The Shi’i Islamist regime in Iran has a long relationship with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, as the European Eye on Radicalization has previously documented. New details demonstrating that this relationship continues were recently published in The Intercept by James Risen.
The Brethren and the revolutionary clergy that rule Iran were in contact before the 1978-9 Islamist revolt that felled the Shah. The Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, established contact before he was assassinated in 1949, and Iranian terrorist leaders, the seedbed for the later revolutionaries, like Mojtaba Mirlohi (Navvab Safavi), linked up with Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. The whole language of the Iranian Islamist movement drew on the Brotherhood’s lexicon and concepts.
Key operatives who enabled the Iranian Islamist movement to sweep to power in 1979, like Ebrahim Yazdi, collaborated with the Brotherhood’s international networks. Yazdi was the smooth-talking, seemingly-Westernized representative of the revolution’s leader and the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was Yazdi who helped convince so many in the West that they should not fear the fall of the Shah since the next regime would be a liberal one—with Khomeini confined to a seminary in Qom. The current Iranian Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, came into politics via Mirlohi, and remains an admirer of Qutb’s.
The major exception for Iran has always been the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has never forgiven the clerical regime for its support of the Assad dynasty, specifically the brutal crushing, in the city of Hama in February 1982, of the Brotherhood-led uprising that began in the late 1970s. In general, the Brotherhood regarded the Iranian theocracy’s pan-Islamist message as sincere, and the advent of its Islamist regime as an example to aspire to. A similar view was held by “harder” Islamists who would go on to form the Salafi-jihadist movement, notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda. But the Syrian Brothers saw the Tehran model as sectarian through-and-through—a Shi’i republic that had stood by an Alawi tyranny in the murder of Sunnis.
Egypt and its Brotherhood, the mother branch of the global organization, are quite different from Syria’s. Free of the sectarian divides of the Levant, Egyptians have one of the more Shi’a-sympathetic Muslim identities. As mentioned, Qutb made contact with the forebears of Iran’s current rulers, and it is no secret that Iran’s regime was in contact with the Egyptian Brotherhood up to 2012 and 2013: Iranian representatives travelled to Egypt to publicly embrace then-Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, and Morsi openly went to Iran.
After the removal of Morsi in July 2013, however, with the country moving firmly in the Saudi/U.A.E.-led Gulf bloc, it was unclear how much Tehran even could help the Egyptian Brotherhood, and therefore unknown how much contact remained.
Risen’s article in The Intercept draws from an Iranian intelligence cable sent by a representative of the Ministry of Intelligence (Vezarat-e Ettelaat), the former VEVAK or Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), which is now generally called Ettelaat for short.
The Ettelaat operative who sent the cable was effectively a spy at a meeting with the Egyptian Brotherhood organized by the external wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Ettelaat tries to keep an eye on the IRGC-QF, a bureaucratic rival that is more powerful within the Iranian state in dealing with foreign allies and proxies. (Other leaked Iranian cables from Iraq published by The Intercept show Ettelaat working effectively as subordinate to IRGC as Iran’s spy-terror apparatus fastened its grip over Baghdad.)
The meeting took place in April 2014. The IRGC-QF commander, Qassem Soleimani, effectively Iran’s deputy leader, was prevented from attending the meeting at a hotel in Turkey because the Turkish government adhered to the sanctions on Iran, specifically Soleimani, and therefore he was banned from entering the country. A certain “Abu Hussain” attended the meeting in Soleimani’s place, Risen reports. “The Trump administration designated the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization in April , and the White House has reportedly been lobbying to add the Muslim Brotherhood to the list as well.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood was represented by three of its most prominent Egyptian leaders in exile: Ibrahim Munir Mustafa, Mahmoud El-Abiary, and Youssef Moustafa Nada”, Risen explains. Nada was briefly well-known when sanctioned by the United Nations during George W. Bush’s administration for funding Al-Qaeda, though these sanctions were later dropped for lack of evidence. Nada—the only one of these three Brethren available for comment—flatly denied to The Intercept that the meeting took place.
The context of the meeting was as the Islamic State (ISIS) was beginning its rampage across Iraq and Syria that would culminate in the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014. In January 2014, Fallujah had fallen to ISIS, and the sectarian, authoritarian, Iran-loyal Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki had begun a counter-offensive that was as clumsy as it was brutal and included the use of IRGC-QF proxy militias like Asaib Ahl al-Haq that would soon openly form—and had already in embryo format created—the Shi’a militia conglomerate in Iraq, modelled on the IRGC in Iran, known as the Hashd al-Sha’abi.
The purpose of the meeting, as one of the Brotherhood leaders said, having acknowledged the Sunni-Shi’a schism, was to find “joint grounds for cooperation”. The Brotherhood said that shared hostility to Saudi Arabia—“the common enemy”—was an area of potentially fruitful operations, and the Brethren thought that Yemen was the best place to start.
“In Yemen, with the influence of Iran on [the] Houthis and the influence of the Brotherhood on the armed tribal Sunni factions [like Al-Islah], there should be a joint effort to decrease the conflict between Houthis and Sunni tribes to be able to use their strength against Saudi Arabia,” said the Brotherhood delegation.
Iraq was seen by the Brothers as another place where Iran-Brotherhood interests could align. “On Iraq, it is good to lessen the tension between Shi’a and Sunni and give Sunnis a chance to participate in the Iraqi government as well,” one of the Brotherhood leaders said, according to the Ettelaat cable. The Brotherhood recognized, however, that there was “nothing … to be done about” Syria, where the two were irretrievably opposed.
The Brotherhood refused “any help from Iran to act against the government of Egypt”, probably because it understood how damaging it would be politically if it was seen to be accepting Iranian help.
There was some minor tension at the meeting, with the Brotherhood disparaging the Qods Force for not taking the “patient” path to power, and the Qods Force in turn “disagree[ing] that there should be an alliance of Shi’a and Sunni”. Yet, in terms of concrete policy, whatever their tactical-ideological differences, the Qods Force said they “never had any differences with the Brotherhood”.
Even in the heightened sectarian atmosphere of the Middle East of recent years, the Islamists have more in common with one another than with the general masses of Muslims who are trying to build and rebuild normal lives after a period of turmoil and certainly more in common than they have with the West. As such, the likelihood of cooperation will remain high, and policymakers should have this in mind when trying to construct a strategy that contains Iran’s regime and Sunni radicalism.