Is the US repeating with the Egyptian president the errors it made in handling the Shah?
In late 1978, US president Jimmy Carter faced a situation in Iran that looked strikingly similar to what President Barack Obama is dealing with today in Egypt. Massive demonstrations were being held in the streets of Teheran, calling for the ouster of the shah, who had been America’s key ally in the Persian Gulf. The White House did not know quite what to do: back the shah or seek his replacement.
The State Department recommended that a broad based coalition of Iranian politicians be formed to take power. There was also a group of American academics and even some officials who thought the US should reach out to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was living in exile outside of Paris.
Many of these experts advised a confused administration that Khomeini was someone the US could work with. The US ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, wrote that Khomeini would work well with younger officers in the shah’s army. There was also Richard Falk of Princeton University who wrote an article in The New York Times on February 16, 1979 entitled “Trusting Khomeini.” It argued that he was surrounded by moderate politicians who had a “notable record of concern for human rights.”
The shah’s defense minister saw how the US was preparing to seek the shah’s removal and concluded that Washington “took the shah by the tail, and threw him into exile like a dead rat.”
THERE ARE several similarities between US policy in 1979 toward Iran and its policy in 2011 toward Egypt. First, the Obama administration appears to be pursuing a policy of leaving all options open. Like Carter, Obama’s team has been indecisive in this crisis. Washington is not calling for Hosni Mubarak to resign, but it is not backing him and his government either. In fact, Obama’s tone toward Mubarak sounded surprisingly harsh, and even insulting. Obama disclosed in a press conference on January 28 that after hearing Mubarak’s speech to the Egyptian people, he told him over the phone that “he had a responsibility to give meaning to those words.” Obama insisted that the Egyptian leadership “take concrete steps” and not limit itself to rhetorical promises.
But it was White House press secretary Robert Gibbs who went beyond Obama by issuing what sounded like an implicit threat to Egypt. At a press briefing, he stated that the Egyptian government had to address the “legitimate grievances” of the people “immediately.”
A journalist then popped the question to Gibbs: “You say that these legitimate grievances have to be addressed. I’m wondering.
Or what?” Gibbs came back: “We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days.”
In other words, precisely when the Egyptian government had its back to the wall with the worst protests in recent history, the White House press secretary threatened the Mubarak with a cut in US foreign aid.
The US position did not go far enough to win the support of the Egyptian protesters, but by disgracing Mubarak the administration made statements that will alienate any future government based on Mubarak’s men. Moreover, what kind of signal did Gibbs’s threat about cutting aid send to King Abdullah of Jordan or to President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, as well as to other allies in the Persian Gulf? Did it mean that as soon as an Arab leader gets into trouble, he starts to get disowned? A second similarity between the two crises is the US reliance on individuals whom they hope will create stability and will not be exploited by more extremist forces. In 1979, ambassador Sullivan recommended that the Carter administration work with Mehdi Barzagan, who Khomeini wanted as prime minister, instead of Shaphur Bakhtiar whom the shah appointed to take over.
Barzagan’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi, was a US citizen who reassured influential Americans about Khomeini. Within eight months, Khomeini threw out Barzagan and Yazdi, once he no longer needed them, and appointed a new government that more reflected the Islamic revolution.
TODAY, MANY in the West call for making Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Islamic Energy Agency, an interim president to replace Mubarak. ElBaradei is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and appears to be the ideal instrument for it to reassure Western powers that it is safe to get rid of Mubarak. The danger is that he has no popular support, having lived outside of Egypt for many years. He would be a weak interim figure who could easily be toppled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
For that reason in the streets of Cairo, there have been reports that Muslim Brotherhood activists refer to ElBaradei and people like him as “donkeys of the revolution” – someone it can ride in on and then cast aside. It should be remembered that the Brotherhood is the best organized party in Egypt and has massive backing. It could easily get rid of ElBaradei once it is more securely in power.
Perhaps the most dangerous analogy between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011 is how the dangers of a new radical Islamic regime are understood. As noted earlier, many academics and officials tried to argue that Khomeini could be a partner for the US. The New York Times reported earlier this week that at a meeting with Middle East experts convened by the National Security Council on Monday, White House staff members “made clear that they did not rule out engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of an orderly process.”
This should not have come as a surprise. There have been significant voices in the US foreign policy community making the same argument for years, including a small but vocal group of former intelligence analysts. Additionally, the powerful quarterly Foreign Affairs, published an article in 2007 called “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood.” In the Middle East, there is little naivete about the Muslim Brotherhood. It is understood that it remains committed to militancy – not to moderation. Indeed, the current supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Muhammad Badi, gave a sermon in September 2010 stating that Muslims “need to understand that the improvement and change that the Muslim nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life.”
Many commentators note that most of the leaders of the main terrorist organizations are graduates of the Muslim Brotherhood, from al-Qaida members like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to Khaled Mashaal of Hamas.
The readiness of Western governments to risk the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will depend on how well they understand the true global implications of it coming to power, and not making the same mistake that was made in 1979.