by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
In his brief stint as CIA director, Mike Pompeo brought God to Langley. At least that’s how it felt it to many in the intelligence community. According to Foreign Policy, Pompeo attended “weekly Bible studies held in government buildings, referenced God and Christianity repeatedly in his first all-hands speech” and planned to start “a chaplaincy for the CIA campus like the military has.” When challenged on these matters, a CIA spokesperson countered, “Director Pompeo is a man of faith…The idea that he should not practice his faith because he is Director of CIA is absurd.”
This Sunday, Secretary of State Pompeo will give an address in “support of Iranian voices” at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi, California as part of outreach to the Iranian-American community. In a background briefing on Thursday, a senior State Department official previewed Pompeo’s message. Reflecting the upcoming anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Pompeo will “survey the last 40 years of stealing from the Iranian people, the terrorism they have committed around the region, the brutal repression at home.” He will also expose “the corruption of the regime” and highlight “religious persecution.” These issues Pompeo will raise are not fictions, but the sincerity of his support for activism may be.
As Politico’s Nahal Toosi has written, the speech is part of a wider Trump administration policy, which Pompeo defined in May by issuing “12 demands of Iran’s clerical leaders, a list so broad that some analysts say it amounts to a call for regime change.” As unrest has gripped Iran, the administration “increased its use of social media targeting Iranians…to cheer on protests in Iran, highlight the government’s economic mismanagement and, especially lately, challenge its abuse of human rights.”
The Lure of Regime Change
During Thursday’s background briefing, the New Yorker’s Robin Wright asked specifically about the connection between the list of demands and any goals of regime change. The senior state department official countered that “nobody at the time thought that those 12 demands were a proxy for regime change” and explained that “the length of the list is simply a scope of the malign behavior of Iran.” The administration has been reluctant to directly disavow the idea of regime change.
For many Iranian-Americans who yearn to see an end to the Islamic Republic, the strong political messaging from Pompeo and the wider Trump administration, particularly the avowed support for protests in Iran, has galvanized a sense that regime change is achievable. As Mariam Memarsadeghi, a co-founder of Tavaana, an organization that helps support civil-society capacity-building in Iran and receives State Department funding, has tweeted, “I’m a never-Trumper, but believe in admin’s Iran approach.” In further indication of what that approach might be, Memarsadeghi has written that “the Islamic Republic must fall.”
What should replace the Islamic Republic is a question that few regime-change proponents have been able to answer in any real detail. But, as relayed by Reza Pahlavi, son of Iran’s deposed Shah, most Iranian-Americans who seek political change in Iran can agree that the country should be “a secular, parliamentary democracy.” To this end, Pahlavi notes, it is “not the form that matters, it’s the content” and that the “final form has to be decided by the people.”
But the insistence on seeing Iran become secular does clearly indicate a concern for form. After all, the Islamic Republic is structured with the authority of clerical leadership. In Memarsadeghi’s view, “Khomeinist totalitarianism is a totalitarianism rooted in Islam.”
Pompeo’s Religious Politics
Importantly, this is a view that Pompeo shares, not only because of his long-standing animosity towards Iran, but also because of his more specific beliefs about Islam. The former Kansas congressman once told his constituents in Wichita, “The threat to America is from people who deeply believe that Islam is the way and the light and the only answer.” In this conception, if totalitarianism or terrorism is the content of the Iranian policy, then the Islamic Republic is its enabling form.
But the role of secularism as a cornerstone of regime-change advocacy makes Pompeo an unlikely ally. Whatever the content of Pompeo’s own political and governmental leadership, its form is anything but secular. This is a man who has proclaimed that “to worship our Lord and celebrate our nation at the same place is not only our right, it is our duty” and has described politics as a “a never-ending struggle…until the rapture.”
A messianic view of politics is something Pompeo shares with many figures in Iran. Though his own politics were generally more juridical than mystical, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once exclaimed, “We place this revolution into the hands of the Mahdi: if it pleases God, let this revolution be the first step toward the appearance of The One Whom God Has Preserved, and let it pave the way for his arrival!”
That Pompeo sounds like an acolyte of the Islamic Republic is of great importance to the integrity of his support for Iranian voices. It is probably even more significant than his disdain for Islam, the faith to which millions of Iranians deeply adhere even if they wish religion would stay out of politics. How can a man like Pompeo advocate for secularism?
This question points to something of a double bind for Iranian-Americans who invite a closer dialogue with the administration on Iran’s political future. As they push for a secular Iran, they must decide whether the form of Pompeo’s beliefs, as well as those of other administration officials and Republican lawmakers, is compatible with their own advocacy, or whether content can actually overcome form.
Form v. Content
If form takes precedence, then the Iranian-American activist cannot align with this administration, which has sought to bring religious dogma into American political institutions. After all, if there is a body in Iran in which a religious form is responsible for unjust content, it is the judiciary, which enforces (and bends) the rule of law with an ideological outlook. But if proponents of regime change are to point to the judiciary to explain why secularism needs to be a cornerstone of their advocacy, they cannot in good conscience align with Pompeo. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, Pompeo released a statement declaring, “I am deeply saddened by the Supreme Court’s ruling that imposes legalized gay marriage…It is a shocking abuse of power. It is wrong. I will continue to fight to protect our most sacred institutions.” He was no doubt influenced by his participation in gatherings such as the U.S. Capitol Bible Study of Pastor Ralph Drollinger, who prepared a reading of the Book of Leviticus for members of Congress, including Pompeo, in the lead-up to the court’s deliberation, and which began with this introduction:
Surrounding the prohibited Hebrews were the permissive Canaanites who practiced same-sex marriage. Do you know any Canaanites today? How about Jewish folks? That illustrates the huge error of every society that has allowed sexual predilection to determine marriage privilege… Many are the simpletons who advocate that “love” should be the sole basis for sanctioning marriage rights. But if “love” is the reason for marriage then how can our courts deny matrimony to a petitioner who loves her cat?
Drollinger now leads the White House Bible Study Group, which includes Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and of course, Pompeo.
Perhaps the Iranian-American proponents of regime change can cast aside these issues on the basis that content takes precedence. In this assessment, Pompeo is advocating a sound policy on Iran, so his personal beliefs do not matter. But to assert that Pompeo is able to lead despite his personal beliefs is to concede that secularism in governance is really an institutional matter, not an ideological one. As I recently outlined in Bloomberg Opinion, aside from the judiciary, most of the relevant institutions in Iran responsible for routine state failures—chronic unemployment, environmental degradation, rampant corruption—are essentially secular spaces, neither run by religious leaders nor operated in accordance to religious prescriptions. In the American context, Pompeo’s bible study can remain a personal matter precisely because institutions create spaces that accommodate and constrain the non-secular. But as a result, the failures of the American government to meet the needs of its people, just as in Iran, ought to be attributed to the poorly functioning bureaucracies—institutions that will require slow and grinding reform even if Iran’s republic ceases to be Islamic.
Ahead of Sunday’s speech, it is dismaying to see so little critical engagement of these issues within the Iranian-American community itself. The Trump administration, committed to neither secularism nor freedom within the content of its own governance, is transparently adopting the form of “supporting Iranian voices” for ends that cannot be genuine. To adapt a revolutionary slogan about Iran being beholden to neither East nor West, the Iranian-American community must declare, “Neither Trump nor Khamenei: independent advocacy.” Until then, the calls for secularism and democracy in Iran will continue to be tainted by those to whom Iranian-Americans look for leadership.