Home inFocus Xi and Putin’s World Order (Summer 2023) A World Without Islamic Iran… Or a World Without America?

A World Without Islamic Iran… Or a World Without America?

Kenneth R. Timmerman Summer 2023
Iranian leader Ali Khamenei. (Photo: khamenei.ir)

Let’s start with a thought experiment. What would today’s Middle East look like without the malign influence of the theocratic “Islamic State of Iran?”

Would Israel live with the threat of being bracketed from the north, south, and east by more than 100,000 Iranian rockets?

Would Lebanon tolerate Hezbollah (the Iranian-founded and armed “Party of God”) domination of its national institutions, to the point where many Lebanese can no longer use their national banks because they have been blacklisted as terror-supporting institutions?

Would Yemen still be in the throes of a civil war?

Would Iraq continue to be in a constant state of turmoil, with Christians in the north threatened with extinction by Iranian-backed militias, and the central government’s authority undermined by the fealty of government ministers to their powerful neighbor to the east?

Okay, so those are easy calls.

A tougher call is Syria, where Iran and Russia combined to help President Bashar al-Assad pretty convincingly defeat ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and its Turkish and Muslim Brotherhood surrogates. Had Iran not intervened there, Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center has argued, there probably would not be some 11 million Sunni Muslim refugees. But then again, Syria might look like Libya, where Iran also intervened to sow chaos. Worse, it might be a Muslim Brotherhood state.

Few besides policy wonks realize that the vehicle for the regime’s expansion and its terrorist activities—the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—was created precisely for the purpose of spreading the Iran’s Islamic revolution around the globe.

The IRGC charter can be found in the regime’s constitution. Under the heading, “an ideological army,” the IRGC was created “for fulling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.”

In earlier generations—not all that distant, really—many Americans believed the US armed forces should “spread democracy” around the world (Woodrow Wilson), or “spread freedom” (George W. Bush). But that is a far cry from making Christians or Jews of the peoples living in the lands we set out to free from tyranny.

The IRGC was created specifically to spread Islam, and not just any flavor of the faith, but the Iranian regime’s peculiar, Shi’ite millenarian belief that a “supreme leader” appointed by men is actually God’s representative on earth. (If that sounds a bit like Louis XIV, it might be because many of the regime’s early leaders studied at French universities, as did Pol Pot and many others responsible for Cambodia’s killing fields.)

Thankfully, I suppose, the ideological “purity” of the regime’s first decade expired with the death of its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His successor, as president between October 1981 until his elevation as Supreme Leader in August 1989, Ali Khamenei, forged strong personal and financial ties with top IRGC leaders. The morphing of the IRGC from an instrument of the clerical elite to spread its ideology to an instrument of state power largely came about thanks to Khamenei, a two-bit cleric who was never quite convinced he had a strong clerical base, as had Khomeini. So, the IRGC became his base.

Khamenei is the one who encouraged IRGC leaders to run for parliament and to take over state enterprises, to the extent that today by most estimates the IRGC controls more than 70 percent of the Iranian economy. This is one of the reasons the European Union has been so reticent to sanction the IRGC. Doing so would end much of its lucrative business in Iran.

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) issued a useful and concise report in April detailing the misdeeds of the IRGC. Besides striking the United States twice in Lebanon in 1983, its operatives blew up the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, bombed the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, planned and orchestrated the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, and killed more than 600 US combat troops in Iraq between 2005-2007 using explosively formed penetrators in Iranian-made improvised explosive devices (IEDs) supplied to local militias. They assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and sent senior officers to guide Hezbollah tactics during its 2006 war with Israel. And that’s a selective list. They have also attempted to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, DC, assassinate former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other Trump-era officials, and have revived hit teams to murder dissidents both in the United States and Europe.

So, a world without the Islamic regime in Iran must also mean a world where the IRGC does not exist. The two—the regime and the IRGC—are a single, symbiotic entity. Neither can survive without the other. Ban the IRGC, or transform it into some kind of national guard, and the regime will cease to exist. Overturn the regime through a popular rebellion, and the IRGC will cease to exist.

This is one of the reasons I call this regime the Islamic State of Iran. Just like ISIS, it sees itself as the original, world-dominating Islamic caliphate, with an ideology—the Quran, or at least the ruling mullah’s interpretation of the Quran—and an army to spread it. The only thing “republican” about the Iranian regime are regular elections, which are so thoroughly controlled by the clerical elite the term “rigged” doesn’t even begin to describe them. My Iranian friends call them “[s]elections.”

Americans have been slow to take the Iranian regime’s expansion around the world seriously. Once the Islamic regime released US hostages on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, no one wanted to hear about Iran again (except perhaps for ABC TV’s Ted Koppel, who was elevated to prominence by his hostage story coverage).

Even when they blew up our embassy in Beirut in April 1983 (which I reported on for USA Today), and in October of that year, the US Marine barracks, President Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, didn’t want to hear about Iran.

Twenty years after the attack, Rear Admiral Ace Lyons made a startling revelation in a Washington, DC, courtroom. He handed a sealed envelope to the judge with the explanation that inside was a copy of the intercept he had seen before the Marine barracks attack, when he was deputy chief of naval operations, in which an Iranian official in Damascus gave the order to surrogates in Lebanon to attack the Marines.

I asked Weinberger about the intercept, and he insisted that he had “never heard of any specific information” about Iranian responsibility for the attack, which is why the US never responded. I asked many others in positions of power at the time and learned that the most likely explanation the intercept never made it into the daily intel feed to the secretary and to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was because it had been blocked from circulation by Weinberger’s then-military aide, Colonel Colin Powell. Neither Powell [later General Powell and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, then secretary of state under President George W. Bush]—nor a spokesman would reply to questions about his apparent role in suppressing the Iran intelligence, but that behavior raises a question that lingers in the national security community today: Why is it that so many people in positions of power either seem to love the Islamic regime in Tehran, or fear it to the extent that they will not use US military power against it?

Donald Trump called the 2015 nuclear deal reached by then-Secretary of State John Kerry the “worst deal ever” negotiated by the United States with a foreign power. And yet, even Trump believed it was possible to reach an accommodation with the Iranian regime—once that regime had been convinced by crippling sanctions that it had no other choice but to negotiate. Trump didn’t love the Iranian regime, nor did he hate it. He just wanted it to go away as a threat to America. (And for the record, I think Trump was wrong in his assessment. The Iranian regime has shown repeatedly it does not base its decisions on Western cost-benefit analysis.)

Many analysts inside Iran and in the West believe that Kerry saved the regime. As the July 2015 deadline for finalizing a nuclear deal approached, Ayatollah Khamenei said “no” repeatedly after Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, announced they had finalized the agreement. Kerry couldn’t believe it. The US was prepared to release $150 billion in frozen oil revenue, provide technical assistance and equipment for Iran’s nuclear program, bless Iran’s centrifuge enrichment research, and commit to thwart future cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and the Iranians didn’t want it? What more did they need to make it work? And so, each time the US granted the Iranians more concessions the White House ginned up the news media “echo chamber”– as Ben Rhodes, President Barak Obama’ deputy national security advisor for communications famously described it – to lecture Americans that the only choice was the deal, or war.

Behind the scenes, the IRGC was doing its best to scuttle the deal because while sanctions were ruining the conservative, relatively pro-Western bazaari class and keeping them from international financial markets, the IRGC and its clandestine sanctions-busting networks were making out like bandits. The IRGC didn’t want a deal unless it got something out of it.

After Khamenei balked the first time, Kerry announced substantial concessions: the US agreed to drop its requirement that Iran wait 10 years before installing new generation uranium enrichment centrifuges. Tehran could introduce them whenever it wanted (and it has). Second, the US pledged to prevent the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from carrying out intrusive, no-warning inspections. Third, Kerry pledged the IAEA would never send American inspectors to Iran, ever.

But that was not enough. Just two days before the July 15, 2015 deadline, Khamenei balked again. So, as CNN reported on July 13, Kerry agreed to demands that the US push the United Nations to drop the international embargo on arms sales to Iran, end restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile development, and most importantly, remove the IRGC, its Quds (Jerusalem) Force, and top international terrorists including QF commander Qassem Suleymani from the Treasury Department’s sanctions list.

These were monumental concessions, and they had a dramatic impact. Inside Iran, freedom-loving Iranians who had long held out the hope that the US would side with them against the regime understood that the game was over. Just as Obama had done during his famous refusal to condemn the repression of the anti-regime Green Movement in 2009, the United States was showing it was on the side of the clerics and their enforcers, not the people of Iran.

So why do some Democrats – Obama, Kerry, Biden – to name just the most prominent – want to preserve the Iranian regime at all cost, even when it continues to openly seek the destruction of America and Israel and to brutally repress its own people? What happened to the Democrats’ famous commitment to human rights, women’s rights, or gender equality?

I’ve thought long and hard about this. Could it be as simple as political and personal relationships? Both Kerry and Biden have a long history of cultivating pro-Tehran donors and embracing their causes, including – in Kerry’s case his daughter’s marriage to an Iranian-American whose family maintained deep ties to Tehran. The pro-Tehran agenda forms part of their political culture.

While Obama might have been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and of political Islam in general, neither Biden nor Kerry are closet Muslims or understand the power of the Islamic revival that has shaken the world since Iran’s revolution in 1979.

It could be that left-wing Democrats tolerate the regime’s deadly subversions, treat it as legitimate and enable its nuclear weapons development because, disdaining traditional America themselves, they discount revolutionary Iran’s compulsion to destroy this country. The Iranian regime may have different motives and different domestic goals, but it complements the American left in seeking to end the United States as it has existed since World War II. Both want an end to the unipolar international power structure that America has dominated. The American left seeks to accomplish that goal by weakening American resolve, power, and values from within. The Iranian regime seeks to diminish American influence through hard power: terrorism, insurgencies, and subversion of pro-American regimes. And, of course, by becoming a virtual nuclear weapons state, making itself invulnerable to attack.

US policies toward Iran divide members of the public at home, mainly because of what amounts to an unspoken alliance between the American left and the Iranian regime.

When one hears talk about a new nuclear deal with Iran, or about ending US “aggression” or “hostility” toward the Iranian regime, understand that those speaking either denigrate Tehran’s threat to the United States, or they also want to end America as we have known it. It’s the same cause, with aligned fellow travelers.

Bottom line: A world without Islamic Iran could be a world that American continues to dominate, and in which traditional American values thrive. But a world where Islamic Iran survives and dominates the Middle East could eventually become a world without America.

Ken Timmerman is the President and CEO of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran. His 12th book of non-fiction, And the Rest is History: Tales of Hostages, Arms Dealers, Dirty Tricks, and Spies (Post Hill Press 2022) expands on some of the incidents described above. Timmerman was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and has covered the Middle East for 40 years.