Harold Rhode is an expert on Islam and the Middle East. He has a PhD from Columbia in Islamic studies and Middle Eastern history. He is fluent in Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish.
Rhode recently retired from the Pentagon where he worked for the Office of Net Assessment. This is an internal Defense Department think-tank that deals with the risks and opportunities facing the U.S. Rhode has, in his words, “lived in various places in the Muslim world over the years and my goal was to sit in cafes and to talk with people and to really understand how they view the world — not to agree or disagree, but to understand the mind-set. . . .”
The Jerusalem Post recently interviewed Rhode. It presents the fruits of its interview in two articles. The first article begins with the remarkable story of how, with an assist from Vice President Cheney, Rhode helped salvage items from the Iraqi Jewish archive. The archive had been housed in the building of the Iraqi security services, and the building was hit by a missile during the war, causing extensive damage, including water damage.
Rhode then expresses his view that the issue of Iraqi WMD was a pretext for invading Iraq which was used to obtain British support. This doesn’t mean Rhode believes that Iraq did not have WMD. Indeed, he still believes (or strongly suspects) that Iraq had them on the eve of the invasion and moved them to Syria. But, from his perspective, the war was about liberating Iraq and ridding it of Saddam, an important ally of those who want to destroy the West.
Rhode concludes by assessing the current in Iraq. He argues that, although progress has been slow and unsteady, the country is now on the right path.
The second article concerns Iran. According to Rhode, Iran is now being run by people so extreme that they scared Ayatollah Khomeini. Mainstream Shiites believe that the 12th imam is the messiah. He disappeared in 873 CE but will return. Until he does, all political rule is illegitimate, and the proper role of the senior Shi’ite establishment is to worry about the spiritual needs of the flock.
Khomeini came to accept the view that religious leaders can rule before the return of the mahdi. However, the current regime goes further and holds that the return can behastened by provoking a conflagration, thus forcing the mahdi to return and save the world.
However, Rhode sense that the regime’s hold on the country is slipping:
The two basic questions we have to ask ourselves are does the regime have the will and the ability to keep itself in power? The answer to those questions is changing. I have no doubt that it wants to stay in power, but now the regime is no longer the mullahs, it is the Revolutionary Guards, and they are fighting among themselves about how to do this, and that’s very good. What we are also noticing now is that a lot of the senior revolutionary guards are putting money abroad. That’s a very bad sign for the regime. More and more of the middle classes, who are basically part of the regime, are leaving overseas. Those are very bad signs [for the regime].
Rhode also thinks the development of democracy in Iraq is fueling discontent in Iran:
When the Iranians look to their fellow Shi’ites [in Iraq] who are Arabs – what Iranians think about Arabs, including Shi’ites, is that they are rodent eaters or lizard eaters; those are the Persian terms for Arabs – they say if they can have something [democracy], why can’t we. We’re much more sophisticated.
Rhode’s views are quite controversial and I suspect that most readers have already found something to disagree with. This makes the two articles more, not less, worth reading