Mohammed Amr, researcher focused on the Muslim Brotherhood
It might seem that the historic sectarian divide would keep the Shi’i ruling clergy of Iran and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood apart, but in fact the two forces have much in common. It is not only a tactical alliance. There two are connected by ideology and other historical ties in personnel, policy, and more.
Ideologically, and according to their own literature, it is not difficult to recognize the commonalities. Three are significant: establishing an Islamic state where religious law, the shari’a, must prevail as comprehensive governing system for the individual and society meanwhile; advancing pan-Islamism to try to unify the whole umma (Muslim community) and replace the international order of states; and a virulent hatred of the West, undergirded by conspiracy theories, notably antisemitism.
The ties between the revolutionary clergy in Iran and the Brotherhood extend back to before the founding of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979. Mojtaba Mirlohi, better known as Navvab Safavi (1924-56), founded the Fada’iyan-e-Islam, the first Islamist terrorist group in modern Iran, in 1946. Safavi played an important role in linking the Shi’i Islamists to Islamist movements in other countries. In 1954, Safavi visited Egypt to meet Sayyed Qutb (see Fig. 1), the paramount ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb and Safawi believed in the same approaches to hakemiya (God’s sovereignty), jaheliyya (pre-Islamic ignorance), jihad, and the necessity of bridging the Shi’a-Sunni divide to form a common front against the Westernization of the Muslim world.
Safavi was executed in 1956 after he tried to assassinate the Iranian prime minister—and Qutb would be sent to the gallows ten years later for a similar plot in Egypt—but the cross-pollination of ideas they had begun continued. Safavi’s men and their Brotherhood-influenced ideas were absorbed into the revolutionary movement in Iran that came under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1970s. Qutb’s ideology significantly contributed to the formulation of the anti-Shah revolutionary discourse in the lead-up to the demise of the monarchy.
Of note, the current Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was drawn into politics after he met Safavi and found his espousal of Qutbist-like notions persuasive. So much so that Khamenei took the time to translate two books of Qutb’s before the revolution, and remains an admirer of Qutb’s perspective on Islam as a “revolutionary system of political and social governance”. One can see Qutb’s influence on the Iranian theocracy in other, smaller ways. For example, a stamp bearing Qutb’s image was issued in Iran after the mullahs seized power.
Given this background, it was not a surprise that the Brotherhood’s various global chapters sent delegations to Paris to congratulate Ayatollah Khomeini on the eve of his return in triumph to Iran (this was after the departure of the Shah and just before the Islamists’ coup against the Imperial Government). Khomeini’s operatives in the West like Ebrahim Yazdi had been working with Brotherhood officials for years, as had the important Iranian Islamist intellectual, Ali Shariati, based in Britain, who was key in creating the so-called “red mullah” trend within the revolution—the fusion of Marxist concepts with religious doctrine.
In January 1982, Umar Telmesani, the supreme leader of the Brotherhood, told one of the Egyptian weekly magazines: “We supported [Khomeini] politically, because an oppressed people had managed to get rid of an oppressive ruler and to regain their freedom”. Of course, by that time the theocratic government in Iran had imposed a far more repressive regime than what had come before and massacred tens of thousands of political opponents. (With the single exception of Bijan Jazani and his comrades, Communist terrorists killed at Evin Prison in 1975, the Shah’s government never extrajudicially executed those who could by any definition be called political prisoners. On the contrary, the Shah routinely commuted the capital sentences even of terrorists, specifically those who targeted him personally.)
Similarly, the Jordanian Brethren, in their appraisal of Khomeini’s victory, stated that “strengthening the Islamic revolution in Iran is a determination that is completely harmonious with the emblems of the group … It was from the primary aspirations of our Imam, the Shaheed (Martyr), Hasan al-Banna … [H]e expended great effort in bringing nearness between the Sunnah and the Shi’a … [I]n this path, he had very strong ties with many of the trusted Shi’ite men such as the Imam Ayatollah al-Kashani, and the revolutionary martyr Nawab Safawi and the Imam Kashif al-Ghitaa in Iraq and others.”
The Iranian clerical regime has imbibed aspects of the Brotherhood’s ideology and celebrates some of its historical figures, like Khaled al-Islambuli, the Qutb-influenced Islamist who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 (see Fig. 2). Tehran hailed Al-Islambuli as an Islamic hero and honored a street with his name for more than two decades, until it was renamed in 2004 as Iran sought better relations with Egypt.
From the Muslim Brotherhood side, the attraction of the Iranian revolution was the inspiration it provided to believe that an Islamist revolution was possible. If Iran, whose ruler, the Shah, was the most powerful in the area and the most closely aligned with the West, could fall to the theocrats, then it meant the Brotherhood’s dream of an Islamic state of their own in places like Egypt was not so far-fetched.
Additionally, for the Brotherhood, a movement born partly as a response to the British influence in the Egypt of the 1920s, the Iranian revolution was particularly attractive because it took on a narrative of the downtrodden and the dispossessed rising against a puppet of Western imperialism. It did not matter that this was untrue—that by this time the Shah was more independent of the West than he had ever been. What mattered, as Tunisian Brotherhood leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi later explained, was the language it gave the Islamists to “Islamize some Leftist social concepts and to accommodate the social conflict within an Islamic context”.
Over time, the Brotherhood has undergone an evolution, at least on the surface, that distanced its approach from that of Iran’s revolutionary clergy.
One crucial reason for the this was the realization that without Western acquiescence, they could not take the reins of power. This was demonstrated in Algeria in 1992, when the military junta, with tacit Western support, cancelled the elections that the Islamists won and a horrific civil war erupted that ended with the defeat and discredit of the Islamists. It was demonstrated again in Gaza in 2006, when the Brotherhood’s Palestinian wing, Hamas, won the elections, and because of its professed extremism—its hardline social Islamism and its intent to eliminate Israel—was isolated and neutralized under the banner of the Global War on Terrorism. To escape this, the Brotherhood rebranded itself as highly distinct from the jihadists, adopting the language of democracy, reform, and even liberalism—a path that Iran’s rulers, with their implacable hostility to the West, cannot support.
Another important factor was geopolitics. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) quickly broke with the Iranian theocracy in the early 1980s. As Raphael Lefevre explains in his book, Ashes of Hama, when the SMB rose up against the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, it received vast support from Assad’s Ba’athist rival in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein. And Clerical Iran, then-engaged in a brutal war with Saddam’s regime, supported Assad in his struggle with the SMB. The SMB uprising was crushed at Hama in February 1982 in a massacre that killed 20,000 people. The SMB never forgave Iran’s leaders. Most other Brotherhood branches were able to look past this episode, however, and serve Iran’s purpose of “a bridge for improving relations with the Sunni Muslim world.” This ended with the second round in Syria: the outbreak of rebellion against Hafez’s son, Bashar, in 2011, spiraled into a regional sectarian confrontation with Iran committed on Assad’s side, providing the bulk of the ground forces that have kept him in power. The Syrian war has done potentially irreparable damage—in political-organizational terms—to the relationship between Iran’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, though doubtless tactical cooperation will continue as and when it suits both sides.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s new approach was road tested after the “Arab spring”, in Tunisia and Egypt most prominently. The Brotherhood’s local branch in Tunisia, Ennahda, has, after experimenting with trying to govern alone, moved in early 2014 towards a more consensual approach, finding a workable compact with the domestic secular forces. It is likely Ennahda’s decision-making was influenced by what happened in Egypt, where the Brotherhood tried to go it alone in government and was ousted by the military in July 2013 after street demonstrations were ginned up against them.
In the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power in Egypt, its president, Mohamed Morsi, had improved Egypt’s relations with Iran. In August 2012, Morsi himself visited Iran, the first time an Egyptian leader had been in Iran since the 1980s when the two broke off diplomatic relations. Then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended an Islamic summit in Cairo in February 2013. Iran sought to enhance ties the Brotherhood through assistance to the Egyptian economy, in particular a package to promote Egyptian tourism to Iranians, provide oil shipments, and implement various trade agreements. In turn, Morsi tilted Egypt’s diplomacy to Iran’s side in the confrontation with the international community over Tehran’s nuclear program—though in all of this activity the shadow of Syria dampened how far things could go, as did the reserve strength of Egypt’s military.
At the present time, the Iranian regime’s closest Brotherhood connection is undoubtedly Hamas, which also receives support—facilitated by Israel—from Qatar, the primary regional state-sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Tehran also retains its strong relations with Islamic Jihad, a movement once led by Al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But Iran retains other Brotherhood links. As the tide has turned after the Arab revolts—with the rise of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and the leading role played by the counter-revolutionary states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in shaping the regional agenda—the Brotherhood has been reduced in power, excluded from the political process in Egypt and banned by many Arab states. Iran’s leadership continues to protest the Brotherhood’s fall from power in Egypt and publicly object to efforts to legally curb the influence of the Brotherhood. Beyond this rhetorical support, it is not impossible to imagine Iran establishing Hamas-like relations with other Brotherhood factions, particularly the violent splinter groups in Egypt, as a means of countering the Saudi-U.A.E. bloc. This, after all, would be in-keeping with the Islamic Republic’s “Hezbollah model”, of proxies and deniable terrorist instruments, which have been the hallmark of its statecraft since 1979.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.