With its nuclear weapons program, its control of Lebanon, Gaza and Syria, its massive influence in Iraq and Afghanistan and its messianic, global ambitions, Iran is rightly viewed as the greatest threat to global security today.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Iranian challenge is that on the issues of greatest concern to the West, there is no way to divide and conquer the regime. Anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and the quest for Islamic dominance worldwide are sentiments shared by all levels of the regime. The desire for nuclear weapons that can be used together with terror armies to destroy Israel and the West is shared by all members of Teheran's decision-making bodies.
Those who preach appeasement towards Iran claim that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not reflective of the regime. They argue that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is far more moderate than Ahmadinejad, and it is Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad who calls the shots.
While it is true that Khamenei calls the shots, it is not true that he is moderate. Khamenei is just as radical as Ahmadinejad. It was Khamenei's decision to elect Ahmadinejad president. And Khamenei has approved every move Ahmadinejad has made in office. Moreover, last week Khamenei announced that he wants Ahmadinejad to serve a second term.
Then, too, Khamenei's rhetoric is just as vitriolic as Ahmadinejad's. On Tuesday, he exhorted Iranian judges and members of parliament to patiently await Islam's defeat of the West and not accept calls to embrace "rationality and moderation" or agree to peacefully coexist with "the global arrogance," which is how he refers to the US and Europe.
The Iranian regime came to power in a violent revolution 29 years ago. Led by the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the hate-spewing, Koran-thumping ayatollahs overthrew the pro-Western autocracy of the shah. The Islamic revolution was a popular revolution. The shah's repressive policies and the resonance of Khomeini's Islamic dogmas gave the ayatollahs broad support among the Iranian people.
In the years and months that preceded the fall of the shah, the West failed to understand either the sources or the dangers of the revolution. The US, Europe and Israel had such close relations with the shah that they hadn't realized that while broad, Iran's alliance with the West was skin deep. Indeed, the fact that the Iranian people identified the West with the shah made it easy for Khomeini and his followers to convince them that the West was no less their enemy than the shah was.
THE IRANIAN revolution is frequently recalled as a cautionary tale for the West as Americans, Israelis and Europeans continue to view unpopular, yet ostensibly pro-Western Arab autocracies as stable. Such warnings have been uttered with increasing frequency in recent years in regards to Egypt, whose pro-Western dictator Hosni Mubarak now enters the twilight of his reign.
Mubarak has been ruling Egypt with an iron fist since 1981. He is 80 years old and the state of his health is uncertain.
The Egypt Mubarak presides over is an economic basket case. Egypt's population of 80 million – the highest in the Arab world – has doubled since he took power after Anwar Sadat's assassination. Forty percent of Egyptians are under 15 years old.
Mubarak has done little to advance his country's economic prospects. A fifth of Egyptians subsist on less than a dollar a day. The average per capita income, which has been declining since 2000, was $1,485 in 2006.
With few job prospects, Egypt's youth increasingly turn to the mosques for consolation. There they embrace the jihadist doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood. Like its spinoffs – al-Qaida and Hamas – the Muslim Brotherhood upholds jihad in the quest for Islamic world domination as its highest goal. And due in large part to Mubarak's failure to develop his country, the Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest social force in Egypt.
Owing to Mubarak's careful cultivation of Egypt's military and intelligence services and his control of the media, the US and Israel uphold him as a strong leader of a strong state. Yet Egypt's inherent weakness and Mubarak's own incompetence is exposed every time something goes wrong in the country. Whether al-Qaida strikes in Sinai or ferries sink to the bottom of the Red Sea, Egyptian authorities are incapable of handling disasters.
On Saturday, at least 50 families were buried in rubble as part of a rocky cliff crashed onto a shantytown in Cairo. According to The New York Times, in the months leading up to the rock slide, residents had complained to authorities repeatedly that the cliff was disintegrating. But the authorities ignored them.
On Saturday it took rescue workers several hours to respond to calls for help. And when they arrived, they occupied themselves not with saving those trapped beneath the rocks, but with preventing the crowds from demonstrating against the regime. By Thursday, 64 bodies had been pulled from the rubble and the excavation was far from complete.
For the past several years, Mubarak has been grooming his son Gamal to replace him. But it is far from clear, even if he replaces Mubarak, that Gamal will be able to maintain a grip on power similar to that of his father. Unlike Mubarak, who commanded the Egyptian Air Force before he became Sadat's vice president, Gamal has never served in the military. He does not enjoy the strong backing of the military command, which prefers to see Mubarak's heir emerge from its ranks.
The prospect that a post-Mubarak Egypt will be seized by jihadist fervor capable of fomenting a jihadist takeover of the country is real. And both Israeli and US policy-makers should be planning contingencies for such a turn of events. But recent developments in Pakistan show that while it is possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could take over Egypt after Mubarak dies, it is also possible that a less conclusive reality will ensue.
MUBARAK'S RULE of Egypt bears many similarities to recently ousted president Pervez Musharraf's rule of Pakistan. Like Musharraf before him, Mubarak understands that his hold on power is based not on his own people's consent but on the US's continued political and financial support for his regime. Consequently, like Musharraf, Mubarak views secular democrats – who enjoy Western support – as greater threats to his regime than the jihadists, whom the West opposes.
So, too, like Musharraf, Mubarak's owes his ability to remain in power to his control of Egypt's military and intelligence services. And like Musharraf, Mubarak has maintained their support both because he himself emerged from their ranks and because he showers the army and intelligence services with economic power and social prestige.
It was the US's support for Musharraf's secular opponents and their call for elections that forced Musharraf from power this summer. The Pakistan the US now confronts is led by the weak government of newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari, who was sworn into office on Tuesday. Unlike Musharraf, who commanded the military as president, Zardawi has little sway over Pakistan's General Staff and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence force.
After the September 11 attacks on the US, Washington was so concerned with the prospect of what would happen if Musharraf were to leave office that it subordinated its own interest in defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida to its interest in maintaining him in power. For six years the US refrained from attacking al-Qaida and Taliban redoubts inside Pakistan for fear that doing so would weaken Musharraf's credibility within the military and among the Pakistani population in general. Like their Egyptian counterparts, Pakistanis are better disposed toward jihadists than they are toward the US. And in the interest of maintaining Musharraf's support for its operations in Afghanistan, the US allowed him to host al-Qaida and the
Taliban in Pakistan.
In Musharraf's last two years in office, the US's policy of self-restraint became increasingly untenable. The Taliban and al-Qaida took control over more and more of Pakistan's border provinces with Afghanistan and used the areas as launching pads for their stepped-up insurgency in Afghanistan. In recent months, it became apparent to Washington that if the US wishes to achieve victory in Afghanistan, it will need to extend its fight to Pakistan's border provinces.
Counterintuitively, it was Musharraf's very exit from power that has enabled the US in recent weeks to steeply intensify its operations in Pakistan. While Pakistan's military commander Gen. Ashfaq Kayani is far less supportive of the US than Musharraf was, he is also far weaker. What's more, the US has little investment in his longevity in power. The same is the case with Zardawi's government.
Last month, Kayani met with Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. David Petraeus, who has now taken command of the US Central Command, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. There he apparently rebuffed their request for Pakistani military support for American operations in Pakistan.
But given the US's lack of investment in Kayani, his refusal did not have the same effect as Musharraf's opposition to such raids had. Whereas the US respected Musharraf's refusal to allow American forces to operate in Pakistan, Washington feels free to ignore Kayani's objections.
The fact that in Pakistan today no one person or faction has the power to control the country is what rendered the US's stepped up operations inside of its border provinces with Afghanistan politically feasible. The US's stony silence in the face of Kayani's condemnation Wednesday of its ground forces' raid on a Taliban camp in Pakistan this week showed that America is no longer deterred by Pakistani objections.
There is no doubt that the current state of affairs in Pakistan is inherently unstable. If the US raises its military profile in Pakistan too much, it is liable to foment a backlash that could propel its enemies to power in that nuclear-armed state. But if the US is able to press its advantage with a weak regime, it may be able to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida before they muster the strength necessary to take over the country and so secure Pakistani neutrality for the foreseeable future.
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS in Pakistan show that the situation in Iran need not repeat itself in Egypt after Mubarak exits the scene. Weak interim regimes provide opportunities that do not exist in strongly authoritarian and deeply unpopular regimes.
Based on the current situation in post-Musharraf Pakistan, perhaps the US and Israel should not be fearing that if Gamal Mubarak fails to secure full control of Egypt after his father dies they will have to contend with an Iranian-style Muslim Brotherhood regime. Maybe what will emerge is a more amorphous situation where no one group will have the power to assert absolute power. Such a situation could free the US and Israel to concentrate on simply defeating their enemies, without concerning themselves with the fortunes of those who have yet to join in the fight against the forces of global jihad.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.