Iranians burn the American flag during a rally to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 22, 2022. Photo by Sobhan Farajvan/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.
A new nuclear deal with Iran seems imminent, which means that it’s time to try to understand how its leaders see themselves and the ends they serve. How does Iran’s history, culture, and religion affect its leaders’ decision-making? In a recent essay for Mosaic, the Israeli professor Ze’ev Maghen takes up these questions as he surveys four recent books about Iran, all of which offer elements of truth but also look past something essential about its revolutionary regime.
To discuss the essay, Iran, and the role of religion and revolutionary ideas in foreign policy, we invited the Middle East expert and Mosaic contributor Michael Doran to join Maghen and Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver for a discussion. The event took places on Wednesday, March 30 live on Zoom. A recording and transcript are available below exclusively to Mosaic subscribers.
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We are convened to discuss Professor Ze’ev Maghen’s essay “How Iran Thinks,” published on March 7th in Mosaic. I want to begin with reference to an essay that the late Charles Krauthammer wrote for Time magazine nearly 40 years ago. The short essay is called “The Mirror-Image Fallacy,” and it begins with an innocuous but illustrative example. For, in yet another piece of writing published at the time in the New Yorker, a writer visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and, looking upon the grave and weary president, concluded that Lincoln would have liked to live out a long life surrounded by old friends and good food. “Good food?” Krauthammer asks. “New Yorker readers have an interest in soufflés, but it’s hard to recall the most melancholy and spiritual of presidents giving them much thought. New Yorker editors no doubt dream of living out their days grazing at gourmet pastures, but did Lincoln really long to return to a table at Lutèce?”
This habit of mind Krauthammer diagnoses as a variety of solipsism. And while this particular example is innocuous, the habit of mind that it illustrates is not. The fundamental assumption that everybody wants what you want, that everybody honors what you honor, that everybody finds disgraceful what you find disgraceful, this mirror-image fallacy, when exercised in other arenas of thought and action, is dangerous.
Say, for example, when American policymakers look upon our adversaries and claim to see, beneath their accents and their wardrobes and their quirky music, women and men with the same fundamental sensibilities and hierarchies of value that obtain in New York or Washington. That’s not enlightened cosmopolitanism, but a narrowed and diminished inability to see beyond the mirrored glass.
Now, it may be true that Israelis and Palestinians both want peace in some very abstract way, but that simply doesn’t tell us very much, for Israel’s enemies want peace only after the Jewish state is wiped away from the face of the earth. I’m thinking of President Obama’s speech to the people of Israel. He delivered it in Jerusalem in March 2013. He said that he had met with some Palestinians and explained to this Israeli audience that “they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons,” he told them. “I honestly believe,” he said, “that if any Israeli parents sat down with those kids, they’d say, ‘I want these kids to succeed. I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do.’ I believe that’s what Israeli parents want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them.”
Now, to this, I respond to President Obama, “you might be right.” I’m sure that Israeli and Palestinian parents both want opportunities for their children, just like American and Indian and Brazilian parents do. But my point is not to deny these basic commonalities, but instead to assert that these basic commonalities are not at issue when terrorists gun down civilians in Bnei Brak, or when a Saudi oil field is targeted by a drone attack, or when an American consulate is fired upon in Iraq, or when Ayatollah Khamenei threatens to detonate a nuclear warhead in Tel Aviv.
Now I say all this by way of introduction because understanding how our adversaries think, how they really think, requires us to see through the mirror-image fallacy, and in reading four recent histories of Iran, all by eminent historians, wise analysts—each one of whom really do educe serious evidence for their explanations of why and how the Iranian revolution unfurled as it did—Ze’ev Maghen nevertheless came to judge that the conventional wisdom that’s now coalescing about what makes Iran tick is still fundamentally shaped by the mirrored prejudices of the analysts who cannot quite see beyond themselves into the nation that they want to explain.
Now, I’ll let him situate and elaborate on this claim in just a moment. Ze’ev Maghen, of course, is chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and he’s at work on a book that explores the worldview of Iran’s leadership class. Ze’ev will recapitulate the themes of his essay for ten or fifteen minutes, and then I’ll bring in today’s examiner, Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of its new Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East. Then later we’ll have a few minutes for your questions, which I will invite you to ask by typing them into the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen.
One last thing before we begin: obviously we all have in mind that at any moment news could come forth from Vienna that Russia has succeeded in brokering a new deal with Iran. That’s obviously on all of our minds and it’s lurking in the background of this discussion, but the purpose of today’s conversation is not to probe the hypothetical details of a deal that has not yet been announced. When it is, you can be sure that we at Mosaic will help our readers understand it and analyze its implications. But today we ask a more fundamental question about the regime. Ze’ev, I hand it over to you.
Thank you, Jon. Good evening, everyone. It’s an honor to be here. One of the cornucopia of things that keep me up at night, on top of the fact that it is officially open season on Jews in the Jewish state—an issue which I’ll get back to momentarily because it is germane—is the pervasive, almost universal outlook among Iran watchers, Middle East analysts, and educated lay people, according to which Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, is essentially a little Vladimir Putin, a Putin writ-small. Now this, to my mind, is a horrific mistake. Khamenei is far more dangerous to the West and to the world at large than Putin will ever be. And let me try to explain why, in a way that is guaranteed to annoy the living hell out of most policy wonks and realpolitik-oriented observers, by taking the long view and delving, albeit briefly, into the disdained and discarded disciplines of history and ideology.
Ladies and gentlemen, ideas matter. Hegel said, “Once the world of ideas has been transformed, reality cannot hold out for long.” John Stuart Mill echoed him: “Ideas are the thing on earth which most influences human behavior and in the long run overbears every other influence. This,” Mill went on to emphasize, “is the lesson given to mankind by every age and generation and yet always and inevitably disregarded.” And Virgil put the matter in simple but winning terms, “Mens agitat molem,” spirit moves matter, ideas move people.
Now, as Mill noted, human history simply never ceases demonstrating the veracity of this proposition, and our analysts, pundits, and social science-oriented academics never cease ignoring it. The Romans conquered Greece, but Greek religion and philosophy conquered Rome. Those same Romans conquered Palestine, but a local hippie Jew-boy, traipsing around the Galilee delivering sermons to whoever would listen, took over the entire Roman empire. The barbarians conquered Rome, but Roman ideas and institutions took the barbarians by storm, producing what we refer to as Western civilization.
From the 10th through the 16th century, Turkish warrior hordes came crashing through the Middle East, burning, pillaging, and slaughtering as they went, and each and every one of them was promptly overcome by the faith and lifestyle of their butchered victims, Islam. And of course, no example in history beats that of the Jews. We are the proof in the pudding of Virgil’s mens agitat molem. The pen will ever end and anon best the sword. Ideas will always prevail against brute force in the long run, even in Eastern Europe today. And Khomeinism is a very powerful idea. It is, in a nutshell, the age-old dream of the Shiite branch of Islam. Indeed, the very raison d’etre of the Shiite branch of Islam is to reunite sacerdotium et imperium, religion and state, after they were torn asunder upon on the death of the prophet Mohammad.
Khomeinism also represents, unlike for instance the doctrines of Islamic State or the various Salafist jihadi organizations, the attempt to balance tradition and modernity, which makes it in some ways far more compelling than Western progressivism, which has chucked tradition into the wastebasket and hurtles pell-mell into a whacked-out modernity that knows no bounds. But Western academics and analysts have little patience for the power of ideas and little knowledge of the vast and complex labyrinth that is religious thought, and so they strive in a hundred different ways to reduce the underlying motivations informing the policies of the Islamic Republican regime and keeping it in power, period.
In other words, they attempt to parse Khamenei the way they parse Putin, and they tend to deploy in such cases the weapon of the wink. We all know, wink-wink, that behind and beneath all that religious and ideological rhetoric it’s really all about naked power and money, wink-wink. And if you insist otherwise, they smile that knowing cynical smile of the hard-bitten realist, and dismiss the fluffy notion of a government of religion by religion and for religion as silly naivete.
Now, this pervasive outlook leads present-day scholarship on Iran to some rather silly conclusions. Upon one of these I remarked, in the review piece, the revisionist rehabilitation of the last Pahlavi shah, Mohammad Reza, as a friend of religion, even as a devout Muslim, a portrait drawn by Cooper and Milani, two brilliant researchers who got this one wildly wrong. But the corollary of this re-frocking of the shah is the defrocking of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei. Now this has become a regular pastime of Middle East specialists and Iranologists.
Here is the great Ervand Abrahamian—I do not say that sarcastically—spending dozens of pages trying desperately to show how Khomeinism was really just socialism wrapped up in religious garb. And here is a young but astute scholar named Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar performing all types of intellectual chicanery in order to demonstrate that the Islamic Republican leaders are not guided in the least by religion, but are rather driftwood tossed about by the ebb and flow of public opinion. Dozens of authors enumerate the countless areas in which, so they claim, the ayatollahs in charge of Iran fall short in carrying out or enforcing Islamic ordinances or compromise their religious principles for pragmatic purposes.
Meanwhile, anyone who knows anything at all about Islam can tell you that doing exactly that, making exactly that compromise, is the central principle governing Shiite sharia jurisprudence. And I have to admit that I always find such arguments to be a laugh riot. Here are these thoroughly westernized and secularized ex-Iranian academics, who for the most part haven’t entered a mosque, fasted during Ramadan, beat themselves in memory of the Imam Hussein, or cracked open a Shiite Muslim text since they were born—to say nothing of their American and European counterparts who weren’t Muslims at all—and they’ve got the unmitigated gall to tell a bunch of ayatollahs, who have spent an average of 50 years in the seminaries of Qom and Najaf plunging into Muslim scriptural, traditional, legal, and literary sacred cannons, how to properly practice Islam. That’s like, I don’t know, Ellen DeGeneres taking the pope to task for not conducting a proper mass.
Of course what makes this doubly humorous is that whenever, for the purposes of our anti-Iranian propaganda campaigns—which I’m all for, don’t get me wrong—we need Iran to be run by a bunch of messianic, medieval, religious fundamentalists whose policies are thoroughly metaphysical and violently irrational and so they can’t be allowed to get their hands on a nuclear weapon, God forbid, all of a sudden presto-chango that’s what they are, frum as can be, right? All of a sudden they’ve got religion. But when we want to show them up as cynical power-hungry hypocrites who are only guided by realpolitik and hedonistic self-interest and who failed to realize their dream of establishing a truly Islamic Republic and we gloat about this, all of a sudden that’s what they are.
This is all part and parcel of our overall approach to appraising Iran, an approach that I cannot characterize other than one of pure fantasy, pretty much from top to bottom, including the axiom, which is bandied about virtually unopposed no matter where you go, from academic to journalistic to intelligence circles, to the effect that all Iranians hate the mullahs and just aspire to be secular Americans. In other words, not only do we in the fiercely secular West refuse to believe that Iran’s leaders could be truly religious, we refuse to believe that Iran’s people could be truly religious as well. There is nothing we delight in more than discovering and exploiting the most recent underground video of scantily clad North Tehranians shaking their booties to the beat of rap music in somebody’s basement, never mind the fact that at that very moment, there are ten-times that number of their compatriots busy praying in the mosque next door. Now we don’t find prayer service videos as captivating as naked Persian tuchuses, so those videos don’t go viral, but even the partygoers themselves will, for the most part, be found at the mosque the next day, beating their breasts for the Imam Hussein because that’s the mysterious and complex way in which Shiite Islam works.
Most of those who pronounce upon Iranian state and society today don’t know the first thing about Shiite Islam, just as a large number of them don’t know Persian, let alone Arabic, the latter language being essential for delving into the classical literature which molds the mindsets of Iran’s leaders and citizens today more than ever. And so, because it is easier for us to conceive, and more convenient as well, we portray Iran as a little Russia and Khamenei as a little Putin. And while we’re at it, the same voices here in Israel portray the Palestinian Muslim gunmen, stabbers, and suicide bombers that murder Jews in the streets week after week as motivated by anything other than what they say they are motivated by, i.e. by Islam, and argue ad nauseam that were we just to invest more millions in the economic infrastructure of the Arab towns and cities, all would be well.
Meanwhile, a doctoral student of mine wrote a thesis many years back in which he showed conclusively that some 75 percent of the Arab attackers came from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, and believe this or not, the parents of my Muslim female students at the university regularly call and plead with me to convince their daughters not to go all the way and add the gloves and the full facial mask to the already universal hijab covering. And for the most part, I fail, and have quite the time of taking roll afterwards. To conclude, it’s time finally to take religion seriously, especially in what is soon to become the world’s largest religion quantitatively, and is already the world’s largest religion qualitatively, i.e., with the highest number of genuinely devout followers. So in short, you want to understand Iran, you’ve got to know Islam.
Well, thank you, Jon. Thanks, Ze’ev. And thanks to everybody out there. I’m assuming there are people on the other end of this. I can only see the three of us, but thanks to the thousands of you who are out there. And Ze’ev, thank you for this really engaging essay, which puts a really important question I think front and center.
I think I’ll just start by putting my cards on the table. I’m among those who think that Khamenei is a little Putin and we can explore that as time goes on. But before I explain myself in that regard, let me just say that I think your central argument—that you have to understand something about Islam to understand Iran, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran’s leaders—is important, and there is an ideology, certainly in academia, but I think even wider than academia in American elite culture, that is opposed to seeing religion as a central part of the worldview of the leaders of Iran. There are many different elements to that ideology. It is a kind of general, secular American mistake. I think it’s something that Americans do time and time again and maybe the West does where they engage in mirror-imaging and project their own concerns onto foreign leaders who are really coming from a completely different cultural and historical background. I think that’s true, by the way, of our understanding of Russian leaders as well as Iranian leaders.
I must start by granting you complete success, I think, in making that case. Furthermore, there’s a passage in your article, I don’t have the article right here in front of me, where you discuss the attitude of some of our diplomats who believe that there’s a deal to be had with the Iranians and who cannot bring themselves to think that Iran has aspirations to destroy the United States. They look at the balance of power and they can’t believe that a power as weak, relatively speaking, as Iran could possibly aspire to take over the whole Middle East, destroy Israel, undermine the American order and so on, and actually laugh at those of us—I agree with you on this 100 percent—when we say that they actually do have such aspirations. They say it all the time. We should understand where that’s coming from, and I totally agree with you.
Then I start to disagree with you. There’s a passage in your essay early on where you survey the multi-causal reasons for the Islamic revolution and you dismiss that and you say, “No, there has to be one cause, and there is this one cause which is Islam.” And it’s at that point I think where you become reductive when you’re dismissing these other things, for just because Islam is important and just because we need to know about Islam in order to understand the mindset of the leaders [of Iran], doesn’t mean all of these other things aren’t going on: economics, class conflict, ethnic conflict—which I think is a growing issue in Iran.
At one point in your presentation just now, there was a phrase you used, “complex and mysterious”—you were referring to Shiite Islam. I find Iran to be the most complex and mysterious country in the Middle East, and not simply because of Shiite Islam. I first got really deeply interested in Iran when I was working in the White House. I had Iran in my portfolio. I spent more time reading top-secret intelligence on Iran than on any other country, trying to come to grips with what the worldview of Khamenei was, and I developed a line, which I said as a joke but it was actually really serious, that on all the major questions with regard to Iran, I have two answers, which are: I don’t know, and it depends. There’s not another country in the Middle East, I think, which is so defined by its contradictions. And the Iranians revel in this themselves. It’s remarkable.
I guess when I have this discussion with you, I come at it from the point of view of radical skepticism. Your certainty about the importance of this one issue, I think, gives me pause. The way you have defined it, you’ve given yourself an escape clause here, because you said, well, pragmatism and accommodation with issues other than orthodoxy is part of the orthodoxy.
You’ve already set it up so that you have the thesis that cannot possibly be refuted. I give you high marks for creating the irrefutable thesis. But I intend, as we go along here, to throw out some accommodations with non-orthodoxy that the leaders engage in all the time which I hope will challenge you a little bit, even as I know you’ll hold on to that thesis.
Well, first of all, Mike, you got me. You caught me red-handed. If I didn’t actually believe in that statement, it would sound like just a way to make it impossible for anyone to attack my position. Let me take the last point you made and try to explain myself very briefly. I think that the way that many scholars, if not most scholars, take advantage of what they see as lapses in pure Islamic policymaking in order to upend the idea that we have to deal with orthodox practitioners and theologians in charge of the Iranian state, I think it indicates that they have not really exposed themselves to this fascinating phenomenon, this fascinating contradiction.
Religion is not this black and white phenomenon. Orthodoxy—and I’m not even talking about Shiite Islamic orthodoxy, I could be talking about Jewish orthodoxy or Christian orthodoxy—it’s not a black and white phenomenon. There’s a notion of blind faith, that we have to toe a line, that we don’t need to accommodate reality because God will take care of us, we can just rely on God. Everybody knows the famous story about the guy who relied on God when the flood came, and he went up to the top of his house. And when he was drowned, he said to God, “But I relied on you.” And God said, “Well, I sent you all these boats and you didn’t take any of them.”
One of the things you discover about orthodoxy when you are part of it is that it is extremely pragmatic in a great many areas. And it’s not about removal from the world. It’s not about a metaphysical outlook. It’s not about some kind of world renunciation. It’s not about being irrational. It’s about, in many ways, being extremely rational. Look at the Talmud. The Talmud is, in so many ways, not only the height of rationality, but the fount of Jewish genius. And it is an Orthodox Jewish text, if not the Orthodox Jewish text, and it’s full of accommodations to practical situations. I’d like to put to bed this whole attempt to show up the Iranians as religious hypocrites, as not true Shiite Muslims, not believers or something like that. I’d like to put it to bed. They spent 50 years in the seminary.
I think the more important point here is that I certainly accept your first criticism, which is that, yes, the revolution was a complex phenomenon, and we can talk about how complex it was and how many factors went into it for a lot of time if we are academics and we have that time. But instead, we’re trying to fathom the adversary that we’re dealing with and what brought it into being, and if we want to do that we should focus on the real power moment, the crescendo and the supernova, and that which distinguished Iran from all of the countries around it in the Middle East and the world, and led to this incredible event, what might possibly be seen as the first popular revolution in the history of humankind.
With all of the other stuff, yes, there’s some kind of argument—God knows how anyone could possibly support it—that Iranians were economically upset in the 70s. That to me is just 20/20 blindsight. It’s not 20/20 hindsight. But you can look at different things. You can talk about ethnic issues. You can talk about Iranian nationalism. You can talk about all types of things. The moment of euphoria, which sent people out into the street to bear their chests, is the one that sends Palestinians out to blow themselves to bits and kill as many Jews along with them as they can. It’s theology and ideology. And whatever else maybe happening there, that’s the game changer and that’s the main variable in the equation that we should be investigating.
Okay, let me home in on that issue. If we could, I’d like to look at two parts of it. The first part is the revolution. In your essay, you move from discussion of the revolution to talking about Iran today, and you also move from arguments about historical causality to arguments about policymaking, which is the issue that, personally, I’m most interested in. Let’s start with the revolution, and then let’s go to the policymaking side.
Here are some of the contradictions I see with regard to the revolution. I think anyone who’s looked at the revolution recognizes that all of those students whom the shah sent to Western universities who were, in the United States, carrying out demonstrations day after day after day against the shah played some role in the delegitimation of the Shah’s regime. If not at home, then certainly abroad, but I think probably at home and abroad.
I have an Iranian friend who participated in those demonstrations in the United States and in Iran, and she tells me that she went out completely covered, protesting against the shah. She’s not religious; she wasn’t religious then. It made perfect sense to her when she was doing it. But she looks back at it now like the way I look back at attitudes I had when I was fifteen, sixteen years old. I think, “What the hell was I thinking? Why did that make sense to me at the time?” I think our understanding of the revolution, therefore, has to take that into account. I’m not saying that those people are the essence or they’re necessarily the engine of the revolution. I’m not sure there was, as I said, a single cause of the revolution. But they’re part of that moment.
I don’t think it really is right, correct, accurate to say what was driving them actually out there was Islam. We also know there were lots of different strains in Islamic politics at the time. In the end, Khomeini, being a cleverer politician, was able to take it to its most radical form. But the people out there protesting who did a lot to bring down the regime were not there to put Khomeini’s form of Islam in power. That was never their goal.
Well, I just want to say one thing about the overseas students. The shah sent these tens of thousands of students [to the United States], and then as payment for that he got heckled every time he went to visit the states—you’re 100-percent correct about that. But it actually made a great deal of sense. And you can tell your friend that I am trying to exonerate her. What she was doing—it’s a lot of chutzpah for me to psychologize her from a distance not knowing her—and so many others were doing was rather paradoxical, but in the end, made sense. Europe essentially at that time was in the throes of a revolution of its own in the direction of authenticity, whether it was nationalist authenticity or ethnic authenticity. Everybody in the 60s and 70s had to be authentic. I remember it myself as a little kid. Got to be authentic. It was all of a sudden cool, and the notion of cultural imperialism began to be derided as the great enemy. These people weren’t religious themselves, a great many of them. They put on their hijabs, their head coverings, these women who chanted these Islamic slogans.
But it was part of saying this Westernization that has been carried out by the Pahlavi shahs undermines our very identity. It is humiliating to us as a nation, as a civilization that has a hoary kind of honorable past. And this led over time many of them into becoming Islamists of one form or another.
And then there were those, like your friend, who became disappointed by it and thought, “Look what it led to.” Those many people didn’t realize that when you ask for authenticity, if you work hard enough, you get it. And then you may not be happy with it because you yourself were raised on Western ideas. Right? And now all of a sudden you have to give them up. That’s no fun for lots of people. A lot of people who made the revolution afterwards said, “Geez, what have I done to myself? I can’t have fun anymore.” I agree with that. They did. But while they were doing it, there was a rationale behind it. And that rationale, you don’t want to call it Islam, call it the desire for self-determination, cultural, authenticity, and desire to come out from under the thumb of foreign cultural imperialism.
Great. Okay, I’ll do that. I’ll do that. But then I do think that we need to make a distinction between that and Islam. I don’t think they’re the same thing. I think at that particular moment in time, the clerics who were leading the revolution led by Khomeini were able to cast their net wide enough so the people who felt, let’s call it cultural dislocation, inauthenticity, a desire to go back to a world that was more coherent and understandable and closer to their own traditions, he casts his net wide enough so that those people could be part of it, but that’s not Islam.
They don’t necessarily have, like my friend whom I mentioned, the kind of deep-seated hostility to the Western order that Khomeini had and that Khamenei has. That already sets up quite a different dynamic than the one you suggest when you say that, really, we have to focus on Islam.
Islam does cast its net rather wide. It does include, throughout history and even at the present time, people who don’t even pray. Lots and lots of people, people who don’t fast during Ramadan, consider themselves Muslims and loyal Muslims. There were caliphs who got drunk every day. There is a latitude here, but I do agree with you that what happened in the end was that the revolution, I don’t want to say it was hijacked, really was led, even in its early stages back in 1963 and all the way through the 70s, ultimately by clerics. The signs that everybody was holding up during the revolution were mostly of Khomeini, partially of the [Iranian revolutionary Ali] Shariati and to a much smaller extent of the [former Iranian prime minister Mohammed] Mosaddegh, who was to a large extent, a secularist.
By the end, it became a clerical regime, and it is to this day a clerical regime. It is in fact, a seminary writ large— [the rulers] run the country like a seminary. And they have raised a generation of Iranians many more of whom have accepted their outlook on the world more than we would like to believe, in my humble opinion.
I’ll just finish with one point, and that is a couple of years ago there was a protest by several young ladies across the country against the headscarf, and they doffed their headscarves and they held them up. Right. We all cheered for them, of course, and we all assumed that that’s what all ladies in Iran want to do. My students following social media in Iran at the time found a great deal more public hostility on the part of women in Iran to these ladies, many of whom had the police called on them by other women.
Maybe they thought their hairdos were nicer. I don’t know. But the truth is what they said they were doing was protecting their children from women who were disrobing and corrupting the public morals.
Let me see if I can bring this part of our conversation to a close before we get to questions from the audience. I don’t want to neglect Mike’s second area of interest, which is policymaking. Mike, let me try to formulate, from my point of view, this dimension of the question. I’ll let you refine it and then, Ze’ev, you can answer us. If I were to try to inhabit the coarse, unsophisticated, numbskull realist that you’re arguing against . . .
I would ask you this question. Let’s say I agree with you, and you can’t understand the regime if you don’t understand its own theological commitments. What changes in my analysis of the region? Let’s say I do agree, and you do have to understand its theological animating spirit. How does that manifest in terms of policy and its actions in the region, and its actions domestically too? Mike, is that a fair way to inhabit the spirit that I’m trying to convey?
Let’s let Ze’ev answer that and then let me come back, because I want to take it in a slightly different direction. It’s a good question.
It is a good question. I think that it changes only everything. Once again, I take it back to what’s going on here in Israel. I have endured decades here of policy analysts and decision-makers and intelligence people and academics who feel that, essentially, if we invested in the infrastructure of the Israeli Arab towns, for instance, that we could get them to continue being the good Israeli Arab. I don’t want to use the term Uncle Tom, but something of that sort. You would’ve heard for really year after year after year, even up until the present, the statement that Israeli Arabs, as opposed to the Palestinians in the territories, are the good Arabs. They like Israel. They actually feel themselves to be Israelis, et cetera, et cetera.
This, to me, has led to the present-day debacle that we [Jews] are actually being shot at in the streets by automatic fire in the midst of our cities by Israeli Arabs, time and time again just in the past couple of weeks. Some people are beginning to wake up to the fact that you cannot buy these people, and you cannot buy the Iranians. You cannot come to an agreement with them, one that they will honor in the long run. You cannot because they cannot. They simply cannot, based on their religious principles. I believe that, although they may compromise in the short run, Mike, they will never compromise in the long run.
When Iran keeps mum about the Uighur Muslims in China who are being systematically dispossessed and all types of nasty things are happening to them—number one, it’s because they’re Sunni Muslims, but let’s put that aside. They do it because they have a long-term game plan, the ultimate motivation and aspiration of which is the hegemony of Islam over the Middle East and eventually over the rest of the world. In order to get there, there are tactical moves that you have to engage in, such as shutting up when your number-one partners, the Chinese, oppress a small group of Muslims.
I think that we [must] start to realize things like that; that these people cannot be bought, that these people will not honor the agreements that we make with them, as just one of many examples, and that these people cannot have their regime changed, neither by trying to foment ethnic discord (which has been one of the policies of Western intelligence organizations for decades—it’s never gotten anywhere, but we keep on pushing it ), or [by] broadcasting into Iran, paying millions of dollars to the Voice of America in Persian to broadcast into Iran—on Ashura, the holiest, most solemn occasion on the Shiite Muslim calendar—videos of Florida spring break, as well as, this is just this past year, a documentary on the return of women’s roller derby. This was done on the holiest day. It was broadcast with jam-avoidance technology into Iranian homes on the holiest day, under the misconception that this is what they really want. They want to strip down. They want their daughters to strip down. They want to be just like the kids on spring break in Florida. If we show them enough of that, then they’re going to undermine their regime and make a counterrevolution.
Whereas what really happens is that, because most of Iranian society is religious in the latitudinarian sense and Islamic, the dads take a look at this and they say, “Well, I wasn’t too happy about the government or about the regime, but when you showed me this, and I realized that if I pulled my finger out of the dike, that eventually my daughter is going to strip down and pour booze all over herself in front of a bunch of men, I’m sticking to Khomeinism.” I think all of these are policies. You know, we would change our policies from A to Z if we finally respected the power of Islam.
Ze’ev, I think you put your finger on something there when you were talking about the father pulling his finger out of the dike, and that is the inherent attraction of popular Western culture. One of the reasons why the regime can accept Chinese music and not Western music is because of the inherent attraction that it has. Globally, American culture, whether we like it or not, it is attractive. It is attractive to youth. American freedom is attractive. The shah himself had this problem, as you discussed in your essay. He wanted all of the technology and all of the instruments of power that came from the West, but he didn’t want to open up. He sent all these students abroad, but when they came back they said, “We also want the political freedom that goes along with it,” and he had to put the brakes on there. This regime is having exactly the same problem.
Now, they have created a set of institutions based on Islam that allow them to hold the line in that way, but we know that there has been a significant secularization in Iranian culture. Do I know the percentages? No, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. I mean, there’s so much anecdotal evidence, that it goes beyond anecdotal evidence, that a very large percentage of the Iranian public, including people who are attached to traditions and even Islamic traditions, don’t buy the rhetoric of the regime. The regime they regard as, at best, a necessary evil that they have to deal with. They don’t regard the leadership as committed to their values. The slogans of the regime don’t have any purchase over their hearts at all.
One more thing. You mentioned the ethnic issue. There is rising ethnic politics going on as well. Every class of people in Iran, every class of people in every major city has registered significant protests against this regime. Now, I’m not saying that doesn’t mean that this regime is not durable. It may be durable, but there is a very significant legitimacy deficit that it has.
Let me finish this to make the point. When Jon set this up in the beginning, he said, “We want to understand the people sitting across the table from us,” and your thesis says we’ve got to understand religion, we have to understand the classical tradition in order to get into their minds. Equally important, I would say, possibly even more important, is we have to understand that they are sitting on top of a volcano, and they know it. Part of the reason that they want to keep the Islamic Republic like North Korea—that is, to seal it off to a certain extent from the outside world—is precisely because they’re on a volcano.
They’ve been sitting on that volcano for 43 years, and every month of every year since the revolution everyone’s been saying, “That volcano’s going to blow, and here’s the latest evidence of that fact,” and it just doesn’t blow. Because the anecdotal evidence that you’re talking about, Mike, is anecdotal. It’s anecdotal, and it gets to the people who have some kind of connection to the type of people who send out such anecdotal evidence and have no connection and no exposure to the greater majority that send out completely antithetical evidence.
I just want to say, guys, you can go anywhere in the world and ask any population of any state and they will all have the nastiest things to say about their government. The Iranians themselves do surveys [about this] today. It’s not as closed a regime as you think. They do surveys, and they even admit, in their government-censored papers, that the majority of the people think this particular government’s doing an awful job about X, Y, and Z. Everybody complains. Are the Iranian complaints so substantial and so ontological that they’re talking about a counterrevolution to change that regime into something that resembles America more? I don’t see it anywhere, and I certainly don’t see it more in Iran than I see it in many other countries in the world. I just don’t think it’s a sui generis situation. We just want it to be.
You know, a colleague of mine wrote a book called The Lipstick Counterrevolution. Her claim was, because all these young people are interested in the latest fads and the latest couture and fast cars and fast women, that’s it. This is the end of the regime. They’ve been saying this for decades. The fact of the matter is that it’s politicized youth that might have some chance of changing the regime, but these youth aren’t politicized. They’re the exact opposite. They go to the mall. That’s what they think about. The ayatollahs are perfectly happy to let them do it, because under it all, in the last analysis, they still feel proud of what they’ve got there. Iran is becoming more powerful all the time on the regional and international scenes, and it’s not for nothing. You can’t get that powerful if you’re sitting on all these people who just hate your guts.
Let me ask a question by way of analogy. I think that there is a string of Israeli prime ministers—my purpose in asking this question is not to be partisan in Israeli politics—I would say, by and large and for the most part, it’s fair to say that there’s a string of prime ministers who, when you say to them, “What is the purpose, the end, the goal of this country?” [They would answer that] it is to ensure the ability for the Jewish people to have a role in history, to have sovereignty over themselves and to take responsibility for their national existence in history. Now, if I were to come to the leadership of Iran and say, “What is this country for?” Ze’ev, do you have an answer to that question?
Yeah. I’ll make it really short, because I’ve been blabbing on. On one foot, they could easily tell you, “This country is the vehicle for the exportation of political Islam to the region and to the world. That’s what we’re here for. We may take all types of detours along the way. We may make lots of mistakes and we may not even get there, but that is what we’re here for, and we never forget it.” Again, politicians—and even clerics—have to do practical things and make compromises on their principles all day long in order to get stuff done. A good manager knows that, but in the end they’ve got that in their heads. From what I understand, for Ayatollah Khamenei and for whoever’s going to be his successor, that’s the ultimate game plan, and they do not lose sight of it, and we must not lose sight of that.
Okay. There are a million questions here. I’m going to just go through and choose some of them for us. There are several questions that readers are asking having to do with the negotiation of this nuclear deal, and—inspired by your first analogy, Ze’ev, between Putin and Iran—asking about the role of Russia in negotiating this deal. The way I try to bring these questions together with your theme is to return to this query: does the preponderance of religion as a motivating force in the regime explain, for example, the nuclear negotiation differently than if I knew nothing about the religious impulse of the regime?
For sure, 100 percent, and in the most lethal way. I’ll be happy to join the choir of those who speak about [the problems with] the MAD [doctrine]. As kids, we used to talk about the mutually assured destruction notion, and how we really shouldn’t be all that afraid of the Soviets nuking us because we can nuke them right back and et cetera. But here, I don’t need to be an expert. I think most people know enough about Shiite Islam to know that martyrdom is not one of their major themes; it is the major theme of Shiite Islam.
I mean, the notion that, as the most famous Shiite imam of them all, Ali, the first one, said, “I seek death and martyrdom in jihad the way a baby seeks his mother’s breast when he comes out of the womb.” This is repeated in thousands and thousands [of places]. You cannot spend all these years being indoctrinated by this stuff, you cannot read the Quran, you cannot read the Hadith, especially the Shiite versions thereof, without having something like this deep, deep in your medulla. It becomes almost part of your DNA. I believe in the power of ideas, as I said at the beginning. Therefore, the notion that Iran would be willing to martyr a large portion of its citizenry in order to achieve geostrategic ends, including via the use of nuclear weapons, is one that we must take into account.
That’s just one example among many that [explain why] I would not allow the Iranians to get anywhere near [a nuclear bomb], and not to mention develop missiles that could carry these warheads, et cetera. You have to believe in their genuine belief in martyrdom, and how much so many of them actually seek it. It is a culture of death. I say that in the nicest way possible. It is. If you tune in and take seriously the daily and weekly and hourly expressions of Shiite Islam in Iran, if you read the theology of the revolutionaries themselves, it is a culture of death. I think that’s one example of how important it is to know this and to accept it. I’m not saying that all Iranians everywhere want to die. Even the ayatollahs don’t want to die. But there is this general outlook that there are goals that are far more important than pleasure, a pleasurable lifestyle, which seems to be the main goal of the modern West.
Just a couple of thoughts. I think Ze’ev and I can agree wholeheartedly that this group running Iran should never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. I think we’re in 100-percent agreement on that. I don’t think that the Shiite Islamic component of their identity is necessarily the operative reason why, or helps us understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. The North Koreans are behaving in pretty much the same way, willing to sacrifice an enormous amount of their economy and circumscribe their interaction with the rest of the world in order to hold onto those weapons, and the reason for that is because they recognize that those weapons give an embattled regime a new lease on life, a kind of security umbrella unlike anything else in the world. If you are a relatively small and embattled elite, and you want to have a single tool that you can control with a relatively small number of people as well—it doesn’t require a whole army to wield this thing—and you’ll get respect from the rest of the world, then it’s nuclear weapons. So we don’t need to resort to religion to explain what they’re doing.
Except that, Mike, it didn’t work for the Soviets and it isn’t going to work in the end for the Koreans, but it will continue to work for Iran and for the rest of the Islamic world because they’ve got something in their satchel that nobody else has. They’ve got a formula for legitimacy that you can’t beat anywhere.
The notion of, well, we’re a democracy, isn’t that nice, it’s an important thing, it’s great. Or we are building Communism. We’re making the world more socialist or something or whatever it is. Nobody has got a claim on legitimacy that would be harder to overthrow than religion that is part and parcel of the souls on different levels of so many of these people. And they would come out against the shah, they would come out against America, they’d come out against Israel during the revolution. I can’t see them coming out against Islam. I can’t see them coming out against Hussein and Khamenei as the representative of Hussein, as are all of his clerical cohorts.
We’ve already seen it though. We’ve seen it numerous times that people have taken to the streets, and as I said, all classes of people. Not just in North Tehran. Basically, over the course of a decade, give or take, we’ve had two major waves of protests. These days, there’s not a day that goes by where you don’t have a very significant strike of one sort or another, often not just for higher wages but with overtones of hostility to the regime itself. You can go out and you can tell people that you represent true Islam and they should therefore support you. But if you don’t have water and you don’t have income and so on, it doesn’t buy a lot of loyalty.
They blame the United States for the fact that they don’t have water, and they do have water. The Iranians are doing a lot better than most of us think despite the sanctions. They’ve been holding on really well, not just because they’ve got the Chinese and others supplying them, but because they’re really smart people and they’re dealing with it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that this regime is on its last legs by any stretch of the imagination. I stipulated when I brought up this subject, that this may be a very durable regime. It may be. But we’re seeing a legitimacy deficit and the major tools that it has, I think, to hold on, don’t have as much to do with religion as they have to do with raw power, the fear that people have of what’s going to happen if the regime goes down in the country, and the fact that a lot of people’s livelihoods are just bound up in the existing order.
Ze’ev, before you reply to that, let me bring in our final question. This is inspired by the one from Allison Cipriani in our Q&A. We’ve referred several times to the horrible things happening in Israel this week with terrorist attacks and shootings. There is the other unbelievably wonderful thing that happened this week in Israel. It took place at Sde Boker, a meeting among nations, brought together under the rubric of the Abraham Accords, to discuss the security arrangements that have far ranging consequences for the region. And standing behind those nations, the Sunni Gulf nations that came to Israel, is Saudi Arabia—not present officially, but its acquiescence must have been given in order for the Abraham Accords to come about in the first place. I think to ask the question, maybe as we conclude, why Iran has gone in one direction and then an equally religious Muslim country has gone in another direction would illuminate your thesis, Ze’ev. Explain how you understand the differences.
That would be a much longer explanation than we have time for. I would say that at this point, I will be somewhat cynical and point out that the major reason that the Negev meeting took place and the Abraham Accords are being signed is because of Iran, is because of the fear of Iran, the fear of the Shiite Crescent, and the fear of the Houthis in Yemen and everything that Iran is managing to put together to threaten the more conservative and Sunni countries in the region. I think that’s the main motivating factor behind these Accords. We’ll take it anyway. And if we hadn’t voted out the two people who actually made it happen in our country and your country, we might have had a slightly better chance of actually leading it to fruition. But Iran is helping by being a major menace.
There is also the fact that we’re dealing with the monarchical elites, and we aren’t dealing with the people. That’s an open question, and it’s a major open question. There are ways in which, even from the religious perspective, Jews and Muslims can find some kind of modus vivendi, but I’m not overly sanguine about it. I don’t want to think this, but I think that we will be seeing a great deal more of the kind of Sunni Islam that is represented by the Palestinian gunmen in our streets than we are seeing by those elites who are gathered in the Negev, unfortunately, and I think we have to prepare for that.
Two comments. About the Abraham Accords, I agree with Ze’ev that we probably would’ve had something much better if the Orange Demon and maybe Netanyahu had remained in power because they had the vision of putting together a coalition to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to contain Iran on the ground in the region. The American president now doesn’t have such a vision. He’s actually empowering Iran. He’s paving a way for [Iran to get] the nuclear weapon by pursuing this nuclear deal. And he’s filling the coffers of the regime with money, with which it can support terror activities all around the region, and with which it can coerce smaller powers like the UAE.
If you’ve been watching the UAE closely lately, the UAE has been tacking toward Iran and tacking toward Iran’s ally, [the Syrian president Bashar] al-Assad, while maintaining the Abraham Accords relationship with Israel, which is very economically beneficial to the UAE. It’s great. And it’s a good thing for Israel. It’s fantastic if it’s just that. But it’s also beneficial to the UAE in that it burnishes the image of the UAE in Washington. That’s also beneficial to the Emiratis. But we shouldn’t think that because they all met in the Negev, this means that they’re going to actually come together as part of a coalition against Iran.
And, of course, Tony Blinken, the Secretary of State, he stood there arm-in-arm with the Israelis and the Abraham Accords members, and he said, don’t worry, we’ve got your back against Iran. Which was an insult to the intelligence of the allies, because the Biden administration does not have the back of the allies against Iran. It wants to somnambulize—is that a word? Is that English, to somnambulize?—it wants to put the pro-Israel Democrats in America to sleep by putting this spectacle of unity before the American electorate. But it’s a false unity. It’s a Potemkin policy.
But can I say one more thing? I was trying to think of how I can summarize in one sentence what makes me uneasy. I don’t want to say uneasy about Ze’ev’s thesis because, as I said, there’s a part of it that absolutely I agree with wholeheartedly, 100 percent. It’s an antidote to a certain kind of, as you put it, mirror imaging. But there’s another side where I get uncomfortable with it. And I’ll give you an example from my own history. When I was working in the Department of Defense, I sat in a meeting about events in Iraq with people from the Defense Department, people from the CIA and so on. At that moment, al-Qaeda was going around intimidating the Sunni tribes in Iraq. It was kidnapping children of Sunnis, holding them for ransom, and then mutilating the children and leaving their bodies in fields. I thought I knew a little something about Islam, and so I said to my colleagues there, “It’s prohibited in Islam for Muslims to kill Muslims. We should put out some public-service announcement saying what they’re doing, and we should embarrass and delegitimate them in the eyes of their fellow Muslims.”
Nobody answered me. Nobody answered. I said it several times. I was very proud of myself for knowing something about Islam and the prohibition against Sunnis killing Sunnis. They just didn’t want to embarrass me. After the meeting, one of the guys from the CIA took me aside and said, “Mike, we had your idea, and we put together a public-service announcement. We [did a] focus group [on] that with Iraqis, and everyone in the focus group came back with the same question. When presented with the fact that these children were being mutilated and their bodies left in fields, everyone came back with the same question: ‘who are the parents?’ In other words, maybe they deserved it.’”
You started, Jon, with the point of view that we shouldn’t assume that everyone in the world sees things exactly the way we do. We start from the assumption that killing children is wrong, right? It’s absolutely wrong. I started from the assumption that orthodox dogma of religion has a purchase over the minds of these people who absolutely see themselves as good Muslims, but there are other things that intervene. These are tribal societies. There are other rules that are working here that we’re not necessarily very familiar with. So to understand who’s sitting across from you in the table, you have to know a lot of information about things that you can’t find in theological textbooks.
Professor Maghen, I give you the last word.
I agree wholeheartedly with what you just said, Michael. There’s no question that we need to take all of these factors and aspects into account. And the notion of a religious society, of a religious state, of a theocracy, is a nebulous one. The motivations of each particular part of it for participating in this adventure are different and they’re in and of themselves complex. I don’t want to make it sound like, in any way, shape, or form, that I’m trying to commit the horrific offense in today’s academia known as essentialism (and I am an essentialist). But at the moment, I don’t want to commit that particular offense, in which you claim that you can go back to the classical texts of a particular religion and then predict exactly what everybody is going to do today; 100 percent, that does not work. It doesn’t even work within the orthodox elements of the religion itself, in which there are all types of variations and measures and countermeasures and individual thoughts going on, to say nothing of the public at large, which has gradations of religious belief, of religious practice—all of that is true.
I just think that the one variable that we have regularly kind of thrown behind our backs, both because it’s extremely difficult to get into—it involves languages and it involves, if the ayatollahs are learning for 50 years in a seminary, taking at least five years to try to get some inkling of the way they’re thinking. It’s very difficult and it’s very, very foreign to large parts of Western society. And for those reasons, I think that we ignore that element. Whether it is, in all cases, the most central element or not, it’s at least a highly significant element. And by the way, it’s ignored by the left as well as by the right, because Edward Said, a professor at my alma mater, Columbia, whom so many of you are familiar with, with his book Orientalism in 1978 he pretty much took the left and created this notion that delving into religious ideas, theology, texts, jurisprudence, and whatnot in order to understand the potential behaviors of current day Muslim communities or any other religious community, is verboten and it is a horrific thought crime. And many, many on the left simply won’t even touch it. You can actually get fired for doing something of that sort, for implying that there’s a connection between the Quran, or the Hadith, or the Fiqh, or the Fatwa, or the Kalam, or any of these other elements of the Islamic bookshelf to what Muslims are doing today. You can get fired at a Western university. I know people who have been fired for saying that.
So the left does not enlighten us about the religious element in what’s going on around us in the Middle East and the right also doesn’t, well, for great many reasons. Some of my favorite neocons and good friends will come out and write essays to the effect that you’ve got to know Beethoven in order to modernize. It’s a famous Daniel Pipes essay. I think Daniel is brilliant. I love him. But the notion that there’s only one way to make it in this world, and that is by imitating the West—that notion has been put to rest by the ayatollahs and by their imitators, and I think we need to take that very seriously. There isn’t only one way. There’s another way, which is the antithesis of Western ideas.
By the way, I think that many neocons could actually get on board with some of the antithesis to some of the protests against modern Western progressivism that are represented by the Iranian regime, believe it or not. So I think that for all types of reasons, we tend to discard and ignore that aspect. I’m arguing that we need to put it front and center.