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“Whoever took religion seriously?”

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from the DIME/PMESII boards at LinkedIn ]

I’ve been hammering away at the importance of a nuanced understanding of religious drivers in successful modeling of our world, and today I ran across some paragraphs from a book by Gary Sick that explain, forcefully and briefly, just why this seems like a big deal to me.


Sick, who was the National Security Council’s point man on Iran at the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini‘s Iranian Revolution, recounts how totally unprepared we were for the sudden emergence of a theocracy in his book, All Fall Down:

Vision is influenced by expectations, and perceptions — especially in politics — are colored by the models and analogies all of us carry in our heads. Unfortunately, there were no relevant models in Western political tradition to explain what we were seeing in Iran during the revolution. This contradiction between expectation and reality was so profound and so persistent that it interfered fundamentally with the normal processes of observation and analysis on which all of us instinctively rely.

On one level, it helps to explain why the early-warning functions of all existing intelligence systems — from SAVAK to Mossad to the CIA — failed so utterly in the Iranian case. Certainly, US intelligence capability to track the shah’s domestic opposition had been allowed to deteriorate almost to the vanishing point. But even if it had not, it would probably have looked in the wrong place. Only in retrospect is it obvious that a good intelligence organization should have focused its attention on the religious schools, the mosques and the recorded sermons of an aged religious leader who had been living in exile for fourteen years. As one State Department official remarked in some exasperation after the revolution, “Whoever took religion seriously?”

Even after it became clear that the revolution was gaining momentum and that the movement was being organized through the mosques in the name of Khomeini, observers of all stripes assumed that the purely religious forces were merely a means to the end of ousting the shah and that their political role would be severely limited in the political environment following the shah’s departure, The mosque, it was believed, would serve as the transmission belt of the revolution, but its political importance would quickly wane once its initial objectives had been achieved.


The blissful ignorance didn’t end back there in 1979. Right at the end of 2006, reporter Jeff Stein asked Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Dem, TX), the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee (which has oversight of the entire US Intelligence Community) whether Al-Qaida was Sunni or Shiite – noting in two asides, “Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East” and “To me, it’s like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who’s on what side?”

Reyes guessed wrong – not good – and so did a lot of other senior people in the FBI, Congress and so forth. Understandable perhaps, but still, not good.

The popular media keep many of the rest of us confused, too. Glenn Beck has been misinformed by the Christian thriller writer Joel Rosenberg, and refers to the “Twelvers” when he means the “Anjoman-e Hojjatieh” -which, to extend Stein’s point, is the equivalent of saying “Catholic Church” when you mean “Legionnaires of Christ”.


Okay, we know that religion has something to do with all this Iran – and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq, and Yemen, and Somalia, and Nigeria — and maybe even homegrown — mess. And I agree, other people’s religions really aren’t our business normally, and it’s not surprising if we don’t know much about them.

Except, I’d say, when religions take up the sword, or have significant power to influence decisions about the use of nuclear weapons — at which point it’s appropriate to get up to speed…

3 Responses to ““Whoever took religion seriously?””

  1. zen Says:

    It would have helped if the CIA had been permitted by three administrations, from 1969-1979, to do anything other than liason with SAVAK. The CIA was forbidden from conducting normal intel activities in Iran or even against Iranian exiles, by the White House because it aggravated the Shah’s paranoia, which jeaopardized lucrative arms deals with Teheran and listening post agreements aimed at the USSR.
    Mr. Sick, I must note, was the guy enforcing these prohibitions on the CIA for the Carter administration even as the Vance-Christopher State Department was bonging all reports critical of Khomeini. Sick was part of the politicized "hear no evil, see no evil" myopia he aptly described.

  2. Joseph Fouche Says:

    It’s even worse than that. Many elements of the Iranian opposition that powered the 1979 revolution had no clue that it would end in theocracy. They were blind to the sharp pointy end of Khomenei’s use of religion until they were overwhelmed. When the Iranian students occupied the U.S. embassy in 1979, they thought they would quickly be removed by the revolutionary government. Khomenei exploited the situation and used it as an excuse to purge many of the more secular factions from the Iranian revolutionary government. The Iraqi invasion in 1980 sealed the deal.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Always an education, gentlemen.

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