ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, held its second annual conference in the Washington area on October 22 – 24, 2009. More than 50 scholarly papers have been selected for presentation at this well-attended and successful conference.

The luncheon keynote speaker on Friday, October 23rd was Professor Bernard Lewis. His talk, entitled “The Iranian Difference,” focused on the centrality of Iran and its Islamic revolution to the future of the Middle East region, the Islamic world and the conflict with the West.

Iran’s Exceptionalism
Prof. Lewis articulated very clearly how Iran stands out in contrast with Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa region as follows:
– Iran is a true nation that is rich in ethnic diversity and enjoys a strong common national identity with a high degree of patriotism among its people.
– Iran is the only country to have succeeded in preserving its own Persian language, despite its adoption of an Arabic derived script and the infusion of Arabic words. In all other countries in that region, the Arab Moslem expansion out of Arabia decimated all local languages (the Berber and Kurdish languages are notable exceptions, though spoken by people not countries).
– Iran made very important contributions to human civilization in science, engineering (water and wind mills), communication (invented the first courier relay system), games (chess and backgammon), and food delights (sugar and candy).
– Most importantly, according to Prof. Lewis, Iran introduces a different understanding of fatalism in Islamic culture. Its concept is similar to the game of backgammon where the dice represent the fatalism of destiny but the player’s skills determine whether one wins or loses!!

The Iranian Revolution
Prof. Lewis explained how the word revolution was abused by regimes in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa in attempts to give legitimacy to what in reality amounted to coups or putsches. By contrast, the Iranian Revolution was a true phenomenon similar to the French and Russian Revolutions. While the French and Russian Revolutions transformed in radical ways the world of Christendom, so would the Iranian Revolution radically transform the world of Islam. As revolutions do go through phases, Prof. Lewis posed the question: Would the Iranian Revolution turn Napoleonic or Stalinist?

A Stalinist Revolution
Prof. Lewis expressed his conviction that the Iranian Revolution is Stalinist in nature and has, therefore, identified its struggle with its enemies in apocalyptic and messianic terms. According to him, the Iranian Revolution will go through three phases of struggle:
– Phase I: defeating its internal enemy – Sunni Islam – in order to impose Shiite hegemony. Prof. Lewis described Shiite ascendancy in the Gulf region, especially Iraq.
– Phase II: conquering its regional enemy, Israel, the only country capable of stopping Iran’s regional expansionist designs.
– Phase III: the apocalyptic phase consisting of the final struggle against the infidels – i.e. the West. According to Prof. Lewis, the United States should have no illusions about Iran and its designs against the West. He affirmed that Iran intends on having nuclear weapons in order to fulfill its apocalyptic prophecy. He also argued that while the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine did work as a deterrent in the case of Communism and the Soviet Union, it would be seen as an inducement and not a deterrent in the case of Iran and Islam. He reminded the audience of Ayatollah Khomeini’s book on the Islamic Revolution, stating that some had referred to that book as Khomeini’s Mein Kampf.

Options for the West
Prof. Lewis articulated the difficulty and fragility of the current situation. While there are openings and opportunities within Iran, either within the regime or from without that are opposed to the regime, he believes the current regime is so oppressive and repressive that any possible change will take a long time. He also cautioned against rushing towards a military solution to the nuclear dilemma because of complex regional security issues and the destructive capability of weapons at hand. He closed his speech, however, with the note that, in the end, a military solution may well indeed be the only feasible one.

Unanswered Questions
The core argument presented by Prof. Lewis rests on his assertion that the Iranian Revolution has global designs aimed at the destruction of the infidels – a clash of civilizations of sort.

The validity of such an assertion depends on passing a key test: How can Prof. Lewis reconcile his vision of the Iranian Revolution with the following facts:

September 11th
Iran was one of the first countries to condemn the terrorist attacks of September 11th. More significantly, Iran was the only Moslem country wherein candle light vigils in solidarity with the victims of September 11th took place on September 18th in a number of cities, including Teheran. No other Moslem country had that.

War on the Taliban
Following the Soviets’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and until the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom by the United States on October 7, 2001, Iran was the main country supporting a coalition of forces (Northern Alliance) fighting the Islamist extremist movement of the Taliban and their allies – Al Qaeda!

Upon the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. led forces, the Iranian government, while officially declaring its opposition to the invasion, in practice provided indirect support to the entire effort. In its report entitled Operation Enduring Freedom: Foreign Pledges of military and Intelligence Support – CRS Report: October 17, 2001, the Congressional Research Service stated:
“When the United States took the decision to invade Afghanistan in 2001, Iran remains a staunch opponent of the Taliban and has been providing weapons to the Northern Alliance. It has also closed its border with Afghanistan. In response to a request from the Bush Administration, Iran has agreed to rescue any American military personnel in distress in its territory.”

Following the toppling of the Taliban government in Afghanistan by U.S. led forces in 2001, American and Iranian diplomats met in Bonn, Germany, to develop a new constitution and establish a new government for Afghanistan. “None was more [helpful] than the Iranians,” said James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, writing in the Washington Post. “The original version of the Bonn agreement … neglected to mention either democracy or the war on terrorism. It was the Iranian representative who spotted these omissions and successfully urged that the newly emerging Afghan government be required to commit to both.”

Lionel Beehner of the Council on Foreign relations wrote on March 9, 2007, that “Iran also cooperated with the United Nations to repatriate nearly one million Afghan refugees residing on its soil and—working with United States, Russia, and India—provided support to the Northern Alliance.” Flynt Leverett of the Brookings Institution tells’s Bernard Gwertzman, “I think at least some Iranian officials were hoping could get leveraged into a broader strategic dialogue, but that channel was effectively foreclosed when President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address labeled Iran as part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’”

Dialogue Among Civilizations
It was Ayatollah Khatami, the President of Iran, who introduced in 2001 the theory known as Dialogue Among Civilizations to counter Samuel Huntington’s theory of Clash of Civilizations. His theory won worldwide approval as the United Nations adopted a resolution naming the year 2001 as the year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. Khatami published his book in Persian entitled Dialogue Among Civilizations in which he strongly advocated the need for civilizations to dialogue for the purpose of building a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Invasion of Iraq
While the government of Iran had officially condemned the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States and its allies, in reality, it facilitated U.S operations. In preparation for the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, U.S. government officials reached a secret agreement with Iraqi Shiite leaders. This enabled U.S. led forces to invade Iraq from the Shiite dominated south with minimal resistance. A key Shiite figure was Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, who headed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the main Shiite opposition group to the regime of Saddam Hussein. The group had, until the invasion of Iraq in 2003, been based in Iran and received much of its funding from Iran for almost 20 years.

The Iranian government led by reformer Ayatollah Khatami knocked repeatedly on the doors of Washington and sent strong signals aimed at starting a dialogue with the United States for the ultimate purpose of normalizing relations. For many reasons too long to list in this piece, the Bush Administration turned a deaf ear and countered with a policy of “regime change” in Iran. For more information on the missed opportunities by the United States in its dealings with Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979, please refer to the Security Debrief blog that I authored on May 29, 2009, entitled “Iran: the U.S. Needs a New Strategy.”

Jews and Christians in the Islamic Republic of Iran
There is no argument over the fact that the Islamist government of Iran imposes many restrictions on Jews and Christians living in that country, displays hostility toward them at times, and uses repressive means to combat conversions from Islam to other religions. This discriminatory and at times oppressive atmosphere within which Jews and Christians have to live with on a daily basis does not, however, justify the claim made by Prof. Lewis that the Iranian regime is bent on a war against the infidels.

No one knows the exact number of Christians currently present in Iran, but estimates vary between 200,000 to 300,000 Christians with a majority being Armenians. In 2008, the Iranian government increased from $70,000 to $300,000 its budget to assist in the restoration of Saint Stephanos Church in Jolfa, Iran, an 11th century Armenian church of great historical and religious significance to the Christian Armenian community worldwide. Furthermore, one of Iran’s closest allies is the Republic of Armenia, a country that claims to have been the first Christian Kingdom in the world.

The largest Jewish population in the entire Middle East outside of Israel is still today in Iran. On February 23, 2009, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Roger Cohen published a column from the Iranian city of Esfahan in which he stated: “…Still a mystery hovers over Iran’s Jews. It’s important to decide what’s more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshiping in relative tranquility. Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric. That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m convinced the ‘Mad Mullah’ caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.”

The Iranian Difference
While Prof. Lewis makes several valid points and presents a strong argument in support of his theory, facts on the ground and actions by Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 present a different reality.

Maybe Prof. Lewis needs to address another fundamental question regarding Iran. The West is currently engaged in a struggle against a Wahhabi/Salafi inspired transnational movement that:
– Was responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th as well as numerous other terrorist attacks throughout the world, including India, Spain, the United Kingdom, Israel, Turkey, Morocco, etc.
– Is waging war on Afghanistan and Pakistan, threatening the security of that entire region
– Is spreading its influence throughout the Sunni Moslem world in Africa, India, Europe, North and South America, etc.
– Is actively advocating a war against the Infidels, to use the word of Prof. Lewis

Could Iran, if approached by the West through a different prism, possibly make the difference in this worldwide struggle?