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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. Itsleaders do not reason as those from Western Europe or even from mostIslamic countries. You will hear many Washington-based analysts arguethat the Islamic regime in Tehran is not all that different fromother difficult regimes, and that our long experience with deterrenceshould work here as well. I am not all that convinced.

The Unknowns of Deterrence

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

In the areas where Iran has been the most aggressive - its use ofterrorism as a tool of foreign policy, its opposition to the peaceprocess, its subversion of neighboring regimes, its WMD developmentor its reign of terror against dissidents both at home and abroad -the United States has never issued credible threats to punish Iranfor its behavior. In Lebanon, we negotiated with the Iranians torelease U.S. hostages instead of retaliating, as the Russians didwith such success . In the case of the death threats against Britishauthor Salman Rushdie, Tehran remains impervious to criticism fromEurope, perhaps because the Europeans have never accompanied theircriticism with a clear message of how they intended to make Tehranpay for its behavior.

It remains possible that Iran's ruling clerics can be deterredfrom the behavior we find objectionable. But until now, no one hasever tested the regime's threshold for pain, so at best this remainsa hypothetical proposition. Believing that the Islamic Republic willrespond in a predictable manner to deterrence requires a leap offaith which I believe goes well beyond what any responsiblepolicy-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, aswe will hear from other speakers today, lacked the religiouscredentials and the charisma of Khomeini. In many ways, one couldargue that as rahbar Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i has vitiated therhetorical goals of the regime, making "export of the revolution" -the credo of that first decade - sound more like the export ofPersian hegemony, or even worse, Shi'a sectarianism.

This does not mean that the regime has ceased its subversiveactivities. Instead, they have turned to more classical, lessideological means of spreading their influence and exerting pressureon regional adversaries - and sometimes, even their partners. Theirweapons of choice remain terrorism and support for subversive groups.With rare exceptions (Bahrain comes to mind), the groups supported byTehran over the past decade have shied away from overt adulation ofIran's self-styled Islamic Revolution. But most, including Hezbollahin Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, continue to call for thecreation of Islamic government.

For the sake of argument let me divide the regime's foreignadventures into two broad categories: those aimed at promoting Iran'sIslamic revolution as a pole of attraction for the Muslim ummahworldwide, and those entanglements which are primarily motivated bynationalist or sectarian goals.

Islamic expansion

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

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

There has been no discernible decrease in Iranian aid to Hezbollahsince President Khatami took office last August. Indeed, Khatami'sfirst foray into foreign policy was a public speech to family membersof fallen Hezbollah fighters in September, when he called Israel "thegreatest manifestation of international terrorism." In October,Khatami met personally with Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh HassanNasrallah in Tehran.

This said, Hezbollah no longer hews to its original goal oftransforming Lebanon by force into an Iranian-style Islamic Republic,and today professes the desire to join the political struggle asanother domestic Lebanese party, working within a confessionalsystem. I would argue that Iran's continued support for Hezbollah isless ideological, and more political in nature than it was ten yearsago. They see Hezbollah as giving them leverage - not only againstIsrael, but vis-a-vis Syria - since it positions Iran as a potentialplayer in the Middle East peace process.

Bosnia is a different story. The Islamic Republicsaw the plight of Bosnian Muslims as a tremendous public relationswindfall, that would allow them to reassert their Islamic credentialswith revolutionary movements worldwide at a time when theirlegitimacy was being seriously challenged. Iranian aid for theBosnian Muslims began almost immediately after Bosnian PresidentAlija Izetbegovic made the first of several trips to Tehran in May1991. One year later, Iran became the first Muslim nation torecognize Bosnia as an independent state. Covert arms shipmentsprobably began at that time. What we know on the public record isthat the U.S. intervened to stop Iranian cargo jets from bringingarms to Bosnia through Croatia in September 1992. A close reading ofthe Minority report of the House Select subcommittee thatinvestigated the Iran-Bosnia green light shows that the armsinterdiction effort was quietly dropped during the first days of theClinton administration.

But it wasn't until April 1994 that the administration gave anexplicit "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 intelligenceoperations, including "active surveillance" of U.S. citizens anddiplomats in Croatia, according to the House subcommittee report.Things became so bad that in May 1995 the American embassy in Zagrebevacuated individuals who were believed to be most at risk, todiminish the number of targets available to Iranian terrorist teamsoperating in and around the Croatian capital.

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

In 1997, reports surfaced in the U.S. press of Iranian efforts todominate the Bosnia security services. More recently, the IslamicRepublic has been investing in Bosnian enterprises and offeringscholarships to high-school supporters of President AlijaIzetbegovic, as a means of establishing a long-term base of influencein Europe.

Chechnya. The Islamic Republic's outcry against the"war of extermination" against Muslims in Bosnia contrastsdramatically with their almost total silence when it came to the warin Chechnya, where tens of thousands of Muslims were slaughtered byRussian troops. Afghan Arab fighters flocked to fight the Russians inChechnya, but Islamic Iran did not. Iran's leaders were careful notto criticize the behavior of Russian troops in Chechnya, even in forasuch as the Organization of the Islamic Conference. On the contrary,the Iranian government went so far as to publicly upbraid theChechens guerrillas when they took Russian hostages in January1996.

This mirrors Iran's attitude toward Soviet involvement inAfghanistan in the 1980s. Despite welcoming more than two millionAfghan refugees during the conflict, Iran never allowed the Mujahedinto establish training camps on Iranian soil or to launch attacksagainst Soviet troops from Iran. Iranian fear of their northernneighbor undoubtedly played a part; but even more important, Ibelieve, was a basic political calculation that the rewards for notangering Russia were far greater than the risks of doing so. Russianofficials may have warned Iran that they would scale back militaryand commercial cooperation with Tehran if the Iranians support theChechen separatists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran has consistently denied the Egyptian charges and sinceKhatami became president has renewed efforts to restore diplomaticrelations with Cairo. One senior Egyptian official suggested to mewhile I was in Cairo that the Luxor attack was a "last ditch effortby Iran" to convince Mubarak to attend the December 1997 OICconference in Tehran - which Mubarak eventually boycotted. While I amnot convinced this is true, it certainly indicates the level oftension between the two countries in recent years.

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

These demonstrations reached their peak in 1987, when hundreds ofIranian demonstrators were killed by the Saudi security forces, anevent that led to a break in diplomatic relations between the twocountries and an international intelligence war and assassinationcampaign.

In recent years, Iran has held the rallies quietly, within its owncompound, and the Saudi security forces have not intervened. WhileRafsanjani was president, he tended not to comment on the hajj, butin a statement carried by IRNA on Feb. 28 of this year, PresidentMohammad Khatami reminded Iranians that holding the anti-U.S. andanti-Israel rallies during the pilgrimage was a religious duty. Witha cynical nod toward Riyadh, he added: "The enhancement of anenvironment of mutual understanding between Saudi Arabia and theIslamic Republic of Iran, would hopefully facilitate a smoothperformance of hajj ceremonies" this year.

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

Unlike U.S. politics, which tends to swing from one extreme to itsopposite, the record of the Islamic Republic clearly shows that theruling clerics can entertain contradictory agendas simultaneously,without the slightest tendency toward schizophrenia. For those of youwho have studied literature, the British romantic poet John Keatscalled this gift of balancing complete opposites: "negativecapability." Iran's best clerics have got it in spades; and wedon't.

Nationalist and Shi'a causes

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

Turkey. Iran has conducted a selective campaign ofassassination aimed at academics, journalists, and politicians inTurkey, who are vocal opponents of Islamic government. In severalcases, the Turkish authorities traced the killings back to members ofIslami Hareket ("Islamic Action"), a Turkish fundamentalist groupfinanced by Iran. . In one video-taped confession which I viewed, atop member of the group calmly explained how he was trained and paidby Tehran to carry out assassinations in Turkey, providing a wealthof detail that would have been difficult to invent, including maps oftraining camps and bank account numbers used for wire transfers. Onetop security official in Turkey said his government believed thatIran saw itself in competition with Turkey "because we are the onlyMuslim country that is both secular and democratic." While that maybe a bit self-serving, I think the basic argument holds true.

Pakistan. In interviews in Islamabad this March, topsecurity officials provided details of Iran's involvement in the waveof sectarian violence that has inflamed Sunni-Shia passions inPakistan. Here, Iran's motivation is complex. On the one hand, theyare seeking to protect the Pakistan Shiite Muslim minority, whichaccounts for somewhere between 15 and 20% of the population. On theother, by maintaining a network of Cultural Centers across Pakistan,and providing money to mosques and Shiite groups, Iran has managed tobecome a player in Pakistan's domestic political scene. This in turnhas given Tehran additional leverage in Afghanistan, where they havebecome increasingly involved over the past two years as the primaryforeign backer of the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance.

Azerbaijan. Iran has been accused by Azeri presidentGeidar Aliev of backing a failed coup attempt in late 1995. The Azeriauthorities claimed to have arrested two Iranian agents attached tothe Iranian embassy in Baku, who alleged funneled money and arms tothe plotters. At the same time, the Islamic Republic sided withChristian Armenia against Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan in the conflictover the disputed enclave of Nogorno Karabakh. I see in all of thisIranian nationalist efforts to pressure Azerbaijan to makeconcessions on Caspian oil - a supreme national interest of anyIranian government, regardless of its political orientation.

Saudi Arabia. While two schools exist overwho was responsible for bombing Khobar Towers in Dhahran in June1996, 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 hasincreasingly fewer cards to play in the Arab states of the PersianGulf. The widespread repression of Iran's minority Sunni Muslimcommunity - which could account for as much as 25% or even 30% ofIran's total population - has largely discredited Iran from claimingany religious sway over the Arab and Pakistani Sunnis. And thecontinued house arrest of Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, and theharassment, arrest and torture of many of his followers over the pastthree years, has severely dampened any enthusiasm for anIranian-style Islamic revolution among Arab Shiites in the Gulf, whorevere Shirazi as their source of emulation, or marja.

Iranian statements

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

- In September 1993 Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i allegedlygave a secret pep talk to senior foreign affairs officials. He issaid to have told them that their "first duty" was to cooperate withintelligence officers working to undermine secular and Westerninfluence in the region and to export a fundamentalist Islamicrevolution. "Following the dictums of this speech, according to thisview, Iran's agents unleashed violence in Bahrain in Dec. 1994,hatched subversive plots in Egypt, and eventually undertook thesuccessful truck bombing of a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towersin Dhahran," the Washington Post stated.

- In October 1995, Iran's parliament speaker, Ali AkbarNateq-Nouri, told Parliament that the "million man march" organizedby Louis Farrakhan in Washington, DC showed that the Islamicrevolution was spreading to the United States. "Today people who havefor years been humiliated and denied their rights because their skinis colored are out on the streets with (Islamic) chants...This meansthe 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, callinghim "a speaker for more than 30 million oppressed black Americans...It is the justice-seeking message of Islam that attracts peopleeverywhere. We do not care if that is called exporting revolution,"Rafsanjani said.

My favorite, however, is the recent full-page advertisement takenout by Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i in London's Sunday Times on April8 of this year, in which he claimed credit for Islamic rule inBosnia, Turkey and Sudan, and decried the works of "the globalarrogance" - i.e., the United States.

"The re-awakening of the Palestinian people, their freedomstruggle inspired by Islamic slogans against Zionist usurpers, theawakening usurpers [sic], the awakening of the Muslim nationsin Europe, the establishment of the Muslim Bosnia-Herzogovina... thecoming to power of believers in the Islamic government in Turkey andAlgeria through the usual channels of western democracy... , theestablishment of a government based on Islamic principles in theSudan... are tokens of the deep and increasing influence of the birthof an Islamic Republic in Iran throughout the Islamic world andIslamic ummah."

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

Revolutionary Guards under Guard

At home, the regime is increasingly challenged, as our next panelwill detail. But they are not unprepared. A wave of studentdemonstrations in the fall of 1989, only months after the death ofAyatollah Khomeini, prompted newly-installed rahbar Ali Khamene'i tocreate a Higher Council of Cultural Revolution, chaired by PresidentHashemi-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 ofmartial law in areas of Tehran, Shiraz, Qom and Tabriz. On May 26, amilitary court in Mashad condemned to death 138 NCOs for refusing tocarry out orders to shoot-to-kill rioters in Mashad. Disturbancescontinued through 1992, with riots reported in Tehran, Khoramabad,Shiraz, and Arak. In February 1994, a fresh wave of violence brokeout in Eastern Iran, after municipal workers demolished a Sunnimosque in Zahedan.

But the real wake up call occured that August 1994, when citizensin Qazvin took to the streets and virtually closed off the city, toprotest the refusal by Parliament to create a separate province forPersian Qazvin, separating it from the surrounding Turkish-speakingprovince of Zanjan. The regime called out the Army to quell thedisturbances, then got a nasty surprise: regular Army commandersrefused to give orders to open fire against civilian protesters. Ittook several days for an elite division of the IRGC, based in Tehranand trained in riot control, to arrive and quell the protests. Mostreports speak of 50 dead, although former Prime Minister MehdiBazargan, in an interview with a German newspaper shortly before hisdeath in December 1994, spoke of 3,000 to 4,000 casualties.

As the disturbances spread to other cities, the Iranian parliamentresponded by approving a bill allowing law enforcement forces to"shoot to kill" demonstrators. The Associated press reported that themove "follows a string of riots in nearly every major Iranian cityover the past two years and a series of bombings of Shiite Muslimshrines that has killed at least 26 people." The law specificallyexempts officers who kill or wound anyone during confrontations fromcivil or criminal charges.

While anti-regime disturbances seemed to have peaked in 1995, theyare by no means over. As the percentage of Iranians born after the1979 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 unitspecialized in counter-insurgency, known as the Special Guards Unitof the Islamic Revolution (Yekan-e Vijeh Pasdaran-e Enghelab-eEslami). Officially attached to the Law Enforcement Forces, theSpecial Guards Unit was carved out of the IRGC and reports directlyto the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i. TheUnit's commander is Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General AbdollahOghabae'i. Overall strength is roughly equivalent to one division(8000-9000 troops), divided into four brigades: Numerous militaryexercises over the past three years have shown that these units havebeen trained to suppress urban violence, and constitute the latesteffort by the regime to create an elite force capable of guarding andprotecting regime leaders.

If the IRGC was created to guard the revolution, why must theregime now create a special force to guard the guardians, so tospeak? The inference is that loyalty to the revolution is reachingnew lows. And that the export of the revolution may first have to beaccomplished at home.

How judge Khatami?

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

- withdraw IRGC troops from Lebanon, Afghanistan, and otherforeign 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 outany of these moves, since his rivals will argue - rightly, I believe- that to do so will jeopardize the very existence of the IslamicRepublic.