Reuel Marc Gerecht on Iran’s electoral issue, and the impact it could have on the Middle East
HH: As I continue from our conversation with Christopher Hitchens, now with Reuel Marc Gerecht. He’s with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He’s also a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard. Mr. Gerecht, welcome to the program, great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
RMG: My pleasure.
HH: Let’s start, you know, you’re a veteran of the American intelligence agencies. If you were back there right now and you were advising them what to do about the turmoil in Iran if we wanted regime change, what’s your advice to them?
RMG: Well, I mean, I think the first thing you have to understand is the agency is not terribly fond of regime change. I mean, I think to put it basically is you should treat the Iranians no differently than you would treat, say, individuals in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period. That is, you know, do what you can to support those individuals who want to bring democracy. So I think the approach that the Obama administration has taken is not terribly helpful. It is a bit odd when you read the pronouncements of the French president or even the Belgian foreign minister, and they sound more stouthearted than those of any U.S. official.
HH: Why is it that American is reacting at least in part differently than it did to 1989? I made the argument it’s because for decades, we were steeped in anti-communism. We had an intellectual basis on which to draw that we’ve never actually developed vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. But what’s your take on why we’re reacting differently in some cases?
RMG: Well, that’s a good question with a complicated answer. I think the simple answer to that is George W. Bush in Iraq. I think the part of the Democratic Party, a great part of the Democratic Party, and even part of the Republican Party, has had a very difficult time with Iraq. It’s put a foul taste in its mouth towards the Middle East in general. And democracy in the Middle East is a problematic issue in certain areas as you saw in the elections in the West Bank and Gaza. And if we had elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would do well. We actually, though, have a situation in Iran because it has been under theocratic religious rule since 1979 that the reverse largely holds, that is when you see democracy growing, it is people who want to diminish such religious dictatorship, not to install one.
HH: Yesterday on this program, Victor Davis Hanson said the irony is that people thought Iran was going to destabilize the young democracy in Iraq. His argument is that the young democracy in Iraq is in fact destabilizing Iran. Do you agree with that, Reuel Marc Gerecht?
RMG: That may be the case. I mean, I think it’s a little too soon to tell, but the one thing you do know for certain if you follow Iraq and Iran is that the Grand Ayatollah, Sistani, who is the leading cleric of Iraq, Iranian by birth, is also the most popular cleric by far inside of Iran.
RMG: I think he is that, because much of the Iranian clergy had been discredited because of its association with the clerical regime. And Sistani, who has backed democracy in Iraq, is seen as a breath of fresh air.
HH: Now this is Wednesday. Of course it’s now deep into Wednesday night in Iran, huge demonstrations Monday, Tuesday Wednesday, more called for tomorrow. Do you think there is a reasonable hope that the regime can be toppled internally, Mr. Gerecht?
RMG: Oh, immediately? No. I doubt that. But I do think that we’ve gone past the Rubicon here, and that I don’t think Khamenei, the leader of Iran, is going to ever be able to turn back the clock. You have very powerful members of the ruling elite who are now aligning against him who want to see the election results annulled. This by no means means we’re going to have some form of liberal government established in Iran. The reverse could happen. You could see a military coup by the Revolutionary Guard corps, but I think it does mean fundamentally that the Iranian government’s going to be unstable, that its legitimacy has collapsed, and that you do now have for the first time I think a distinct possibility of some evolution that Iranian people would be proud of. But it may be very difficult and very tough going before we see that.
HH: What do you think is the conversation around the table with Netanyahu right now about whether and when to strike at the Iranian nuclear program?
RMG: Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt that this situation has probably made them more concerned, and if Netanyahu has already made the decision to strike, and I doubt that he has, certainly seeing Ahmadinejad reelected doesn’t diminish his intention to preempt. I mean, Iran is now quite possibly in a protracted period of instability. What that does to its nuclear program is unclear. My best bet would be that if Khamenei decides to crack down on the opposition, to deny new elections, that he will do his best to actually accelerate the nuclear program. I mean, I think they’re more or less going at full bore now, but I would expect to see him and Ahmadinejad become even more hardcore.
HH: What does it mean in your best guess for the satellites of the Islamists running Iran, in Hezbollah and in Hamas? Do they lose control to the extent that they still have it over those movements? Or do those movements rally around the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader?
RMG: I don’t think that much is going to change in either Lebanon or in the Palestinian territories. I mean, in Lebanon, you have a population base of close to 50% Shiite. The Shia have long been almost disenfranchised in Lebanon. And in part, what the Hezbollah has done has built on this Shiite dissatisfaction inside of the Lebanese community to enhance its position. Hezbollah has, I think, gotten itself into trouble. I think the war in 2006 against Israel is probably now seen not necessarily as a victory, that it is a troublesome situation for them inside of the Lebanese community right now. Hamas is after all a Sunni organization. Iran gives it a lot of money. But its base of support isn’t really dependent upon what happens in Iran. Certainly if the clerical regime were to fall, and you were to have some form of real democracy develop in Iran, then it would have, I think, a profound effect on Islamists throughout the Middle East. Iran really was a bellwether for Islamism in 1979. The Revolution had a truly huge impact on Islamists throughout the region. They realized that in fact running a state, gaining power, was possible, even if through revolution. The fall of that regime by popular will, I mean, is an enormously powerful message, and that certainly couldn’t hurt the cause of a more liberal democracy throughout the region.
HH: Reuel Marc Gerecht, thank you for your time, look forward to reading you at Foundation For Defense of Democracies.
End of interview.