Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and revolution

“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.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Graham says:

    This may be true, but we still must acknowledge that most of the protestors are not Islamist, but secular and pro-democratic. I am confident that while the MB might become stronger if Mubarak falls, they won’t become the dominant power.

  • DANNY says:

    what is driving me crazy is as I flip the TV channels I keep seeing short quips on MSNBC and CNN saying that we need not fear the bearded ones. I don’t watch MSNBC or CNN because it’s so much a terror propaganda mouth piece, that I boil when I watch them. So for not watching, I have heard way too much Islamic propagandas saying the Muslim brother will not take over Egypt do fear america! It’s like some syfi movie where we are being fed mind control. The islamist will take over Egypt as they have Lebanon and we will all be singing “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” isn’t awesome that see history predicted by God unfolding right before your eyes? Heck no! They are going to cut our heads off. Sure I know, “fear not them who can kill the body but fear him who after you have been killed can cast you into hell”. but still to see the mind control going on TV just changing channels freaks me out. Wake up America, World.

  • C. Jordan says:

    Excellent analyses, thank you!

  • LisaN says:

    For some reason, an Iranian push for more “democracy based on religion” brings on a chill. We already have some good examples of how well that form of “democracy” worked out, and it looks like we will have another.

  • Kingsago says:

    The wave of unrest sweeping the Mideast has nothing to do with the Irainian Revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood has been at best, late to the street party. The articles misunderstanding of the situation is normal however, many in the West, particularly the older generations fear anything Arab and are clueless to the power of social networking in organizing the young. It is hugely important that we lend support to the democracy movement in the streets of Cairo. The last thing al-Qaeda wants is a homegrown Arab democracy in the most populous Arab nation.

  • NotSurprised says:

    This Egyptian situation is certaintly worth monitoring closely. This is a country that has been receiving US AID with the majority of it being pumped into the Military. 86 percent if I remember correctly. I have read that parts of our own Tanks are built in Egypt and shipped too Michigan. Egypt has bought F-16s, Apache longbow helicopters and the like over the years. This country is well armed, controls the Suez Canal ( a Major bridge for our Navy ) and is one of our largest allies in the region outside of Isreal. The Hypotheticals are deep.
    I do believe that naming the Intelligence Chief Vice President may have been the safest move to date with Egypts Allies all watching closely. There is much more at stake than a loyal reader can explain. Everything I understand is from numerous articles I’ve read the past couple of days. This article here opens another aspect of the situation you won’t find in International coverage.
    What if an Egyptian revolution did in fact present what I understand is the most organized movement, The Muslim Brotherhood a opening to be in a position of power? The most populized country in the region with American weaponry . The birthplace of the ideology driving todays terrorists. Sure , these questions are far from being answered and may never have to be if the people of Egypt recognize what is the best for their future. It seems with the more coverage I watch the more likely the current President isn’t going to ride out public sentiment

  • t75rsj1 says:

    Kingsago rightly states…….
    “The last thing al-Qaeda wants is a homegrown Arab democracy in the most populous Arab nation.”
    Many people laughed at George Bush’s claim that all people – even those in the Middle East – yearn for freedom. We shall see how Egypt plays out. Do the arab youth of the Middle East yearn more for freedom or more for jihad?
    People laughed scornfully at Reagan when he claimed the Wall should be torn down in East Germany. Then freedom happened and won out.
    At this early time the surprise uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt appear led by those seeking freedom. We in the US should be rightfully nervous about how this may turn out – but al-Qaeda also must be very nervous at the moment as well. This time the ‘Wall’ that symbolizes a game-changing win for western-like freedom breaking out in an unlikely part of the world may not be a concrete wall – it may be Facebook.

  • Gaz says:

    A lot of fear mongering going on here, even if somehow the Muslim Brotherhood did come to power, so what?
    Will they start chopping off people’s heads, funding terrorism, persecuting other religions? (Unlikely if Hamas run Gaza is any indication). If so how is that any different from our buddies the Saudis; the guys we sell billion dollar weapon systems to and have rolodexes of everyone ex-state dept and Pentagon official looking for a nice consulting fee?
    It seems unedifying for the most powerful and wealthy country in the world to be afraid of some potential threat from an impoverished African country. In the unlikely event that al-Ikhwan is able to come to power I’m sure we will deal with them the same way we have and do deal with a wide variety of unpleasant regimes.

  • Charu says:

    Fascinating! Great report. While the Muslim Brotherhood were behind the curve in Egypt, the ensuing turmoil and uncertainty are the perfect vehicle for them attempting a putsch. It is 1917 and 1979 all over again.
    We gamble with autocrats in the Middle East out of fear of the Islamist alternative. However, by sticking around too long they end up strengthening the Islamists. This was true for Iran and certainly now for Pakistan, and the consequences are easy to see. The problem is that there isn’t a good alternative in the Muslim world because Islam and democracy are inimical. The Turkish example may be the best of many bad choices; a strong military that is fiercely against the mullahs. But even that is under siege by stealth Islamists and doomed to failure.
    In the end it will have to be the long haul where democracies always economically outperform totalitarian regimes. Take away the oil revenues and the Islamists will eventually face harsh economic realities and the mullahs will ultimately be swept away like all dictators. In the mean time, eternal vigilance to protect our freedoms and liberty from the barbarian hordes.

  • world of free dictators says:

    nice article but the things are nt wut they seems to be.Iran and Egypt are different now and i think that the brotherhood strategy and policy changed since 1979 Iranian revolution just look at the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia the main thing which made those ppl comes into the street is their economic statues and injustice also those who lives in Egypt knows that ppl who live in iran has a different view abt revolution and Islam now .
    if this uprising is originated by Islam ideology so we should have this kind of protesting in Persian gulf states until now we have nt seen any thing coming out from those Gulf states so the ppl who took on the streets should be more aware abt their revolution and not allowed their effort hijacked by some opportunist groups and parties .they should fight for freedom and a better life

  • JohnSmith says:

    I havent been following the protest movement in Egypt but I remember Lebanon was a democratic and secular jewel in the middle east until PLO gunman gained a foot hold and extremists gradually made a nightmare of the country. Recently, Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy group, brought down Lebanon’s government. No offense, but I’ll believe democratic and secular in Egypt when I see it. Also, the United States had a chance to support a democratic independance day organized in Iran but was silent in that case. This is an excellent article. People need to be more aware of the brotherhood’s goals and the organizations affiliated with it here in the US.

  • Ricardo J Rivas says:

    Articles like this one on this blog and similar blogs and websites, written by very knowledgeable analysts, are the reason that watching the news on television is not sufficient.
    Also, in my opinion, a good analyst does not predict what will certainly happen. He or she analyzes the facts and provides an understanding of the reasonable probabilities of certain events.
    Based on these reasonable probabilities, governments have the right to prepare action plans (foreign policy positions) that best protect their national interests.
    What I am saying is that sometimes there are people who read an article like this one and respond as if the analyst claimed with certainty that a specific group or philosophy controls ant-government protesters. And they also respond as if the analyst advocated one specific plan of action.
    A calm reading of the analysis shows that only facts and probable implications were presented.

  • Mr. Wolf says:

    Iran will soon see again the blowback of revolutions. Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon will soon move back to the Iranian capital, with some very effective methods that are being tested right now by social media and hackers. If wikileaks ever obtained some of the papers from these disposed rulers, there may be a swift resolution to the Iranian regime and their version of democracy.

  • Render says:

    Like the Intifada, this one caught the Brotherhood by surprise. They didn’t plan it or for it, and they certainly don’t appear to have started it.
    That being said the Brotherhood is also the largest and by far the best organized of all of the opposition groups inside of Egypt. The Brotherhood moved very quickly to get their professional spokespeople and their professional muscle into that square in Cairo (see Mona Seif), and in other cities. The Brotherhood was very likely responsible for at least some, if not all, of the prison breaks, and certainly benefited from those breaks. The Brotherhood/HAMAS undoubtedly benefited from the sudden opening of the Gaza border as well.
    I think it remains to be seen if the gas refinery explosion was the Brotherhoods doing, or simple incompetence, but it certainly fits their MO.


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