Interviews with Daniel Pipes
Iran, a Coming Revolution?
Question #1: Gentlemen, is a popular internal revolt against the tyrants in Tehran approaching? Will the regime engage in a ruthless crackdown?
Rashid: All the political and economic levers of power are still controlled by the mullahs so it will be a long hard struggle by the young people of Iran to move towards greater democracy. But Iran has reached that stage in its political life when everything is paralysed, everything is questioned and everything must change.
Esposito: It has been clear for several years that the hardliners have lost popular support. However, until now neither President Khatami nor the Parliament have been able to prevail in a system whose levers of power are controlled by hardliners. Khatami's recent demand that the powers of the presidency be enhanced is a sign of growing frustration and realization that change is inevitable.
Woolsey: The mullahs should feel like the residents of the Kremlin circa 1988 — the storm isn't quite there yet, but the storm is gathering. They've lost the women, the young people (over half of the country), and increasing numbers of ayatollahs. It's too early to tell whether, when the time comes, they will crack down or gracefully degrade.
Pipes: Yes, the revolt is approaching and we might well see an Iranian Tiananmen Square repression. But maybe not: the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran is losing faith in its ideology and could, like post-Brezhnevite Soviet Union, go fairly quietly into the night.
Buchanan: As the mullahs have been rejected in successive elections by 70% of the people, they have ruled for twenty years — with even higher percentages of the young repudiating them. The Iranian regime is in crisis. This has to be demoralizing even to the younger clerics. The regime will have to choose soon between Glasnost and the Jaruzelski road.
Question #2: Why is the regime in Iran so unpopular?
Rashid: The corruption of the ruling mullahs, the economic recession, the enormous unemployment and the fact that young people see only lost opportunities and lost lives.
Esposito: The long-term failure of the economy, chronic unemployment, persistent thwarting of reforms (greater democratization and the rule of law), which the majority of the population have voted for time and again. The continued stifling of dissent, from the arrest and imprisonment of reformers to press censorship, has also underscored the failures of the mullahs.
Woolsey: The economy is in the tank. Women are tired of being harassed about their dress, etc. Young people are fed up with having no jobs and not being able to date or lead half-way relaxed lives. Increasing numbers of religious leaders are reacting against the ruling mullahs because of the latter's use of violence and terror allegedly under religious authority, a practice very much at odds with Shi'ite history and tradition.
Pipes: Which totalitarian ideology after a near-quarter century of rule is not unpopular?
Buchanan: What in the name of Allah have these mullahs done to deserve any popularity? They have failed to create a dynamic economy. They have isolated Iran from a world that is moving ahead in Asia, Europe and the United States. They lost a million people in a war with Saddam Hussein — whom the Americans waxed in six months. What young person, even a devout Shi'ite Muslim, wants these mullahs policing their private lives?
Question #3: Is it possible to reform the Iranian regime or must it be completely overhauled?
Rashid: There will have to be a revolution of the kind that happened in 1979 that will destroy the existing power structure.
Esposito: While reform is possible, it will require radical surgery. If the hardliners continue to block the clear mandate of the majority of Iranians, revolutionary change will be inevitable.
Woolsey: Peaceful or radical, the overhaul must be fundamental. Much of the governmental structure might survive, but the real power center, the ruling mullahs (the Council of Guardians, etc.), must go. This is would be roughly equivalent to what would have been the case if the Soviet Union had stayed together, with its Constitution (which wasn't too bad), but the Communist Party departed the scene.
Pipes: It most likely will have to be uprooted and a fresh start made. Repairing a totalitarian regime has no precedent and I doubt that the Iranians will manage this.
Buchanan: Islamism is a failure wherever it has been tried — in Afghanistan, Sudan and Iran. But history and the depth of belief among those who made this Revolution suggest to me these folks will not go quietly as did the second-generation Communists in Europe. They may be more like Castro and the North Vietnamese, whose revolutions came from below, rather than being imposed from above as in, say, Poland. But the mullahs and their regime must go to the landfill of history before Iran becomes the great nation it has the potential to be.
Question #4: If the religious theocracy in Iran is overthrown, what effect will this have on the Middle East?
Rashid: It will have a positive effect because the first Iranian revolution created fears of Islamic uprisings in the Arab world. The second Iranian revolution will bring in fears of democracy for the autocratic regimes in the middle east.
Esposito: Just as Iran's revolution signalled for many the power of the people to overthrow a secular authoritarianism, the fall of the current regime will signal the failure of religious authoritarianism and send a clear signal and example of the growing demand for democratization in much of the Middle East.
Woolsey: A wonderful one. The Mideast would then have two examples of failed theocratic totalitarian governments (Afghanistan's and Iran's), with one (Saudi Arabia) still hanging around, and presumably getting very nervous. Such a development in Iran should also help encourage the opposition in secular totalitarian Iraq (unless they're already in power by the time the mullahs self-destruct).
Pipes: Wonderful and profound: the collapse of the mullahocracy will roughly undo the damage of the 1978-79 Iranian revolution. That means one of the most important sources of radicalism and aggression disappears.
Buchanan: It would be an extraordinary victory, the greatest for freedom since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Radical Islamism will be seen to have failed in its cradle-nation. I agree with Jim. The effect on the Islamic world, including Saudi Arabia, could be dramatic. But where a revolution in Iran is good news for America, a revolution in Saudi Arabia is more likely to give us a Caliph Osama or a Caliph Omar. The Iranian Revolution is at Thermidor, but the Saudi revolution has not even deposed the king.
Question #5: In other words, if the Iranian theocracy in Iran falls, then we could have a situation analogous to the fall of communist regimes in 1989: the domino theory in reverse. Islamic states might fall and Islamism will be discredited. Just as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 gave life to Islamic fundamentalism, so too the next Iranian Revolution might spell its end?
Esposito: Domino theories are always attractive but often inaccurate. Just as communism proved not to be monolithic but capable of assuming diverse configurations, political Islam (Islamic fundamentalism or Islamism) has its moderate and militant movements. While many have participated within the political system, serving as Prime Minister in Turkey and holding cabinet and parliamentary seats, others have created religiously legitimated authoritarian regimes or terrorist movements like al-Qaeda. While Iran provided a model or source of inspiration, the primary causes for the resurgence of Islam in Muslim politics and society are local, national and regional political, economic, and social conditions. The danger is that "security states" in the Middle East might tighten their grip on power rather than implement needed reform.
Woolsey: Whoa Jamie. We are in, as Eliot Cohen says, WWIV (WWIII having been the Cold War. A major shift to decent government in Iran will help a great deal, but there will still be a lot to do: not only Iraq but the other 21 Arab governments are not democracies. There is a wide range of issues and major differences between states. The end of theocratic fascism in Iran will be a big help, but we would just be getting well-started if that happens.
Pipes: I agree with Jim's caution, for Iran does not have a dominant role within militant Islam as the Soviet Union did within Marxism-Leninism. The collapse of the regime in Tehran will be a major step in the right direction, but it will not be comparable to 1989.
Buchanan: I agree with Jim in part. Iran has gone through its revolution and, burned and cleansed, is coming out the other side. But most of the Arab states have yet to go undergo a true revolution. And while Iran's mullahs are threatened by democracy, Turkey, for example, is bedeviled by an Islamic fundamentalist movement. Having seen what we got when liberals helped to undermine Somoza and the Shah, why are conservatives pushing Mr. Bush to dump Mubarak and the King of Saudi Arabia?
Question #6: What sense do we make of this situation: Iran is headed by an anti-American Shi'ite theocracy but its people want reform and are warm toward Americanization; Saudi Arabia is led by allies (well, so was the case officially) but it appears that the only real threat to the House of Saud is the Fascist Wahhabis. In Iran we have Muslims that reject fundamentalism; in Saudi Arabia we have fanatics that think the ruling regime is not zealous enough. What is going on here? And is the fate of the Muslim world hinging on which forces win in these two countries?
Woolsey: In Iran we're popular among the young, the women, the reformers because it's clear that we're the enemy of the ruling mullahs. In Saudi Arabia we're in part unpopular because of Wahhabi fanaticism but we're also unpopular among many young people and reform-minded people who want change because we're seen as being in bed with the corrupt and (at best) authoritarian ruling family. Bernard Lewis says that, outside Israel and Turkey, Iran and Iraq are the only states in the Middle East where we are popular among ordinary people, because it's only there that we're seen as the enemy of awful rulers.
Pipes: Again, I agree with Jim's analysis. But he does not address part of the question — why is the opposition in Iran liberal and in Saudi Arabia even more extremist than the monarchy? This important contrast cannot be reduced to U.S. relations with each regime but results from the nature of the two different body politics. Put very briefly, Iran is a one of the world's important civilizations, with a long history, a substantial population, and major contributions to culture and the arts. Saudi Arabia is none of the above but a marginal desert area. These differences surfaced as long ago as the Shu`ubiya movement of the eighth century and remain apparent even today.
As for the final question — does the fate of the Muslim world hinge on the outcomes in these two countries? - I would say no. The Muslim world is too large and diverse to have its fate determined by even such two key states as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Buchanan: Now you are getting to the heart of the matter. The Islamic world is well into its version of our 16th and 17th century religious wars. Iran, the first into the cauldron, seems to be on the way out after almost a quarter of a century. How did we succeed in Iran? By staying out of Iran for two decades and letting Iranians come to appreciate what life is like under the mullahs who hate America. The mullahs fouled their own nest without any help from the Great Satan. I am opposed to war in Mesopotamia because we will give Arab radicals and Islamic extremists an outside enemy, an imperial power, a "Great Satan" on whom they can blame all their failures and against whom they can all rally and unite.
I disagree with Jim here. I think that while the Arab street admires much about us, we are despised for our arrogance, our hegemonism, out bias against Arabs, and our perceived cowardice in standing up to Ariel Sharon and telling him to start shutting down settlements and getting off the West Bank.
Esposito: Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia hold the fate of the Muslim world in their hands. America is admired by the mainstream in Iran and Saudi Arabia despite strong criticism of our foreign policy. Mr. Buchanan is correct; we are admired for our principles and values of self-determination, freedom and human rights. But we are resented for our "double standard" in living up these standards when it comes to American policy in Israel-Palestine, support for authoritarian Muslm regimes in the Middle East and Central Asia, relatively uncritical support for Russia and China in their repression of Chechnyans and Uyghurs.
Woolsey: The weakness we are held in contempt for is the weakness we have demonstrated time and again since 1979 by leaving (Lebanon in 83, Mogadishu in 93) or responding weakly (Tehran in 79, Iraq in 93 — where we shot a few cruise missiles into an empty building after Saddam tried to kill Pres. Bush, or by merely prosecuting a few small fry when we are attacked. Our position with regard to Israel is just an excuse for those who have other agendas.
Buchanan: The mistake in 1983 was when Ronald Reagan, after the Marines presided over the departure of Arafat and the PLO, sent them back in and took sides in a civil war where no vital U.S. interest was engaged. We made a mistake. There are times when, after making bad investments, you cut your losses. And why in hell should we have stayed in Mogadishu? As for Teheran in "79, I agree. We should have blockaded and told the Ayatollah that if they killed our hostages, Kharg Island was gone. As for our craven incapacity to stand up to Sharon, I think it makes us look weak and hypocritical and faithless to all our preachments of the right of self-determination. Even if we lack the courage to use our aid as leverage, we at least ought to lay down what we believe is an honorable and just settlement and set out a timetable. There was a time not too long ago when the United States was admired and respected by peoples all across the Arab world. We have to ask ourselves why we are so widely hated now. As the poet Burns wrote (not a literal translation): of all the gifts the gods can give us, the greatest is this: to see ourselves as others see us.
Question #7: If the Iranian people revolt and there is a Tiananmen-like crack-down, it is questionable whether Iranian security forces will want to attack fellow Iranians. Will the religious despots have to bring in "outsiders" like the Chinese did to do the dirty work?
Woolsey: They already are in part. I understand that they're beginning to need Syrians and other non-Farsi speakers to put down the anti-regime demonstrations.
Pipes: They will seek to find enforcers but probably will not find them.
Buchanan: If the Iranian mullahs bring in Arab Hessians to shoot down their own people in a popular uprising, they are cooked. Indeed, if "Afghan Arab" types should appear in Iran, I would think it would accelerate a revolution. Left, right or center, no one likes foreigners gunning down fellow citizens.
Esposito: As with the fall of the Shah, in the end many in the military and security forcers will refuse to defend the government when the time comes.
Question #8: Is Khatami for real? Or is the whole thing about wanting "reform" a hoax? Isn't he just part of the whole system himself? What comparisons could be made between him and Gorbachev?
Woolsey: If Khatami had a tenth of Gorbachev's guts the mullahs would be in much deeper trouble than they are even now. What the two men have in common are that both tried to make thoroughly rotten systems work somewhat more decently and have thus helped bring about crisis in the systems because they have given some hope to the systems' opponents: not to push the analogy too far, but a bit like Louis XVI convening the Estates General.
Pipes: The key difference between Khatami and Gorbachev is not so much guts but two other considerations: Gorbachev had real power, Khatami does not; and Gorbachev came in at a time when the old system was more thoroughly discredited and more desperately demanded reform. A difference in the other direction, however, is that Gorbachev snuck into office through despotic back-room politics while Khatami was elected.
Buchanan: I disagree with you Jamie if are arguing, in your question, that Khatami is a "hoax" — and I think President Bush made a mistake in writing off Khatami. We should not have publicly embraced Khatami, the kiss of death, but we could have made substantive gestures, like returning some funds we justly owe, so the Iranian people could see that opening up to the United States can be done, with benefit, while retaining Iran's self respect and independence. This might have helped Khatami "crawfish" away from the mullahs. Is he weak? Yep. But he knows where the Iranian people want to go and he wanted to take them there, if only in baby steps. What do we gain by stiffing him?
Esposito: Mr. Buchanan has it right, Khatami is no hoax. His instincts were and are good. However, he is a man with little presidential power and a religious figure who seeks reform from within, wishes to redefine and restructure but preserve the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Woolsey: President Clinton tried "substantive gestures" — pistacchios, poets, sundry efforts at nice-speak and equivalents to ping-pong diplomacy. He got more terror (e.g. Khobar Towers) for his efforts, because the mullahs, not Khatami, are in control. Appeasement never worked with Nazis and Communists and it won't work with theocratic totalitarian mullahs.
Buchanan: Khobar Towers was not Khatami's doing, and while I don't believe in "appeasing" Teheran, we ought to get out of their back yard and let them settle their own quarrels. Just tell them: Whatever relationship you want with us we will consider it, but if you prefer total isolation, that's just fine with us. We don't need you. As for all these new U.S. bases we have been building in Central Asia, they are an open invitation to another Beirut, because, after Afghanistan, we did not go home. And now we threaten them.
Question #9: What should U.S. policy be toward Iran? How can we influence events so that Iranians not only can liberate themselves, but also can help to weaken militant and fundamentalist Islam throughout the Middle East?
Woolsey: We don't want to drive all these wonderful students, women, reformers, and fed-up Ayatollahs into the arms of the ruling mullahs, so we should certainly not use military force. We need to make in crystal clear that we are on the good folks' side (the President's statement in July was right on) and be ready to help with (non-violent) assistance: more broadcasting into the country, etc.
Pipes: U.S. policy should combine two slightly contradictory elements — active confrontation of the regime and wooing of the population. These sound more distinct than they are and making such a policy work will demand creativity, intelligence, and attention.
Esposito: Publicly, the best support we can give is by not endorsing one side against the other and not gratuitously condemning Iran which will only make things more difficult for reformers. Mr. Pipes' "active confrontation with the regime" will serve no purpose and has proven ineffective in the past. Pres. Bush's "axis of evil" speech was a clear step in the wrong direction. At the same time, Jamie you need to avoid the "Pipesian pitfall." Islamic political and social activism is not monolithic. We need to weaken and contain militant Islam, to work with our allies to eradicate terrorist movements. But it stops there. Islamic fundamentalist movements that operate within the system are not our business.
Pipes: No, we need to avoid the "Espositan eagerness" that discerns and then trumpets specious differences among Islamists. Whether they work on the front lines of jihad, its logistics train, or in the back-offices of its bureaucracy, all Islamists are part of the same effort to build a totalitarian regime world-wide. Whether they engage in immediate violence or hold off until later, they all must be fought, using appropriate responses to the case in hand. (Just as the U.S. government, for example, used different tools against Italian and Soviet communists).
Buchanan: Gentlemen, let's keep one thing in mind: the Iranian revolution is their revolution, not ours. The young are making it themselves. Meddlesome Americans should stay out. It came about without our support or our awareness. It is an indigenous people's struggle against their brutalitarian regime. They do need our radio to tell them whose side we are on, or presidential declarations that, "We are on the side of the Iranian people!" That only enables the regime to smear the peoples' rebellion with the tar of treason as "agents of America." What we need to realize that is that being able to claim, "America is on our side in this fight" is not a winner in a street fight in the Islamic world.
Woolsey: Depends on the part of the Islamic world. Bernard Lewis says that outside Israel and Turkey, the only places in the Middle East where we a genuinely popular among the people are Iraq and Iran. It's important to let the brave students, women, real reformers, and dissident ayatollahs know that we're with them — just as we did with Solidarity during the cold war.
Buchanan: They don't need the President popping off about how we're on their side. They know that, or should. As Lord Byron wrote, "Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow."
Question #10: Gentlemen, I have given up in despair in trying to be nice in getting my guests to offer a voluntary prediction about the future. So I must resort to this type of questioning:
Let us assume that you have been kidnapped and your kidnappers will release you only if you give a prediction about what will happen in Iran. If you turn out to be right, the kidnappers will give you a billion dollars. If you are wrong, you don't get any money, but nothing happens to you. And you are safe and healthy because you were released when you gave your prediction. These are very neurotic kidnappers. They are, for some reason, obsessed with Iranian politics and can no longer live with the uncertainty of what is going to happen there. All of them (there are five) appear to suffer from some form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Several of them clearly have abandonment issues.
So they ask you: will there be a successful crackdown and stifling of freedom or will there be successful moves toward more freedom and reform? And whichever happens, what will be the consequences?
As you begin to give your prediction, the kidnappers become very happy, slapping each other on the back making jokes, laughing aloud and untying you. As you proceed with your prediction, one of them rushes to get you a cool beverage, while the others get into a truck in preparation to take you home safe and sound....
Woolsey: First, these kidnappers seem to need to be reminded of the words of the great American soothsayer, Y. Berra: "prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." But, if pressed, yes, there will be a crackdown and, yes, the reformers will eventually win.
Totalitarianism, including the present Iranian variety, will move before too many years to the ash-head of history where it belongs, along with communism and fascism. We, the British, the French, Solidarity, Sakhrov, and a lot of others won the earlier fights and we'll win this one. Thanks for the drink.
Buchanan: The Iranian people are going to get rid of this regime because it is a failure and because Islamism does not have in its catechism the play book on how to create a successful dynamic society and modern nation. And the Iranian people, a capable people, are not going to tolerate forever being a backward isolated outpost of obscurantism. So, they will keep pushing and disobeying the mullahs until one day you have a collision in the streets. If I had to predict, I would predict bloodshed, as I think the ayatollahs not only know what is going to happen to them if the rebellion succeeds, they still believe far more deeply in the tenets of their faith and their own righteousness and monopoly on truth than did the Communists of Eastern Europe, none of whom really believed in Marx, and all of whom knew the system was a failure, and the West was pulling further away every year.
The best course for the United States would be to pull our troops out of Saudi Arabia and out of the Gulf sheikdoms. If Islamic revolutions are coming, let them come. Our imperial presence there does not help our Arab or Islamic friends, but only builds up the fuel in the forest that will make the coming conflagration hotter. Let them find the road to the modern world themselves, their own way, in their own time. With us gone, they have no reason to send terrorists over here, and the regimes over there will have to take responsibility for their own failures, without being able to blame us. With Americans out of Iran for twenty years, the Iranian people began to appreciate we were not so bad, and began to direct their anger at the people actually misruling them, who could no longer say, the Great Satan is responsible. What the Iranian counter-revolution tells us is that America's interests are sometimes advanced by America's absence.
Pipes: There will be a crackdown and it will work temporarily but in the end it will fail, because all totalitarian movements fail. The real question is: how many casualties will the Islamic Republic of Iran cause along the way? Our goal must be to minimize that number. Do our kidnappers, by the way, serve wine? [Interlocutor's note: yes, Cabernet Sauvignon]
Esposito: The pattern of the last few years, reformist gains at the polls and limited freedoms followed by hardliner crackdowns has resulted in mounting anger, demonstrations, and a public demand by Khatami for a strong rather than weak constitutional presidency. The hardliners' will cling to power and continue to use force when necessary. Within the year Iran will face a major turning point.
However, the answer in the broader Middle East is neither Mr. Buchanan's isolationism nor Mr. Woolsey's Machiavellianism. Nor is regime change as part of an American master plan unilaterally executed the answer. The failure to address the root causes (however unpopular this phrase is in some circles) of extremism and anti-Americanism, specifically the nature of regimes and of American foreign policy, will perpetuate the conditions that feed the growth of extremism and terrorism and their dual targets, their own governments and societies and America/West. Wherever possible, American foreign policy must leverage its considerable power and influence for political and economic reforms that foster greater political participation and human rights.
Buchanan: I agree with Esposito that we must address the causes of anti-Americanism in the Middle and Near East. While those causes — rooted in U.S. policy — in no way justify, explain, excuse or exonerate the 9/11 terrorists whom we ought to run down and eradicate — they will drain the swamp a bit, and fewer new terrorists will come out of said swamp.
Woolsey: Let me address Pat's point about getting out of Saudi Arabia. Leaving there will be fine if we leave on a win (e.g. after changing regimes in Iraq) rather than looking as if we are being pushed out. Leaving now would just embolden al Qaeda and other Islamists and their ilk. But we need to keep bases in the region to replace those in Saudi Arabia — Qatar, Bahrain, maybe Iraq in the future. Also, we should be under no illusion that, once we're out of Saudi Arabia, or even if we unwisely left the region as a whole, that "they have no reason to send terrorists over here", as Pat says. As long as Islamists or fascists are in power (as they still are, respectively, in Iran and Iraq) they will come after us. Anger by Iranian students at the ruling mullahs in Iran didn't stop the mullahs from backing the Khobar Towers killers. Retreat from the region by us will just whet the Islamists' and fascists' appetites — if anything it will increase attacks against us. Because of nearly a quarter-century of fecklessness in the region (the exception being the conduct of the Gulf War in 91, up until the signing of a cease-fire that undercut the Kurdish and Shi'ite rebels), we were held in contempt there a year ago; our conduct of the War in Afghanistan is a good start at changing our reputation, but, as Lewis says, we must now be feared by the Islamists and fascists in order to be respected again: Machiavelli has this one right, Pat.
Buchanan: I disagree entirely. With all his talk of bases in the Gulf, Jim Woolsey is the problem. Interventionism is the incubator of terrorism. The empires of the West are history, Jim, deal with it. All the European empires were run out of the Middle East and Arab world with their tails between their legs, just as the Israelis were run out Lebanon, and we will be as well. And Pax Americana is going to be the shortest-lived of them all. We are a republic not an empire. And if we get out of the Gulf and let Saddam, the mullahs and the Saudi Wahhabis fight it out among themselves, none of them will be anxious to bring America in shooting on the other side.
As long as our enemies have regimes to lose and an address to deliver ordnance to, we can deter them. As for the coming war with Iraq, there will be joy in Baghdad when Saddam is dead. But across the Arab and Islamic world they will see the United States as a hegemonic imperial power that has come to tell them how to live their lives. We will be on the wrong side of tribalism, the wrong side of nationalism, the wrong side of Islamic fundamentalism. American soldiers within a year will find themselves policing their own immense West Bank. And when the caskets start coming home, the American people will say, and rightly so, "What are we doing over here? Let's go home."
Interlocutor: Gentlemen, I am sorry but our time is up. It was a privilege to have you here. Thank you James Woolsey, Pat Buchanan, Daniel Pipes, John Esposito and Rashid Ahmed. We will obviously need to have another round on this issue. See you then.