Spreading the faith

BOB LEVIN July 27 1987

Spreading the faith

BOB LEVIN July 27 1987

Spreading the faith


Some time this week a Kuwaiti tanker is expected to sail into the Persian Gulf flying an American flag and protected by a U.S. naval escort. Last week Iran threatened to strike at any Arab state that provided port facilities for the U.S.-shielded ships. But it was clear that the Reagan administration would proceed with its plan to reflag Kuwaiti vessels despite the Iranian warnings and substantial opposition from Democratic congressmen, who argued that it would draw Washington deeper into the bitter seven-year-old war between Iran and Iraq. In a sense, that is precisely what the Kuwaitis want. The plan, which offers U.S. protection for 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers, came at the request of the Kuwaitis themselves, who also secured a Soviet escort for three tankers. But analysts say that the Kuwaitis’ ulterior motive was to seek superpower help in trying to end the grinding Gulf war. The Kuwaitis’ fear is clear enough: that an Iranian victory—or even a continued stalemate—would allow Tehran to export its Islamic Revolution throughout the Arab world.

Since the fall of the government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in February, 1979, the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has turned the spread of radical Islam into an article of fundamentalist faith. Iranian clerics travel widely, spreading Khomeini’s version of Allah’s word not only to fellow Shiite Moslems but also to the mainline Sunni Moslems, from whom the Shiites broke away in the seventh century. As well, Iranian agents have been directly implicated in terrorist activities in such countries as Lebanon, Kuwait and Egypt. Just how successful they have been at exporting Khomeinism is a matter of some debate. According to a French intelligence source, “The Khomeini revolution is exerting a powerful influence in the Moslem world, spreading its ideas directly and indirectly, through violence and political influence.”

But some analysts maintain that Iran’s powers of persuasion should not be overestimated. Despite intense Iranian pressure, Iraq’s Shiites, who comprise about 50 per cent of the population but are ruled by a Sunni minority, have so far remained largely loyal to the Baathist regime of President Saddam Hussein. The Iranians, said Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., had hoped “that the Shiite populations in the Gulf would rise up against their governments to establish Islamic

states. But Iran didn’t find the Shiite populations as sensitive as it had anticipated.” In fact, a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem argues that, with the exception of anarchic Lebanon, “Iran’s attempts so far to export its revolution have fallen through ignominiously.” But the Israeli added: “The picture could become more promising for the ayatollahs if Iraq suffered a substantial military or psychological defeat.”

In the current deadlock, however, some Iranian leaders are reportedly questioning the wisdom of giving unlimited support to radical Islamic groups abroad. According to U.S. intelligence sources, high-level Iranian officials, including parliamentary speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, have mounted a campaign to discredit Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the Iranian spiritual leader who is a passionate promoter of exporting revolution. Last October authorities arrested Mehdi Hashemi— a Montazeri protégé and the brother of Montazeri’s son-in-law —who had headed the powerful Bureau for Liberation Movements Abroad. Hashemi was accused of distributing money, arms and Iranian passports without permission—and has not been heard from since.

Meanwhile, Iran’s relations with France—a nation acutely concerned about Tehran’s efforts to export revo-

lution—took a precipitous turn for the worse last week. For over two weeks French police have been surrounding the Iranian Embassy in Paris, demanding to question Iranian interpreter Vahid Gordji about a series of terrorist bombings last year in the French capital. The diplomatic wrangles multiplied last week: Iranian gunboats attacked a French ship in the Persian Gulf, and Tehran accused French customs officials of beating up an Iranian attaché in Geneva and charged a French diplomat in Tehran with spy-

ing. Finally, France announced that it was breaking diplomatic relations with Iran. In response, a caller to two international news agencies in Beirut— claiming to speak for the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad (Holy War)—said that

the group would kill two French hostages.

The Iranian campaign to sow dissent among Iraqis has had some notable successes. Iraqi members of the Tehranlinked Al-Daawa al-Islamiya (Islamic Voice) party are believed responsible for numerous car-bomb attacks in Baghdad, and Tehranbased Iraqi dissidents have sometimes fought beside Iranian troops. But Israeli analysts say that Tehran underestimated Hussein’s hold on Iraq, which he maintains in part through his generous support for local mosques. And there is a darker side: using the army and the secret police, Hussein has ruthlessly suppressed members of AlDaawa and other opposition groups —simply liquidating the families * of some suspects.

Still, many analysts say that time is in the Iranian corner. If the war continues for another four or five years, said Iraq expert Amazia Bar-Am of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Iraq “will not be able to keep the civilian standard of living at the prewar high. This erodes the legitimacy of the regime and civilian morale.”

Should Iraq ultimately lose the war, the neighboring Kuwaitis are clearly concerned that they would be next in line. The Sunni-ruled state has contributed millions of petrodollars to Iraq’s war effort, making it a logical target for Iranian subversion. Over the past four years the country has been the scene of numerous terrorist attacks, including suicide truck-bomb strikes on the U.S. and French embassies in 1983 and an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Emir of Kuwait in 1985. Last week a car bomb exploded outside a commercial complex, killing two people.

In the past, Kuwaiti officials comforted themselves that such assaults were carried out by foreigners. Since June of last year, however, a series of fires in the country’s oil installations have been traced to sabotage by Kuwaiti Shiites. Last month six Shiite citizens were sentenced to death by hanging for a January incident. The attacks have spawned deep official suspicions toward all Kuwaiti Shiites, who comprise one-third of the country’s population of 1.7 million. The Kuwaiti government is now removing Shiites from sensitive positions in the oil sector, army and police.

Fear of creeping Khomeinism has

spread to other countries as well. In Bahrain, where 70 per cent of the population are Shiites, an Iran-backed coup attempt failed in 1981, prompting a tightening of internal security. In Saudi Arabia, Shiites comprise only eight per cent of the population but are concentrated in the oil-rich eastern provinces. In Turkey, government lead-

ers have charged Iran with trying to foment revolution among local Moslems, who make up more than 99 per cent of a population ruled by a secular government, and have instituted a partial Islamic penal code to placate local radicals. And this year both Tunisia and Egypt—where Islamic fundamentalist soldiers assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 — broke off relations with Tehran after accusing the Iranians of instigating Moslem extremism.

But in planting the seeds of radical Islam,

Iran has found the most fertile soil in Lebanon, whose Shiite community is the country’s largest and poorest sect. Since 1982 Tehran has kept a rotating squad of about 2,400 Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, a force that has indoctrinated, trained and financed Lebanese Shiites. Such terrorismlinked factions as the Hizbollah (Party of God) and the Lebanese branch of Al-Daawa are closely tied to Tehran.

“These guys are robots,” said a Lebanese Shiite source. “None of them does a thing without Tehran pushing the button.”

According to U.S. intelligence sources, the Iranian government, working with Lebanese Moslem leaders, has drafted a plan aimed at transforming Lebanon into a fundamentalist Islamic republic. Bakhash

of George Mason University said that over the last year and a half the Iranians have helped to establish Lebanese seminaries, which are rapidly turning out clerics charged with raising Shiite consciousness. At present, said Clinton Bailey of Tel Aviv University, most Shiites support the more moderate Shiite Amal militia but

“Hizbollah is gaining ground.”

How Iran will respond to the strengthened American presence in the Persian Gulf remains an open question. But one thing is certain: Tehran will continue its campaign to spread the Koran according to Khomeini among Moslems of the region. “Iranian policy has always been first and foremost to spread its revolution through propaganda,” said James Bill, professor of international studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “And

1 that continues. Their ra-

2 dio and television broadt casts are beamed up and

down the Persian Gulf. Like all revolutions, its ideas are in the wind.” The question is how far those ideas will ultimately blow—and how many governments they will topple.

-BOB LEVIN with JIM MUIR in Beirut, ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem, FRED A. REED in Tehran, WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington, IAN MATHER in London and CAROLE JEROME in Toronto