Around 2007, I gave a lecture at the US Defense Department. One of the attendees
presented a scenario suggesting that the “problem of Islam” was not political,
but an issue of semantics.
There was a secret debate happening at the
time in the Defense Department and the CIA, in which some people thought that
all Muslims were a problem, some believed only al-Qaida was a problem, and still
others thought the Muslim Brotherhood was a problem.
The main problem,
however, was that all Islamism was a political threat – but it was the second
position that eventually won over the Obama administration.
Take note of
this: since 2009, if you wanted to build your career and win policy debates,
only al-Qaida was a problem. The Brotherhood was not a threat; after all, it did
not participate in September 11.
This view was well-known in policy
circles, but it was easy to mistake this growing hegemony as a temporary
Actually, it only got worse.
A Muslim Foreign Service
officer recounted how some US officials were trying to persuade The Powers That
Be that al-Qaida was split from the Muslim Brotherhood. Imagine how horrified he
was. Still other officials told me that there was heavy pressure and
well-financed lobbyists trying to force officials into the idea that al-Qaida
was the only problem.
Some high-ranking Defense Department officials –
for example, one on the secretary of defense’s level – were pressured to fire
anti-Brotherhood people. I know of at least five such incidents.
example, I was asked to participate in a contract and co-direct a project for
the federal government, and my paper was to be on the idea that all Islamists
posed a threat. To my surprise, I was told that my paper had been rejected.
Shocked, I asked to speak to the two co-contractors on the telephone. Isn’t it
true, I said on the phone, that I was to have co-direction of this project? He
said that yes, it was; nevertheless, the rejection stood. (By the way, this
co-director, who likely became interested in the Middle East in large part
because of me, was very rude. I then told him that though the project had
originally been my idea, I was going to walk away from it and not demand
compensation.) In another incident, a high-ranking CIA official posted a paper
arguing that the Brotherhood was not a threat, only al-Qaida was, and that US
policy should therefore hinge on the Brotherhood. In still another case, a US
official made a statement at a public function that neither Hezbollah nor Hamas
posed a threat to US interests.
By 2013, this resulted in a few people’s
arguments that Iran could be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
government officials, the situation was therefore clear: If you wanted to make
some money in Washington, you have to toe the line that the Brotherhood is not a
threat. If sanctions ended against the Brotherhood or Islamists, including Iran,
this could also lead to trillions of dollars in potential trade
Note that in 2009 and 2010, an attempt was made to build such a
model with Syria, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were
being murdered in a civil war there.
But Iran was a far more valuable
state. In fact, Tehran was a far easier target because it had far more money and
could possibly be bought, simply by agreeing not to build a nuclear
The following is what I predicted in my 1980 book, Paved With
Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran: “United States-Iranian
relations could not possibly have been worse in the months following November 4,
1979. From the American point of view, the central problem was obtaining the
release of 53 American diplomats being held hostage at the American Embassy in
Tehran. To the Iranians the capture of the American Embassy and its occupants
marked a successful end to one revolution, and the opening shots of a second.
For Iran, like Russia in 1917, was to undergo both a February and a November
revolution – the first a political struggle to unseat the old regime, the second
a social, economic and cultural revolution to build a new Islamic
“In Iran’s case, it was the fundamentalist mullahs and their
Islamic Republican Party who were seeking to achieve what the Bolsheviks had
done in Russia – monopolize power. Like Lenin, [Ayatollah] Khomeini would in
time turn against moderate segments of the revolutionary coalition and purge
their members from positions of authority; like the Bolsheviks, the
fundamentalists, once in power, would refuse to compromise with those ethnic
movements that had aided the revolution; and like the Leninists, Khomeini’s
supporters would try to create a [totalitarian] structure, subsuming into their
ideological framework all aspects of national life, from the courts to the
schools, from the military to the conduct of commerce, and even the daily
behavior of the citizenry.
“Thus, the United States and Iran, two
countries whose friendship had begun with such high expectations and whose
relations had included fine moments of selfless cooperation as well as many
shameful episodes of corruption and insensitivity, were now the bitterest of
In 2014, I am convinced that the leadership of the Iranian
Islamist regime still feels the same way, just as American policymakers still
don’t understand that nice words have not changed anything. Note that president
Ronald Reagan sending the Iranians a keyshaped cake – supposedly to symbolize
the “opening” of US-Iranian relations – also demonstrated little understanding
of Iranian extremism.
The writer is director of the Global Research in
International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of The Middle
East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) journal. His latest books are The
Israel-Arab Reader (7th edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle
for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria