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The Iran Brief®

Policy, Trade & Strategic Affairs

An investigative tool for business executives, government, and the media.

Export of the Revolution


Remarks by Kenneth R. Timmerman
Director, Middle East Data Project, Inc.
at IRAN '98 - April 30, 1998
Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, DC
Copyright©1998, Kenneth R. Timmerman


The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a "normal" country. Its leaders do not reason as those from Western Europe or even from most Islamic countries. You will hear many Washington-based analysts argue that the Islamic regime in Tehran is not all that different from other difficult regimes, and that our long experience with deterrence should work here as well. I am not all that convinced.

The Unknowns of Deterrence

For starters, the United States has never seriously attempted a deterrent policy toward Iran, except in the most simplistic, conventional military terms.

In the areas where Iran has been the most aggressive - its use of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy, its opposition to the peace process, its subversion of neighboring regimes, its WMD development or its reign of terror against dissidents both at home and abroad - the United States has never issued credible threats to punish Iran for its behavior. In Lebanon, we negotiated with the Iranians to release U.S. hostages instead of retaliating, as the Russians did with such success . In the case of the death threats against British author Salman Rushdie, Tehran remains impervious to criticism from Europe, perhaps because the Europeans have never accompanied their criticism with a clear message of how they intended to make Tehran pay for its behavior.

It remains possible that Iran's ruling clerics can be deterred from the behavior we find objectionable. But until now, no one has ever tested the regime's threshold for pain, so at best this remains a hypothetical proposition. Believing that the Islamic Republic will respond in a predictable manner to deterrence requires a leap of faith which I believe goes well beyond what any responsible policy-maker can make.

Export of the Revolution

With the death of the regime founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, the revolution lost much of its legitimacy. The new Supreme Guide, as we will hear from other speakers today, lacked the religious credentials and the charisma of Khomeini. In many ways, one could argue that as rahbar Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i has vitiated the rhetorical goals of the regime, making "export of the revolution" - the credo of that first decade - sound more like the export of Persian hegemony, or even worse, Shi'a sectarianism.

This does not mean that the regime has ceased its subversive activities. Instead, they have turned to more classical, less ideological means of spreading their influence and exerting pressure on regional adversaries - and sometimes, even their partners. Their weapons of choice remain terrorism and support for subversive groups. With rare exceptions (Bahrain comes to mind), the groups supported by Tehran over the past decade have shied away from overt adulation of Iran's self-styled Islamic Revolution. But most, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, continue to call for the creation of Islamic government.

For the sake of argument let me divide the regime's foreign adventures into two broad categories: those aimed at promoting Iran's Islamic revolution as a pole of attraction for the Muslim ummah worldwide, and those entanglements which are primarily motivated by nationalist or sectarian goals.

Islamic expansion

The Islamic Republic's success in exporting its revolution has been checkered, at best.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah spiritual leader Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah has openly challenged Ayatollah Khamene'i over his religious credentials, and has offered his own candidacy to become the spiritual leader of the world Shiite community. Nevertheless, Iran today continues to station IRGC military and training units in the Bekaa Valley and supplies vast quantities of weaponry to Hezbollah. Israeli officials told me late last year during a trip to Tel Aviv that over the first nine months of 1997, Iran had shipped "no fewer than 45 jumbo jets full of weapons to the Lebanese militia through the Damascus airport.

There has been no discernible decrease in Iranian aid to Hezbollah since President Khatami took office last August. Indeed, Khatami's first foray into foreign policy was a public speech to family members of fallen Hezbollah fighters in September, when he called Israel "the greatest manifestation of international terrorism." In October, Khatami met personally with Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in Tehran.

This said, Hezbollah no longer hews to its original goal of transforming Lebanon by force into an Iranian-style Islamic Republic, and today professes the desire to join the political struggle as another domestic Lebanese party, working within a confessional system. I would argue that Iran's continued support for Hezbollah is less ideological, and more political in nature than it was ten years ago. They see Hezbollah as giving them leverage - not only against Israel, but vis-a-vis Syria - since it positions Iran as a potential player in the Middle East peace process.

Bosnia is a different story. The Islamic Republic saw the plight of Bosnian Muslims as a tremendous public relations windfall, that would allow them to reassert their Islamic credentials with revolutionary movements worldwide at a time when their legitimacy was being seriously challenged. Iranian aid for the Bosnian Muslims began almost immediately after Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic made the first of several trips to Tehran in May 1991. One year later, Iran became the first Muslim nation to recognize Bosnia as an independent state. Covert arms shipments probably began at that time. What we know on the public record is that the U.S. intervened to stop Iranian cargo jets from bringing arms to Bosnia through Croatia in September 1992. A close reading of the Minority report of the House Select subcommittee that investigated the Iran-Bosnia green light shows that the arms interdiction effort was quietly dropped during the first days of the Clinton administration.

But it wasn't until April 1994 that the administration gave an explicit "green light" to the Iranian arms shipments through Zagreb. Since then, the Iranians had made their Zagreb embassy Iran's "largest in Europe," and have used it for staging intelligence operations, including "active surveillance" of U.S. citizens and diplomats in Croatia, according to the House subcommittee report. Things became so bad that in May 1995 the American embassy in Zagreb evacuated individuals who were believed to be most at risk, to diminish the number of targets available to Iranian terrorist teams operating in and around the Croatian capital.

Similarly, the report states, the Iranian embassy in Sarajevo "conducted aggressive activities to popularize radical Iranian political and Shi'a religious thought….With the backing of Iran and the green light from the Clinton administration, the Bosnian government became more fundamentalist in orientation."

In 1997, reports surfaced in the U.S. press of Iranian efforts to dominate the Bosnia security services. More recently, the Islamic Republic has been investing in Bosnian enterprises and offering scholarships to high-school supporters of President Alija Izetbegovic, as a means of establishing a long-term base of influence in Europe.

Chechnya. The Islamic Republic's outcry against the "war of extermination" against Muslims in Bosnia contrasts dramatically with their almost total silence when it came to the war in Chechnya, where tens of thousands of Muslims were slaughtered by Russian troops. Afghan Arab fighters flocked to fight the Russians in Chechnya, but Islamic Iran did not. Iran's leaders were careful not to criticize the behavior of Russian troops in Chechnya, even in fora such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference. On the contrary, the Iranian government went so far as to publicly upbraid the Chechens guerrillas when they took Russian hostages in January 1996.

This mirrors Iran's attitude toward Soviet involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Despite welcoming more than two million Afghan refugees during the conflict, Iran never allowed the Mujahedin to establish training camps on Iranian soil or to launch attacks against Soviet troops from Iran. Iranian fear of their northern neighbor undoubtedly played a part; but even more important, I believe, was a basic political calculation that the rewards for not angering Russia were far greater than the risks of doing so. Russian officials may have warned Iran that they would scale back military and commercial cooperation with Tehran if the Iranians support the Chechen separatists.

Keeping quiet on Chechnya must have rankled many Iranian clerics. One sign of this was the curious mission assigned to a U.S.-based preacher, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Aasi, who is commonly presented in the Tehran press as the "Imam of the Washington, DC mosque." (In fact, he is an employee of the New York-based Alavi Foundation who for many years has worked at the Foundation's Islamic Education Center in Potomac, Maryland). Al-Aasi traveled to South Africa in April 1996, on a mission sponsored by the Iranian government's Islamic Cultural Communication Organization, ICCO. While preaching at a Cape Town mosque, he called on listeners to "support Palestinian, Kashmiri, and Chechen Muslims," as reported by the semi-official Jomhouri-e Eslami daily back in Tehran. That was as close as the regime would get to criticizing Russia publicly over Chechnya.

Egypt. The Egyptian government has repeatedly accused the Islamic Republic of funding the Islamic Jihad movement, and of using Sudan as a base for infiltrating fighters into Egypt.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak reportedly gave French President Jacques Chirac a "secret file" on a terrorist conclave held in Tehran on June 21-22, 1996, that was subsequently leaked to the press . The alleged meeting brought together top MOIS officials with leaders of Egyptian terrorist groups, Ahmed Jibril, and a representative of exiled Saudi dissident Osama Bin Ladin.

Two months later, the Egypt authorities announced the arrest of 44 Jihad members "The members of the outlawed fundamentalist group Jihad confessed to visiting Iran, where the Iranian regime provided them with facilities and pledged to finance a series of attacks which they were planning to carry out on Egyptian territory," a police spokesman told wire service reporters.

When I was in Cairo this March, Egyptian officials made fresh allegations of Iranian assistance to both the Jihad group and to Gama'a Islamiya, which carried out the attack against tourists at a Luxor temple last November. In a rap sheet they provided, the Egyptians identified top Jihad terrorist Rifai Ahmed Taha Mousa as the "liaison officer with Iran for receiving financial assistance from the Government of Iran."

Rifai Ahmed Taha, it should be noted, was a co-signatory with Ossama Bin Ladin of two recent fatwas calling for the killing of American civilians, published in the Arabic press in London in February and in April of this year.

In what may be the most curious story of all, two Israeli newspapers - the Jerusalem Post and Yedioth Ahronoth - quoted U.S. Ambassador to Israel Edward Walker as telling Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy that Washington had information linking the terrorists who carried out the Luxor temple attack to the Iranian embassy in Damascus. Queried about the reports, Walker told reporters "That is not exactly what I said," and then added: "But I will let the foreign Ministry tell what they want to on this issue."

Iran has consistently denied the Egyptian charges and since Khatami became president has renewed efforts to restore diplomatic relations with Cairo. One senior Egyptian official suggested to me while I was in Cairo that the Luxor attack was a "last ditch effort by Iran" to convince Mubarak to attend the December 1997 OIC conference in Tehran - which Mubarak eventually boycotted. While I am not convinced this is true, it certainly indicates the level of tension between the two countries in recent years.

The Hajj. By far the most flagrant example of attempts by the Islamic Republic to assert leadership over the world Muslim community is its sponsorship of a political demonstration held during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which the Iranians call the "Disavowal of Infidels."

These demonstrations reached their peak in 1987, when hundreds of Iranian demonstrators were killed by the Saudi security forces, an event that led to a break in diplomatic relations between the two countries and an international intelligence war and assassination campaign.

In recent years, Iran has held the rallies quietly, within its own compound, and the Saudi security forces have not intervened. While Rafsanjani was president, he tended not to comment on the hajj, but in a statement carried by IRNA on Feb. 28 of this year, President Mohammad Khatami reminded Iranians that holding the anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rallies during the pilgrimage was a religious duty. With a cynical nod toward Riyadh, he added: "The enhancement of an environment of mutual understanding between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, would hopefully facilitate a smooth performance of hajj ceremonies" this year.

I interpret Khatami's statement to mean two things. First, that he cannot or will not break with the prevailing clerical radicalism of the Islamic Republic. And second, that he nevertheless recognizes the need for better relations with Saudi Arabia.

Unlike U.S. politics, which tends to swing from one extreme to its opposite, the record of the Islamic Republic clearly shows that the ruling clerics can entertain contradictory agendas simultaneously, without the slightest tendency toward schizophrenia. For those of you who have studied literature, the British romantic poet John Keats called this gift of balancing complete opposites: "negative capability." Iran's best clerics have got it in spades; and we don't.

Nationalist and Shi'a causes

Because of time constraints, I will only briefly mention a few examples where the Islamic Republic has recently used terrorism and support for subversive groups as a means of furthering its national - or purely Shia sectarian - goals.

Turkey. Iran has conducted a selective campaign of assassination aimed at academics, journalists, and politicians in Turkey, who are vocal opponents of Islamic government. In several cases, the Turkish authorities traced the killings back to members of Islami Hareket ("Islamic Action"), a Turkish fundamentalist group financed by Iran. . In one video-taped confession which I viewed, a top member of the group calmly explained how he was trained and paid by Tehran to carry out assassinations in Turkey, providing a wealth of detail that would have been difficult to invent, including maps of training camps and bank account numbers used for wire transfers. One top security official in Turkey said his government believed that Iran saw itself in competition with Turkey "because we are the only Muslim country that is both secular and democratic." While that may be a bit self-serving, I think the basic argument holds true.

Pakistan. In interviews in Islamabad this March, top security officials provided details of Iran's involvement in the wave of sectarian violence that has inflamed Sunni-Shia passions in Pakistan. Here, Iran's motivation is complex. On the one hand, they are seeking to protect the Pakistan Shiite Muslim minority, which accounts for somewhere between 15 and 20% of the population. On the other, by maintaining a network of Cultural Centers across Pakistan, and providing money to mosques and Shiite groups, Iran has managed to become a player in Pakistan's domestic political scene. This in turn has given Tehran additional leverage in Afghanistan, where they have become increasingly involved over the past two years as the primary foreign backer of the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance.

Azerbaijan. Iran has been accused by Azeri president Geidar Aliev of backing a failed coup attempt in late 1995. The Azeri authorities claimed to have arrested two Iranian agents attached to the Iranian embassy in Baku, who alleged funneled money and arms to the plotters. At the same time, the Islamic Republic sided with Christian Armenia against Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan in the conflict over the disputed enclave of Nogorno Karabakh. I see in all of this Iranian nationalist efforts to pressure Azerbaijan to make concessions on Caspian oil - a supreme national interest of any Iranian government, regardless of its political orientation.

Saudi Arabia. While two schools exist over who was responsible for bombing Khobar Towers in Dhahran in June 1996, there is leading evidence that Iran might have played a part - and perhaps, a commanding role - in the bombing.

Even if this is true, I would argue that the Islamic Republic has increasingly fewer cards to play in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The widespread repression of Iran's minority Sunni Muslim community - which could account for as much as 25% or even 30% of Iran's total population - has largely discredited Iran from claiming any religious sway over the Arab and Pakistani Sunnis. And the continued house arrest of Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, and the harassment, arrest and torture of many of his followers over the past three years, has severely dampened any enthusiasm for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution among Arab Shiites in the Gulf, who revere Shirazi as their source of emulation, or marja.

Iranian statements

The best measure of Iran's continued efforts to export the revolution can be taken from the statements of Iran's leaders. Here are just a few:

- In September 1993 Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i allegedly gave a secret pep talk to senior foreign affairs officials. He is said to have told them that their "first duty" was to cooperate with intelligence officers working to undermine secular and Western influence in the region and to export a fundamentalist Islamic revolution. "Following the dictums of this speech, according to this view, Iran's agents unleashed violence in Bahrain in Dec. 1994, hatched subversive plots in Egypt, and eventually undertook the successful truck bombing of a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers in Dhahran," the Washington Post stated.

- In October 1995, Iran's parliament speaker, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, told Parliament that the "million man march" organized by Louis Farrakhan in Washington, DC showed that the Islamic revolution was spreading to the United States. "Today people who have for years been humiliated and denied their rights because their skin is colored are out on the streets with (Islamic) chants...This means the revolution of our great Imam (Khomeini) has been exported," Tehran radio reported.

- At the February 1996 commemoration of the 1979 revolution, President Hashemi-Rafsanjani praised the visiting Farrakhan, calling him "a speaker for more than 30 million oppressed black Americans... It is the justice-seeking message of Islam that attracts people everywhere. We do not care if that is called exporting revolution," Rafsanjani said.

My favorite, however, is the recent full-page advertisement taken out by Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i in London's Sunday Times on April 8 of this year, in which he claimed credit for Islamic rule in Bosnia, Turkey and Sudan, and decried the works of "the global arrogance" - i.e., the United States.

"The re-awakening of the Palestinian people, their freedom struggle inspired by Islamic slogans against Zionist usurpers, the awakening usurpers [sic], the awakening of the Muslim nations in Europe, the establishment of the Muslim Bosnia-Herzogovina... the coming to power of believers in the Islamic government in Turkey and Algeria through the usual channels of western democracy... , the establishment of a government based on Islamic principles in the Sudan... are tokens of the deep and increasing influence of the birth of an Islamic Republic in Iran throughout the Islamic world and Islamic ummah."

Khamene'i exhorted Muslims to participate in the Disavowal of Infidels ceremony during the hajj. Then he turned to his domestic audience: "Taking all these facts and truths in account, how is it at all probable for the Iranian people and government to extend a hand of friendship to an enemy who is still, with a heart full of spite and vengeance and angered at its repeated failures, striving to strike a blow at Iran and the Iranian people? How could we be deceived by an adversary who, even today while smiling, spitefully holds a poisoned dagger in the hand?"

Revolutionary Guards under Guard

At home, the regime is increasingly challenged, as our next panel will detail. But they are not unprepared. A wave of student demonstrations in the fall of 1989, only months after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, prompted newly-installed rahbar Ali Khamene'i to create a Higher Council of Cultural Revolution, chaired by President Hashemi-Rafsanjani and including the head of the judiciary branch, Ayatollah Yazdi, to cope with the problem by increasing security.

A series of riots in the spring of 1991 led to the imposition of martial law in areas of Tehran, Shiraz, Qom and Tabriz. On May 26, a military court in Mashad condemned to death 138 NCOs for refusing to carry out orders to shoot-to-kill rioters in Mashad. Disturbances continued through 1992, with riots reported in Tehran, Khoramabad, Shiraz, and Arak. In February 1994, a fresh wave of violence broke out in Eastern Iran, after municipal workers demolished a Sunni mosque in Zahedan.

But the real wake up call occured that August 1994, when citizens in Qazvin took to the streets and virtually closed off the city, to protest the refusal by Parliament to create a separate province for Persian Qazvin, separating it from the surrounding Turkish-speaking province of Zanjan. The regime called out the Army to quell the disturbances, then got a nasty surprise: regular Army commanders refused to give orders to open fire against civilian protesters. It took several days for an elite division of the IRGC, based in Tehran and trained in riot control, to arrive and quell the protests. Most reports speak of 50 dead, although former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, in an interview with a German newspaper shortly before his death in December 1994, spoke of 3,000 to 4,000 casualties.

As the disturbances spread to other cities, the Iranian parliament responded by approving a bill allowing law enforcement forces to "shoot to kill" demonstrators. The Associated press reported that the move "follows a string of riots in nearly every major Iranian city over the past two years and a series of bombings of Shiite Muslim shrines that has killed at least 26 people." The law specifically exempts officers who kill or wound anyone during confrontations from civil or criminal charges.

While anti-regime disturbances seemed to have peaked in 1995, they are by no means over. As the percentage of Iranians born after the 1979 revolution increases to more than 50% of the total population, the potential for anti-regime violence will only increase.

In response, the regime appears to have prepared for the last war. In late 1994, they created a special IRGC elite riot control unit specialized in counter-insurgency, known as the Special Guards Unit of the Islamic Revolution (Yekan-e Vijeh Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami). Officially attached to the Law Enforcement Forces, the Special Guards Unit was carved out of the IRGC and reports directly to the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i. The Unit's commander is Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Abdollah Oghabae'i. Overall strength is roughly equivalent to one division (8000-9000 troops), divided into four brigades: Numerous military exercises over the past three years have shown that these units have been trained to suppress urban violence, and constitute the latest effort by the regime to create an elite force capable of guarding and protecting regime leaders.

If the IRGC was created to guard the revolution, why must the regime now create a special force to guard the guardians, so to speak? The inference is that loyalty to the revolution is reaching new lows. And that the export of the revolution may first have to be accomplished at home.

How judge Khatami?

How should we judge President Khatami in this area of concern to the U.S.? I believe the criteria are relatively simple. For the United States to determine that the regime has significantly changed its behavior, it will have to do at the very least the following:

- withdraw IRGC troops from Lebanon, Afghanistan, and other foreign postings;

- cancel the "Disavowal of Infidels" rally at the annual hajj;

- cut off support for foreign subversive groups;

- dismantle the repressive apparatus at home.

I find it highly unlikely that President Khatami will carry out any of these moves, since his rivals will argue - rightly, I believe - that to do so will jeopardize the very existence of the Islamic Republic.