American Harold Rhode first turned up in Iran two years before the Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni to power. He studied at university in Mashhad and what he saw there was a narrative of oppression, a Shi’ite narrative of Sunni oppression. What he also saw in Shi’ism was a tradition of quietism and critical thinking, attributes that were pushed aside by the revolution to give way to today’s regime, which he says believes in causing a conflagration to bring about the coming of the mahdi, the 12th imam, Shi’ite Islam’s messiah.
You describe a tradition of creative and critical thinking in Shi’ism. How then has Iran been overtaken by such a cult of irrationality?
The ones who are there now, Khomeini hated. On this we’ve gone from bad to worse. Classic Shi’ism says that the 12th imam is the messiah. He disappeared in 873 CE and he will return. Until he returns, all political rule is illegitimate. The role, therefore, of the senior Shi’ite establishment is to worry about the spiritual needs of the flock. All political rule is illegitimate until the mahdi returns. There is a very minor tradition, I don’t know, maybe in 2 percent of Shi’ism, that holds religious leaders can rule before the return of the mahdi. Khomeini, who was originally a quietist, basically took over that tradition and brought this rule to Iran which is totally antithetical to the overwhelming majority of Shi’ite thought... To actively get involved in politics is a minor, minor tradition in Shi’ism. You can help out but you don’t rule...
Simply more and more of the crazies took over. There were a group of people called the Hojjatieh Society, and they’re the ones who are running the country now, that Khomeini was very scared of. Because their answer was not only could the clerics rule, but they believed you could provoke a conflagration, and when the conflagration takes place, you can force the mahdi to return. He will save the whole world and all the world will be Shi’ite and everything will be good.
We had a doctrine with the Soviets of mutually assured destruction; that does not work with these people. These people, some of them have claimed that they had talked with the imam, and [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has said that he has seen the imam. This is stuff that Khomeini thought was wild and dangerous. These are the people running the country now.
How do you see the situation in Iran today in the wake of the post-election turmoil there?
Just as then [prior to the revolution], we have crossed the Rubicon... Iranians are chess players and rug makers. What does that mean? That means they have patience. They’re not thinking of the move now, they’re thinking six moves down the road. What is a rug maker? He’s got patience. You can’t just make a rug; it’s slow and slow.
Now when I left Iran the shah was still in power. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know how it was going to end, I didn’t know when it was going to end. But there are many, many similarities today. History doesn’t repeat itself, trends maybe are similar and that’s why you study history, otherwise it’s just quaint facts which are useless. But in order to understand the mind-set, how did people act in the past, and if you see it over and over again it gives you something. We’re seeing similar things in Iran today.
The two basic questions we have to ask ourselves are does the regime have the will and the ability to keep itself in power? The answer to those questions is changing. I have no doubt that it wants to stay in power, but now the regime is no longer the mullahs, it is the Revolutionary Guards, and they are fighting among themselves about how to do this, and that’s very good. What we are also noticing now is that a lot of the senior revolutionary guards are putting money abroad. That’s a very bad sign for the regime. More and more of the middle classes, who are basically part of the regime, are leaving overseas. Those are very bad signs [for the regime].
I do not know the date. I cannot know the date, but the signs are in a very good direction.
When the Iranians look to their fellow Shi’ites [in Iraq] who are Arabs – what Iranians think about Arabs, including Shi’ites, is that they are rodent eaters or lizard eaters; those are the Persian terms for Arabs – they say if they can have something [democracy], why can’t we. We’re much more sophisticated. We’re headed there. I do not know when. I do not know how. I can tell you the trends. It’s a little like Ravel’s Bolero. It goes up, it goes down, there’s a plateau, but the general direction is toward the climax.
I am very sure that we are headed toward a climax which will take Iran out of the terrorist world. Who will those people be? Will it be [Mir-Hossein] Moussavi, will it be [Mehdi] Karoubi? I don’t know. The fact is that they wanted change within the regime, but the women and the young people in Iran who have been so oppressed they don’t want changes within the regime, so they have already surpassed what these leaders are. Will these be the leaders? I don’t know. Will there be new leaders emerging? Remember what happened with [Nicolae] Ceausescu in Romania. He disappeared and all of a sudden people emerged. I don’t know who they are. I know that they want this regime down and finished so they can be put out of their misery.
How do you see the Obama administration’s handling of Iran?
Put it this way. Whatever their intentions were in the beginning – and I’m not privy to how they think about things – they saw failure after failure around the world and the goal of a politician is to succeed. All of the signs that they have seen up to now, of how people refer to him as messiah-like, the problem when a false messiah is found people push him aside very quickly. This is, I guess, what happened here.
The American people don’t know about all these important big problems around the world, they want their leaders to take care of them. That’s their business, the American people don’t care. But when they don’t take care of them, we throw them out. Whether they are Democrat or Republican makes no difference.
Should the US be taking a more aggressive stance on Iran?
I think we should be helping the Iranian people liberate themselves. But if that doesn’t happen, again, like what happened between ’36 and ’39 in Europe, sooner or later there may be no alternative but to use force as a way to do this. Now there’s a big argument as to what this will do. Will this unite Iranian nationalism against the United States? I know there are a lot of people who say this, but we can’t know this. It can go both ways. My sense is that it will do the opposite.
If Iran gets the bomb, can we stop worrying and learn to live with it?
The people running the country are the crazies and they believe that if they can bring about a conflagration that will bring them the mahdi.
So you think that if they have the bomb they will use it?
There are two theories on that, and again I’m not a nuclear guy, I’m a culture guy. One is that they would use it. How they would use it and how they would try is beyond me. I would hope that both Israel and the United States have some ways of of figuring this out and neutralizing this. The other is that just by having it that would make all of the Gulf countries kowtow to them.
All of the Gulf countries make it very clear to us in the US: Look, for you this may be intellectual or about oil; for us this is about survival, and if you’re not going to protect us, we will have to look elsewhere for support. That means we could kowtow to the Iranians, which is the worst thing that could happen to us, or we could bring in the Russians or the Chinese... They will look again to jump on the bandwagon of the strongest. If we’re not there to protect them, they will find a way and we, the United States, will be the ones who suffer.
What would your advice be to Israel faced with an apocalyptic regime about to get the bomb?
Again, I’m not privy to information about what Israel or America knows about how close or how far, but there has been one Holocaust. That’s enough, and I would hope that the leaders of this country [Israel] understand and I’m sure they do understand that there should not be another Holocaust. This is their job, they were elected to make this happen.
Here’s another interesting thing and again this is just my view. If
I recall correctly, [Binyamin] Netanyahu on election night all he
talked about was Iran. Now he gave a speech at the Herzliya Conference
and the word Iran didn’t come up once. Now if I were the Iranians who
would parse this and parse this and never understand the mind-set of
this country – Israel is almost the antithesis in its directness and
straightforwardness – what does this mean when Netanyahu is constantly
saying that this is the issue and he doesn’t mention it once?
the Middle East you don’t speak, you do. The speech in itself was one
big threat to Iran. I have no idea if that was the reason, but if
someone were to have asked me I would have said, “Don’t talk, and that
will scare them.”