspiring speaker--has hurt any effort to develop a coherent opposition movement. Mousavi never had his own electoral organization--he just borrowed personnel and tactics from former president Mohammed Khatami, who during his eight years in office (1997-2005) also failed to develop an organization to match his ambitions. Khatami, like Mousavi, has shown some guts in opposing Khamenei (in Khatami's case, it's a notable change from his past meekness in front of the supreme leader). But whether the former prime minister, who probably didn't expect to win the presidential elections and was as shocked as everyone else by the magnitude and passion of the demonstrations after June 12, has the fortitude to continue his stand given the regime's fondness for targeting family members of dissidents is open to question.

The regime has regained control of the streets. Barring the unexpected (security forces shoot dead someone in one of Tehran's vast, impoverished neighborhoods, provoking a riot), Mousavi surely knows that Khamenei has, for now, decisively outflanked him. Hope for reform again appears a long-term affair: Where once Iranians--especially the highly Westernized ones who are the sources for most Western journalists and academics--could believe in the possibility of perceptible, progressive change, they now see little prospect of peaceful evolution.

In America, some within the administration are already insisting the June 12 election doesn't fundamentally change America's national-security interests vis-à-vis the Islamic republic. And recent events are unlikely to change the timeline for the clerical regime to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen's recent conjecture that Tehran would have the bomb in one to three years still seems reasonable.

Iranians, however, may be closer to the end of the gom shodeh period than they are to its beginning. The clerical establishment is probably irretrievably fractured. We can already see Iranians referring to the aftermath of the elections as a fitna, an Arabic word that sends tremors through any faithful Muslim. Best translated as "schism," it recalls the violent convulsions that began with the death of the third caliph in 656 and continued for five years until the death of Ali, the fourth caliph and the spiritual father of Shiite Islam. It connotes a blood feud, if not a civil war, among the faithful, a spiritual upheaval that can put the community into a moral free fall. Fitna is not necessarily a bad thing for Shiites, whose faith is in great part defined by rebellions and martyrs. But fitna is always traumatic, touching the believer's most elemental identity. The Western media have tended to depict the struggle in Iran as pitting the young against the old, the more secular against the more religious, the affluent against the poor, and the countryside against the city. But those dichotomies don't adequately capture either the tense politico-religious competition or the source of friction least tied to religion, the mistrust between the better educated and the poorly educated.

The clergy too are divided. On one side are those who support Khamenei and, more important, the authoritarian idea of hukumat-e adl-e islami ("a government of Islamic justice"). On the other side are those who are convinced that Khamenei and the dictatorial clerical system are harmful to the clergy as an institution, which ultimately depends on the respect and faith of the people. These mullahs, like the layman Mousavi, want to see established a hukumat-e jumhuri-e islami ("Islamic republican government").

Among the latter are those jurists who increasingly find the rule of one cleric--one rather mediocre cleric--over all others to be intolerably offensive. Iran's mullahs do not shout this out: The Special Clerical Court that prosecutes and jails refractory members of the brotherhood has often been a busy place. But the views of dissident and unhappy mullahs become known, even in the clergy's cloistered, deeply fraternal world. Where Khamenei's allies are either explicitly hostile to the idea of democracy or believe it needs to be closely monitored by Islamic jurists, the opposing side is more open to the idea of representative government, if nonetheless nervous about how untutored laymen, especially those of little faith, may vote.

The influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's preeminent cleric and probably the most respected Shiite jurist in the world, comes into play here. Iranian clerics have been free to go to Iraq on pilgrimage and for study since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and some Iranian clerics in Iraq will tell you flatly that what they admire most about Sistani is that so many Iraqi Shiites voluntarily follow his advice.

Sistani, an Iranian by birth who still speaks Arabic with a Persian accent, has embraced democracy in Iraq even though he and many of his fellow clerics in the holy city of Najaf are no doubt worried about where democracy, with its potential for moral relativism, will eventually carry their flock. There is not a single cleric in Iran who can command the allegiance--or street power--of Sistani. Skeptics of Sistani will tell you that the grand ayatollah is being coopted by access to Iranian state funds (and he has undoubtedly received money from Tehran). Given Sistani's preeminent position in Iraq, and how much he's been able to do with how little (in 2003 he humbled American viceroy L. Paul Bremer and George W. Bush with little cash in the till), it's doubtful this is a serious worry. What's interesting is the reverse: the potential appeal in Iran of the Iraqi model--the cultural and religious authority that comes from the Shiite tradition of keeping a certain distance from power, combined with a modern, moral embrace of democracy.

Although Iran's clerics have increasingly become wards of the state, they do not view themselves as bureaucrats. The old adage about mullahs--that all they do is talk, have sex, and eat--may well be true of most. The clerics behind Khamenei, like those behind Mousavi--and like their lay counterparts on both sides--may be what a wise and deeply jaded Iranian informant, who has spent much of his life in the company of clerics, bemoaned: "Just a bunch of corrupt bastards." (His emphasis was not on their pecuniary inclinations.) Iranians who have spent a great deal of time with clerics often see only their earthy qualities.

But clerics think they are more than the sum of their mundane parts. They really do see themselves as the representatives of the "Imam of all Time" (the Mahdi), the custodians of a holy trust. When Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, a truly hard-line member of the election-monitoring Guardian Council and the head of the Teachers' Association of the Qom Seminary, recently gave a strong defense of clerical supremacy in politics by stressing the clergy's connection to the Mahdi, he wasn't joking. His defense of Khamenei's credentials for supreme leadership strained credulity, but that he saw himself and Khamenei as part of a bulwark against disbelief is beyond question. Yazdi's statement, which emphasized Muslims' obligation to submit to God's will--that is, Khamenei's rule--seemed especially bald because the threat to the status quo, on the streets of Tehran and probably within the classrooms of Qom, was real.

As much as Yazdi might not like it, the mullahs' image of themselves is still intimately connected to how their peers perceive them, how many students they can attract, and how many average faithful Iranians recognize them as authorities worthy of emulation. Iran's mullahs are not blind: They are well aware that those among them who've become identified with Khamenei are not (with a couple of interesting exceptions) the religious authorities most admired. Traditional clerics, whom Khamenei riles with his pretension to know God's will and the national interest, are slowly but surely aligning themselves with Qom's constitutional and democratic traditions, which began to germinate during the 1905 revolution against a despotic shah.

The educational and generational divide may be the most telling in defining Mousavi and Ahmadinejad supporters, and it is working in favor of the progressives. Clerics' children are as well educated as any group in the country. As the Franco-Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar revealed in his book Avoir vingt ans au pays des ayatollahs ("To Be Twenty in the Land of the Ayatollahs"), Qom's youth have been rapidly modernizing since 1979. Clerics under 40 just might be one of Mousavi's biggest fan clubs. Against all of this, Khamenei has wealth and power, the timidity and corruption of many mullahs, and the clerical fear of change that was once an asset of the shah's against Khomeini. This tug-of-war can't go away.

It is possible that former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his circle of friends, family, acolytes, and parasites will provide another shock to the system. This would be odd, since Rafsanjani belongs to neither the "Islamic justice" nor the "Islamic republican" tradition, although his sympathies and personal interests align more closely with the latter. With the possible exception of Khamenei, who does not appear to be personally corrupt, Rafsanjani is the richest man in Iran. He is all by himself a third force within the clerical establishment. Where he and Khamenei were once revolutionary brothers, they have become increasingly bitter antagonists.

Khamenei's preeminence has probably driven Rafsanjani nuts (before the revolution Rafsanjani was the better trained, and he is certainly the cleverer, man). In the early post-Khomeini years, when Khamenei was frequently rebuffed by Qom's clerical establishment, he and Rafsanjani shared power more generously. Although not without friction, they were a team. But Khamenei's power has grown massively in the last decade, with shadow ministries usurping the authority of the official government. Rafsanjani's lair, the Expediency Council, which is supposed to solve disputes between parliament and the legislation-approving, all-cleric Guardian Council, tightly allied to Khamenei, has become less important as Khamenei's power has grown. Add to this the constant and serious threat of President Ahmadinejad, who has a neuralgic distaste for Rafsanjani and his corrupt clan, and it's not hard to see why Rafsanjani went on the warpath against Khamenei, who has a spiritual brother in Ahmadinejad.

Yet there is no man in Iran who would more quickly cut a deal with Khamenei if he thought it were in his interest to do so. And the reverse is probably true: Khamenei would bite the bullet if he thought Rafsanjani had outplayed him, by aligning enough clerical backing and dividing the Revolutionary Guard Corps, to make the theo-retical possibility of his removal from office seem a bit more concrete. (The Assembly of Experts, which Rafsanjani is on but does not dominate, has the power to remove Khamenei from office.)

Both Khamenei and Rafsanjani believe in and live for the Islamic Republic and neither wants it damaged. So the possibility of compromise is certainly there. Yet the current collision may be too personal for anything beyond fleeting compromises between the two men. I asked my cleric-associating informant from Tehran what he thought Rafsanjani would do, and he quickly answered: kherabkari ("sabotage"). He'll go at Khamenei inside the system, and he won't stop.

Revolutions tend to devour their own children, and Iran's has already consumed thousands. But even at its bloodiest moments, it pulled back from the savagery of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Iran's ruling elite doesn't like to spill the blood of its own. The Islamic republic's complex, traditional wiring--who owes loyalty to whom and who is married to whom--checks the brutality of the system. Iran's badly battered traditional culture, with its aversion to violence against women, can still constrain those who claim to defend Islamic values. It's a very good bet that few within President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hard-line circle shed a tear about the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the beautiful, Westernized young woman gunned down and immortalized on the Internet. Yet the regime backpedaled rapidly on her death. Moral outrage within Iran, and abroad, had an effect.

As much as some within the Revolutionary Guard Corps might like to try, the regime just can't do what the Assad family in Syria does so well: slaughter. The regime will continue to use discreet and hidden violence--secret prisons, night raids, intimidation of the families of dissidents, and extreme coercion, even assassination, of opposition leaders who have charisma, know too much, or have too many friends. The disappearance last week of Saeed Hajjarian, a former ministry of intelligence chieftain who helped mastermind Khatami's rise and Mousavi's presidential campaign, is a signal to the revolutionary elite. In 2000, Hajjarian was shot in the head and disabled, quite possibly by one of his former comrades.

The regime is scared, perhaps as much as it was during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1987-88. The so-far successful crackdown will rebuild some of the regime's confidence. But only some. The illusion of broad popular support for Khamenei is gone. The lay and clerical revolutionary elites are split, and even if they can make up in the short term, the atmosphere within will probably remain a lot like that in the mafia after the FBI started successfully planting moles and bugs. Everyone will be waiting for the match that will reignite June 2009.

Which brings us to the United States. It could be an interesting time for Iranian operations in the Central Intelligence Agency. Disillusioned believers in the Iranian revolution may start volunteering information and their own services inside Iran to the clandestine service. "Walk-ins" could be a telling gauge of how despondent and angry Iranians are with their overlords. If the quality of U.S. intelligence on Iran improves over the next 12 months, we are probably seeing the fissures of June 2009 deepen.

But intelligence collection isn't policy. Leaving aside the ethics of President Obama's outreach to Khamenei and his allies, it's a dangerous course of action. Once, Senator Obama may have believed that the power of his biography, his sincerity, his anti-Bush charm, and a lot of commercial goodies could persuade the clerical regime to relent in its quest for nuclear weapons and give his administration the kind of triumph the Bush administration gained in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi's nuclear program. But it's increasingly difficult to believe that President Obama really thinks he can stop Tehran's quest for a bomb with diplomacy and sanctions. One gets vibrations from the administration that the game is changing--that the policy of engagement is for after Ali Khamenei gets his nuke.

If this is so, the supreme leader will not reciprocate the kindness. He will just view it as weakness: The Islamic republic bested the United States, and the president has come groveling. Obama's diligent attempt not to meddle in Iran during the demonstrations earned him and America no kudos. The Iranian opposition still got accused of being in league with foreign devils. And this isn't throw-away rhetoric. Conspiracy-mongering is rampant throughout the Middle East; it is cancerous among the Iranian clergy. No matter how hard the president tries to be nice, his words and actions will be seen as machinations.

If President Obama intends to do nothing serious to discourage Tehran from obtaining the bomb, then he needs to try to scare it with a militarily front-loaded containment strategy. To discourage Iran from sending its agents and terrorist surrogates to meddle abroad under cover of a nuclear umbrella, the United States and its allies must pressure the regime constantly, with tough rhetoric, a never-ending discussion of the need for greater democracy in the country, and a firm public commitment to counter any hint of Iranian terrorism with military strikes. This could keep the regime off balance and guessing about President Obama's willingness to use force.

The administration should try to admit, at least to itself, that America--not Europe, which has officially practiced engagement since 1992--is the lodestar of so many Iranian dreams. Contrary to what Obama suggested throughout his campaign, America's hostile foreign policy under both Democratic and Republican presidents did not diminish the United States' standing among the Iranian people. As the clerical regime has faltered, as the democratic forces within the country have gained ground on the theocracy, America's position has improved. It's no accident that so many trailblazing Iranian revolutionary theoreticians who have fallen from the "straight path" are now living in the United States.

All of this goes against President Obama's soft-power nature and the current within the Democratic party which holds that the world's problems, especially in the Middle East, stem in part from America's aggressiveness. Yet Ali Khamenei has surely shown the president that America's problems with the clerical regime have nothing whatsoever to do with George W. Bush. President Obama is looking at a religious and ideological chasm that he cannot, no matter what he does, cross.

Understandably, the United States has been fixated on al Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We have all wanted to believe that the age of state-sponsored anti-American terrorism is over. Now, however, with Iran boiling, its leaders increasingly angry at us for their truant flock, state-sponsored Iranian terrorism could hit us with gale force.

The president would be well served to read again The 9/11 Commission Report about Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah's contact with al Qaeda (see pp. 240-241). This outreach probably started under President Clinton. September 11 and George W. Bush's bellicosity made Khamenei pull back from Sunni jihadists. It's a very good bet that the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad, and Rafsanjani, who has always been a fan of outreach to Sunni militants, are already hunting for foreign partners who hate the United States as much as they do. (There is a reason beyond uranium exports why Tehran loves Hugo Chávez.) Once they are backed by nuclear weapons, it's hard to see what the leaders of the Islamic republic would fear from an American president who avoids the word jihad when describing 9/11 for fear of offending Muslim sensitivities.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor,
is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.