“I herewith proclaim to those (Western leaders) who still do not want to see the realities that the political axis of the new Middle East will soon be Islamic rulership and a democracy based on religion,” senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said on Friday during public prayers in Tehran.
“All these protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen are inspired by Iran’s Islamic revolution and these countries are de facto rocked by the aftershock of the Iranian revolution,” Khatami claimed, according to Haaretz.
At first blush, Khatami’s words may seem like mere hyperbole — using the unrest throughout the greater Middle East to pat his regime’s collective back for their own revolution, which has little to do with today’s events. But it would be wrong to dismiss Khatami’s rhetoric entirely. A brief history, with an eye on Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, is in order.
Iran’s revolution has continually served as a model for both Sunni and Shiite Islamist organizations seeking power. In 1979, the Egyptian public was captivated by what was happening inside Iran. As Islamist fervor gripped the nation, pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini were prominently displayed. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood openly sided with Khomeini’s revolutionaries as they overthrew the Shah. So did two groups that split off from the Brotherhood only to become core components of al Qaeda: Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman’s Gama’at Islamiyya (the Islamic Group, or IG) and Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). (I will return to Zawahiri and the EIJ below.)
Indeed, ties between the Brotherhood and Iran predate 1979. Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, believed that Sunnis and Shiites should overcome their differences to face their common enemies. So, too, did Ayatollah Khomeini, who openly advocated an alliance between the two main branches of Islam. Al Banna and Khomeini were also linked by a prominent Iranian scholar named Nawab Safawi. Khomeini was close to Safawi and al Banna also embraced the Iranian cleric. As others have written, Safawi introduced Khomeini to the Brotherhood and its political ideology.
Through Safawi, the Brotherhood’s ideas were imported into Iran and had a lasting impact on Iranian Islamist thinking. Consider this stunning example.
One of the principal architects of jihadist thinking is Sayyid Qutb, a prominent Muslim Brother who was executed for his machinations in Egypt in 1966. Qutb is widely, and correctly, described as the intellectual forefather of al Qaeda, which still references his writings to this day — almost 50 years after his execution. Well, Qutb didn’t just influence al Qaeda’s thinking. Ayatollah Khameini, the current supreme leader of the Iranian revolution, translated two of Qutb’s most important volumes into Persian. Those two translated volumes have been widely read inside Iran and some say they are the most circulated Islamist tracts.
All of this is a shorthand way of saying that the Iranian revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood share a similar political ideology, even if their theology is different. In other words, the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are not insurmountable from either Iran’s or the Muslim Brotherhood’s point of view. When Ayatollah Khatami roots for the protesters in Egypt, then, it is a safe bet that he and others in Iran are specifically cheering on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Indeed, this should be obvious. Iran is today the chief sponsor of Hamas, a Sunni Islamist terrorist organization that is itself a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. And throughout the 1990s Iran was allied with Hassan al Turabi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who helped orchestrate a military coup in Sudan in 1989. Turabi, in turn, was one of Osama bin Laden’s main benefactors from 1991 through 1996. As was documented during the trial of some of the terrorists responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings, bin Laden was introduced to key Iranian leaders, as well as Hezbollah terrorists, in Turabi’s Sudan.
So, Iran has consistently allied itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, even if there have been tensions and rhetorical disputes from time to time. On a strictly political level, Iran also shares the Brotherhood’s deep animosity for Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Iran also shared the Egyptian Islamists’ hatred of Anwar Sadat, which is why Khomeini had a street named after Khalid Islambouli — Sadat’s assassin — and declared him a martyr. Since Islambouli was an Egyptian Islamic Jihad operative, we have come back to Ayman al Zawahiri’s part in this story.
As I mentioned above, Ayman al Zawahiri, who was once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was greatly influenced by the Iranian revolution. In more recent years, Zawahiri has criticized Iran in propaganda statements. But I wouldn’t read too much into Zawahiri’s words, as they are crafted for public consumption and Zawahiri has every incentive to downplay al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran. Some in the jihadist community have openly questioned al Qaeda’s ties to the mullahs, and so Zawahiri has tried to downplay or deflect attention from the issue.
Zawahiri’s behavior is a far better tell. After 9/11, he sent his son-in-law (who is also a senior al Qaeda member) and daughters to Iran, where they received safe haven. Osama bin Laden cut a similar deal for members of his family, who were held under a loose form of house arrest.
Zawahiri’s ties to Iran are decades old. In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright explains that Zawahiri planned a coup in Egypt in 1990. “Zawahiri had studied the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran,” Wright explains, “and he sought training from the Iranians.” In exchange, Zawahiri offered the Iranians sensitive information “about an Egyptian government plan to storm several islands in the Persian Gulf that both Iran and the United Arab Emirates lay claim to.” The Iranians paid Zawahiri $2 million for the information and trained Zawahiri’s operatives for the coup attempt, which was ultimately aborted.
In sum, the Iranian revolution has provided inspiration to Sunni and Shiite Islamists alike. It has offered them hope that they could overturn the existing order and impose their own radical vision on the state.
As the world watches the turmoil in Egypt, there is a palpable fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power. If it does, and that is far from a certainty at this point, then it will be reenacting the Iranian revolution of 1979. After all these years, Khomeini’s revolution still looms large throughout the Middle East.
Update: I just wanted to add a quick update to this post, to head off any confusion. I’m not arguing that most of the protesters in Egypt are members of or affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m just exploring the meaning behind Ayatollah Khatami’s words — a meaning that is often lost because of widespread misconceptions about Sunnis and Shiites and the like. Furthermore, even if the Muslim Brotherhood is not the main driver of the protests in Egypt, there is still potential for the Brothers to seize the moment, since they are the best organized opposition group. After all, as Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power he brokered deals with communists, leftists, nationalists, and other parties. He stabbed them in the back, of course, after assuming power.
So, this is just a look at Egypt and the Brotherhood, as well as how the senior rulers of Iran see the situation. I’m not implying that most of the protesters are inspired by the Iranian revolution, but the Muslim Brotherhood, which is going to try to seize this opportunity, certainly has been for decades. And that is why the Iranian revolution cannot be easily dismissed even today.
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