Why is Netanyahu evoking Shapour Bakhtiar's name?

Diplomacy: The prime minister is taking pains to stress that the transition in Egypt must be slow and gradual to avoid a repeat of Iran, 1979.

By
February 11, 2011 14:37
Shapour Bakhtiar, last Iranian PM under the Shah

Bakhtiar 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Prominent foreign leaders and statesmen being ushered into Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office over the next few weeks would do well to brush up on the history of Shapour Bakhtiar.

Because Bakhtiar, a reformist Iranian politician chosen by the shah in 1978 to help create a civilian government in the waning days of his regime, is a name Netanyahu is continuously bringing up in talking about the situation in Egypt.

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He often evokes the names of Bakhtiar as well as Alexander Kerensky, the Russian revolutionary who gave that country a democratic moment in 1917 before being swept away by the Bolsheviks. But especially Bakhtiar, because Iran is so much closer to home, and the model there – especially how the Islamic radicals took over at a time of revolution against an autocratic leader – is pressing heavy on the minds of leaders here.

NEW YORK TIMES columnist Thomas Friedman assures us this fear of the Iranian model need not be so. Writing from Cairo, he says that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “wants everyone to believe this is Iran in 1979 all over, but it just does not feel that way. This uprising feels post-ideological.”

But with all due respect to Friedman’s “feelings,” what if he has it all wrong? Or what if the upheaval in Egypt might indeed be post-ideological, but is usurped by the ideologues, the best organized of a badly organized Egyptian opposition? Friedman may then be able to write an “oops, my bad” column, but Egypt would be thrust backward in time, and this country would be stuck with a colossal mess on its doorstep.

Which is why Netanyahu is stressing Bakhtiar.

Bakhtiar, a political scientist, was a critic of the shah’s regime who, despite his relative moderation – he called for peaceful protest and democracy within the framework of the monarchy – spent six years in jail for his troubles. By 1977 he had become a leading figure in the illegal National Front opposition, and toward the end of the 1978, the shah – who saw his power slipping away – called on him to lead the transition from a military to a civilian government.

Bakhtiar’s term as prime minister lasted all of 36 days, during which he allowed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back into the country, a move that did not prove to be too politically astute. Khomeini refused to work with Bakhtiar, characterizing him a traitor for working with the shah. The shah fled in January 1979, and Bakhtiar was forced to leave for France four months later.

The rest, of course, is history – a footnote being that Bakhtiar was assassinated in Paris in 1991.

NETANYAHU’S MESSAGE over the last two weeks in a few public statements, and numerous private ones, is that everyone wants freedom, everyone wants democracy. It’s just that it has to come slowly, because if the institutions are not prepared to receive it, Egypt might have its own version of Bakhtiar overthrown by its own version of the ayatollah.

Stranger things have happened.

Netanyahu’s consistent message since the crisis started, a message delivered alongside visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and to the Knesset plenum last week in Hebrew, and in English this week to a group of friendly European parliamentarians visiting the Knesset, was that the transition in Egypt needs to be slow and gradual: evolution, not revolution. Or, as a senior diplomatic official put it, you don’t go from zero to 100 kilometers per hour in no time at all.

Netanyahu was one of the only world leaders publicly articulating this message. In so doing, he has bucked the tide of popular Western opinion which, understandably, is excited by a rising thirst for freedom in Egypt.

While Netanyahu spoke out publicly, other leaders were privately articulating similar sentiments directly to the US administration. According to a New York Times report, these messages were coming from the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (none of them, by the way, bastions of freedom and liberty).

A Times of London report on Thursday said Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah even threatened US President Barack Obama that he would bankroll Egypt if the US withdrew its $1.5 billion in aid.

Mubarak, Abdullah said according to the report, must be allowed to shepherd Egypt’s transition process and leave power with “dignity.”

Did that conversation, or Netanyahu’s messages, or the appeals from the Jordanian king or the UAE have an influence on Washington? Hard to tell. But one thing that is clear is that there has been a dizzying flip-flop in American policy, a flip-flop as worrisome to some officials in Jerusalem as the initial speed in which Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unceremoniously dumped Mubarak when the press reported breathlessly from Tahrir Square that the rivers of freedom – like the Nile itself – were flowing through the country.

Just a week after Obama called for a transition “now,” translated by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to mean “yesterday,” the message this week was that a quick exit by Mubarak could lead to further confusion and turmoil, not necessarily to the creation of a truly democratic government.

While this more gradual approach to change was welcomed in Jerusalem, the rapid lurch in US policy left some shaking their heads, with one government official saying it simply seemed the US administration had no clear Mideast policy and no idea what it was doing.

The danger in that conclusion is manifold, the official said. First, it sent a bad message to other US allies looking for a degree of constancy in policy.

Second, it sent shivers down the spines of those who look to the US for guidance in the Mideast, for a sense that there is someone in charge, someone who sees things clearly and understands how to get there.

It also reverberates badly on the diplomatic process, because if the US is clumsy on Egypt – first abandoning Mubarak, then zigzagging and stepping back – what confidence is there in Jerusalem that the administration knows what it is doing on the Israeli-Palestinian track? This sense that the US “just doesn’t get it” was reinforced for some by the appearance this week at the Herzliya Conference of James Jones, the retired marine general who, until his departure in October as Obama’s national security adviser, was a key formulator of US Mideast policy for the last four years – first for the Bush administration, and then even more as a key part of Obama’s team.

Locked into a preconceived idea that the last couple weeks of regional reality has not jolted, Jones said that even with the Mideast in upheaval, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict remains the core problem – not only for the two principals, but for humanity itself.

“I’m of the belief that had God appeared in front of President Obama in 2009 and said if he could do one thing on the face of the planet, and one thing only, to make the world a better place and give people more hope and opportunity for the future, I would venture that it would have something to do with finding the two-state solution to the Middle East,” Jones told reporters after his speech.

His logic he explained in the speech. A failed peace process feeds and drives “nearly everything, everything else that threatens us, everything that happens in this region, and which has global ramifications if not addressed.”

“The failed peace process undermines the Arab moderates,” he said, not addressing how the abandonment of a “moderate” such as Mubarak by the US might now be making other moderates feel.

But Jones’s main argument was that the lack of a peace agreement “strengthens and amplifies” Iran’s appeal, and the appeal of its message.

Iran, he said, fears a resolution of the conflict, “and benefits by the divided attention of the global community. Hamas and Hizbullah draw strength from the Palestinian issue.”

Jones and Netanyahu agree Iran is a cardinal issue. But while Netanyahu wants to reduce its influence by ensuring that Egypt doesn’t fall onto its side of the ledger, Jones argues that the best way to reduce this influence is with an Israeli-PA peace agreement, as if once that is taken care of, the Iranian regime will lose its appeal, the wider Israeli-Arab conflict will disappear and Hamas and Hizbullah will not find some other perceived Israeli injustice or evil to feed off.

Granted, Jones is no longer in power, but it is safe to assume what he says reflects a strong strain of thought within the administration.

As such, his words this week went a long way toward explaining the huge conceptual gaps separating Washington and Jerusalem, gaps that the current crisis is not necessarily narrowing.


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