Shadow Government

Searching for an Islamist Moderate in the Middle East

An "Islamist moderate" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Assuming a cleric who runs for president of Iran can have moderate views would be like finding the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leading a group of the eight Iranian women described in a secret book club in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The likelihood of finding a moderate within the Islamist establishment in Iran is much lower than finding one in secular regimes like Gadhafi's Libya or Assad's Syria. Secular autocrats are more likely to make cost-benefit tradeoffs than religious zealots. Making such tradeoffs in a bargaining process is the essence of being a moderate.

So long as military autocrats are unchallenged at home, they can act moderately abroad. Until the Egyptian people revolted in February 2011, former President Mubarak of Egypt could make tradeoffs abroad because his secular views were untainted by religious zealotry. Therefore, it made sense for him to preserve the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and also permit Washington immediate access to the Suez Canal for Persian Gulf contingencies requiring rapid movement of American forces. In return, Mubarak received some $1.3 billion in military assistance from Washington.

Anticipating that ousted Egyptian President Morsy would forget his Muslim Brotherhood ideology to make similar tradeoffs, however, assumes his Islamist background is irrelevant to his governance. Likewise, it makes no sense to search for moderates within Tehran's ruling elite. Indeed, just as with Morsy of Egypt, an Islamist ideology is a core concern of any member of the governing clerics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Although progressive moderates led by the Iranian Mojahedin's Massoud Rajavi led the battles to overthrow the Shah, Islamists directed by Ayatollah Khomeini seized post-revolutionary Iran from the coalition of moderates. Khomeini then fashioned an Islamic Republic with a mission of "redeeming the region for the forces of righteousness." Indeed, Khomeini's ideology trumps other perceived national interests, making it impossible for a moderate to survive within the elite, much less make compromises with the major powers in bargaining about nuclear issues.

The Western press periodically falls head over heels for any new president of Iran who shows even a hint of moderation. But hope does not a moderate make. Consider headlines after Hassan Rouhani's Aug. 4 inauguration: NBC: "Moderate cleric Rouhani sworn in as president of Iran," the Associated Press: "Iran's supreme leader endorses moderate Rouhani for president after his landslide election win," And the BBC happily opined that Rouhani's "campaign slogan, ‘moderation and wisdom,' continued to be a theme as he was inaugurated in August."

But such headlining and opining that there has been an election of an "Islamist moderate" from within the Iranian regime is a triumph of hope over experience. Consider the dashed hopes by a succession of presidential "moderates" from within.

The first was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric who was President of Iran from 1989-1997. By promising to liberalize the economy and taking steps to do so, the media called Rafsanjani a moderate. But the steps were to privatize certain profitable sectors, creating in effect a "popcorn economy," where he redistributed public goods as private benefits to friends and family, as if they were popcorn at a theater. 

The second was another cleric, former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Khatami, who became president in 1997. There was a gap between those who benefited from Rafsanjani's economic liberalization and those who did not, due to the absence of political reforms. And Khatami did little to close the gap. After he sided with the regime against his student base during 1999 demonstrations and riots, it prompted one journalist to write, "The deception of the reform had reached its peak."

Aljazeera led with the "M" word in its depiction of the third such cleric: "Moderate Hassan Rouhani has secured more than 50 percent of the Iran presidential ballot to win the election." But like Khatami, Rouhani took a hardline against the students during the 1999 demonstrations, though during his campaign Rouhani acted as if he had the back of the students.

By the definition of a moderate Iranian president as someone willing to fight within the system to make tradeoffs in the nuclear talks en route to cutting a deal, Rouhani is no moderate. Consider his performance as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. In a speech to a group of academics and clerics, Rouhani boasted that while nuclear talks were taking place in Tehran with the EU3 -- France, Germany, and the UK -- Iran was able to complete the installation of equipment for the production of yellowcake, the partially refined uranium ore that is a key stage in the nuclear fuel process, at its Isfahan plant. At the same time Rouhani convinced European diplomats that Iran was not doing so.

If Rouhani were a true moderate, he would fight within the Iranian ruling elite to end the nuclear weapons program. But if he were to do so, he would encounter the wrath of Khamenei, for having taken a stance in accord with that of the President-Elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Maryam Rajavi. Her ten point plan for a future Iran states that, "We want a non-nuclear Iran, free of weapons of mass destruction." The NCRI is the only major Iranian dissident organization that explicitly rejects clerical rule. Its largest unit is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).

On the home front, if Rouhani were a moderate, he would follow the footsteps of another cleric, Hossein Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's former heir apparent who protested Khomeini's decision to show no mercy in the 1988 execution of some 30,000 political prisoners, the bulk of whom were members of the MEK. Khomeini then purged Montazeri for his moderation.

Finally, if Rouhani were a moderate he would not have appointed as his Justice Minister a former official from the Intelligence Ministry who had the final say in who died and who lived in 1988 mass killings. That official showed no mercy, just as Khomeini demanded.

Raymond Tanter served on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.


Shadow Government

Who’s Losing Egypt?

Egypt is chaotic and the blame rests on the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition, the military and the Obama administration. 

The Islamists bear the most blame because they are the group that had the best chance to lift Egypt out of a cycle of oppression and violence by simply being what they said they would be when they eked out an electoral victory last year: democrats. They broke their word; indeed, they showed themselves to be exactly what their critics said they were: revanchist and violent religious bigots who, as Talleyrand said of the Bourbon court, "learned nothing and forgot nothing" --  in this case, about the reason for the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, as well as the aftermath that revealed a nation clamoring for an end to political oppression and economic ineptitude. The Brotherhood turned the Arab Spring's goal of a nascent democratic polity on its head by assuming their victory was a mandate (from heaven?) to create another radical Islamic republic like Iran -- this one Sunni. They even took time and effort to persecute Christians and repress women while bungling the economy all the while.  Small wonder that the 47 percent who voted against them took to the streets and many of their own supporters grew cold to them. 

Next up for blame is the opposition, especially the leaders, who, though rightly outraged at the actions of the Brotherhood, gambled that secretly calling on the military to oust Morsy would afford them a chance to put Egypt back on the path to a truly representative democratic state. This bet might have made some sense if the opposition had spent the last year catching up to the Brotherhood by unifying their forces and organizing politically so that they'd be ready for the next elections. But they did not do that in the interregnum between Mubarak's fall and the Brotherhood's victory and they failed again to do it while the Brotherhood was in power. They had left themselves with no option but to once again rely on the military to take power and take Egypt back almost to square one. Maybe they are Bourbons, too. 

And the military shares blame, of course.  It is understandable that this element of Egyptian society felt threatened by the rise to power of its long-time opponent, one that shamed it in 1981 by infiltrating the security forces and killing its head of state.  And I cannot blame them for thinking, as the opposition does, that the Brotherhood had its chance and now deserves to be eliminated from the political playing field.  Looking back at the 1989 to 1991 fall of the Communists, most of them could not reform themselves and I doubt the vast majority of the Brotherhood can either.   But Gen. el Sisi's apparent policy of massacring his opponents almost wholesale over a period of several days is not going to heal Egyptian society.  It is one thing to confront armed and violent members of the Brotherhood with lethal force; it is quite another to shoot down peaceful protestors in camps, such as the daughter of a Brotherhood leader.  Egypt is still on the road to building a state that is more democratic in nature-the Egyptians are unlikely to give up the vote now that they have it.  But we are a long way from that goal and in the meantime the military can afford to let protestors languish in camps for months if that is what it takes to preserve its role as defender of the people and honest broker.  And by all means, one way to demonstrate clearly that the military is on the side of all Egyptians is to turn that force on the Brotherhood thugs that have destroyed upwards of fifty churches since Morsy was removed. 

Last, but not least, and certainly most unhappily for the United States, the president bears considerable blame.  He worsened our standing in the Arab world by vacillating on every crisis in the Middle East to date; he persisted in his naiveté by trusting in the Brotherhood; he made a mockery of his foreign policy by appearing not to understand what a coup is; and he made a joke of U.S. law by pretending that if he doesn't use the word coup he doesn't have to suspend aid.  Four and half years of fecklessness and refusing to understand that the United States must lead in the world or no one else will has left us perilously short on prestige. And prestige is not some throwback to a monarch's bragging rights; it is a very real element of power by which nation-states husband the security of their citizens. Elliott Abrams and Donald Kagan explain this well in their very good volume on the topic. President Obama's administration has made clear its contempt for this concept and we are the less secure for it.

What are the costs of this attitude and these deeds? Egypt will now pass into a phase of being tutored and funded by the Gulf states; and Israel, Iraq and Jordan -- to varied but important degrees our only allies in the immediate vicinity -- have every reason to doubt our resolve. Israel must conclude that it is on its own; Jordan can only hope that Israel will help her; and Iraq has to decide if the ascendency of the radical Islamic powers and their thuggish minions means it will soon have to choose a side.

Nice work by a president who was going to preside over an administration that was to be so intensely "not Bush" that the world would voluntarily return to peace and harmony.