Stay Out of Iran's Evolutionary Process

Everyone is looking for something to say about Iran. The neoconservatives are predictably hailing the march of democracy on the streets of Tehran for reasons of their own, while hawks like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham are calling on the Obama Administration to do something to help anyone tagged as a reformer. More moderate voices are generally supporting President Barack Obama's initial show of restraint, avoiding any open support of either side, and only condemning the violence because it is disproportionate and due to the suffering it has caused. Still others are calling on the United States to avoid any interference of any kind. The non-interventionists themselves fall into two camps: the constitutionalists and libertarians believe that interfering in other people's quarrels is intrinsically problematical because as John Quincy Adams said, "America does not need to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Realists argue that interventions by the United States rarely turn out well, citing the cases of Vietnam, Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Somalia and more.

Having spent much of my working life as an intelligence officer on the street in places like Istanbul, I am astonished at what passes for expertise in the debate over what to do about Iran. It is clear that even the few genuine experts on Iran don't really know what is going on there because they are slaves to their sources of information, which tend to reflect their own philosophical viewpoints and are, in any event, narrowly based. It is conventional wisdom in most of the US media that the Iranian election was stolen, the result of massive fraud. But was it? Opinion polls conducted by a US-based organization several weeks before the polling predicted an Ahmadinejad victory. The president is hugely popular among poor rural Iranians and also enjoys overwhelming support for his defense of Iran's right to develop nuclear energy. Elections are very complex affairs and how a talking head sitting in Washington, breathlessly interpreting grainy texting images, can even pretend to understand what is going on in Iran and why defies all logic, particularly if the expert in question speaks no Farsi and probably would have difficulty in locating Isfahan on a map.

Mir Hossein Mousavi is a reformer and modernist, isn't he? Perhaps not. He has always been extremely conservative in his political alignments. As Prime Minister in 1981–9, he was regarded as a hardliner. He started Iran's nuclear program, helped found Hezbollah and may have directed the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. He is, in reality, a defender of extremely corrupt vested interests. That he has attracted the support of the so-called "Gucci crowd" of twentyish twitterers does not mean that he has embraced western values. As president, he would not abandon nuclear energy and would not immediately begin to talk nice to Barack Obama. His reformer credentials are pretty much non-existent, the creation of a media and an engaged punditry that wants to explain the Iran crisis in terms that a European or American audience would find comfortable.

And then there is the corruption issue, Iran's six-hundred-pound gorilla. Mousavi is heir to the corrupt Iran of the post-revolutionary period when the country was looted by the senior clerics cooperating with the business class, the bazaaris. Some intelligence sources believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been demonized by the western media, is actually the reformer in that he has taken on the country's pervasive corruption with the full support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. Massive corruption has been business as usual in Iran, frequently managed by politicians who have called themselves reformers. Another so-called reformer, who is the money man behind Mousavi, is former Iranian Majlis speaker Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, nicknamed "the Shark." Rafsanjani is a billionaire who controls large sectors of the country's economy, to include a chain of private universities which became the source of the young organizers who brought the twitterers out on the street.

If there was one thing I learned from twenty years of experience as a military intelligence and CIA officer it is that nothing is ever what it seems. If a situation appears to be clear-cut, with good guys and bad guys arrayed against each other it is probably anything but. So maybe black and white comes out gray. All the more reason to step back. The interventionists from both left and right do not make it clear what the United States should do to help the "reformers." Perhaps that is just as well as the only options would be to hurl empty threats, start bombing, or initiate yet another CIA covert action to destabilize the regime, ignoring the lessons of the CIA's 1953 debacle, and with the predictable and contrary result of actually strengthening the clerics and their rule.

Change by evolution is better than by revolution. Both metamorphoses are underway in Iran: one is immediate and reactionary and, perhaps necessarily, more graphic and even grim. The other suggests the possibility that long-lasting change might happen in Tehran – if outside influences do not upset the sensitive process of transformation. As is frequently the case, those who would do nothing probably have it right, whether arguing for constitutional reasons or as realists. Iran and its elections is an issue that we do not and cannot understand and it is ultimately an issue that has to be decided by the Iranian people. Rightly or wrongly, outside interference in what is taking place on the streets of Tehran will be exploited by the regime to deflect any legitimate criticism, making any change even less likely. The old Hippocratic advice to doctors to "do no harm" should perhaps be the best advice for the American political chattering classes and the media. Doing no harm regarding events in Iran is to stay out of it.

Philip M. Giraldi, Ph.D. is the Francis Walsingham Fellow for the American Conservative Defense Alliance and a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer who served 18 years overseas in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain.