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Going to Tehran
Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran
By Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett
Picador Copyright © 2013 Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
All rights reserved.
A REVOLUTIONARY STATE IN A DANGEROUS WORLD
The position of a state in the world depends on the degree of independence it has attained.
— Leopold von Ranke, 1833
In a surprise assault beginning on September 22, 1980, more than half of Saddam Husayn's army poured into the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran, seizing significant chunks of its territory. Defying the Iraqi president's expectations of quick victory, the new government in Tehran mounted a tenacious defense of its homeland. Over eight bloody years, Iran recaptured all the territory the Iraqis had taken, paying a horrible price in the process.
In 1982, the Iraqi forces began using chemical weapons — initially, tear gas — on the battlefield; from 1983 on, they unleashed more potent chemical weapons, mainly mustard gas and nerve agents, against Iranian forces as well as against civilian targets. Iraqi officials later told United Nations inspectors that their military had used approximately 100,000 munitions filled with chemical weapons against Iran. To raise the cost of resistance even more, in 1984 Iraq made population centers its primary target, opening the so-called war of the cities, with air and missile strikes that continued until the fighting ended, in 1988. By then, more than 200,000 Iranians had been killed and almost 400,000 injured. More than 10,000 Iranian victims of Iraqi chemical weapons attacks died; 60,000 to 90,000 continue to suffer — in many cases, acutely — from the effects of their exposure. Beyond the human cost, the war inflicted extensive damage on Iran's economy and infrastructure.
What Iranians to this day call the Imposed War and the Holy Defense had a profound effect on the way they see their country's strategic situation. It drove home how severely the Islamic Republic, as a revolutionary state, is threatened in a dangerous world. For it was not launched solely by a power-mad tyrant seeking more territory. Throughout his war of aggression, Saddam had the financial, logistical, political, and intelligence support of the United States, other Western powers, and the Arab world's richest states. In September 1987, as the war still raged, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, then Iran's president, told the United Nations General Assembly that "no revolution is safe from the counterstrikes of the power system dominating our world, but the variety, the depth, and the enormity of the enmities and the wild anger unleashed against us ... constitute an exceptionally interesting story." This view remains widely shared by his compatriots.
Western students of international affairs have long divided states into two categories. Those that accept the formal and informal rules of international interactions and the distribution of power underlying them are said to pursue "status quo" foreign policies; those that do not accept the prevailing international order and want to change it in fundamental ways are deemed to have "revisionist" or even "revolutionary" foreign policies. The distinction is problematic; it overlooks the fact that consequential states (including, for most of its history, the United States) usually seek to increase their power relative to others even as they work within prevailing frameworks of international order. Nevertheless, it continues to influence the way in which Westerners, and especially Americans, think and talk about international relations.
For all that the United States is the product of a revolution, it has generally not liked revolutions in other countries and has certainly not approved of states with what it considers revolutionary foreign policies. Many analysts argue that revolutionary states are, almost by definition, more likely than others to initiate conflict, either because their ideologies compel them to export their revolutions (even in violation of international norms of sovereignty and nonintervention) or because their internally fractious nature creates a need to divert public attention from domestic problems by creating external enemies. In Western discourse, the Islamic Republic is commonly tagged with this image of the revolutionary state as an ideologically driven aggressor.
The historical record shows that postrevolutionary Iran has been — and, Iranians say, desires to be — a fundamentally defensive state. In contrast to other Middle Eastern powers, it has never attacked another state or even threatened to attack one. In fact, since the revolution it has grown less and less capable of projecting conventional military force beyond its borders. The Iranians who forced the shah from his throne in 1979 inherited the powerful U.S.-armed military he had built up during the last quarter century of his reign. But in the revolution's wake, most of the officers who had commanded the shah's military either fled or were executed. Washington cut off logistical and technical support immediately after the revolution, a debilitating measure that was exacerbated by an embargo on military shipments from most other countries during the Iran-Iraq War. Once the war ended, the Iranian government shifted budgetary resources away from the military and toward reconstruction and economic development, reducing the nation's conventional military capability to marginal levels. Today, the United States spends almost seventy times more on defense than Iran does, Saudi Arabia more than quadruple, and Israel nearly double. Assertions that the Islamic Republic poses an offensive threat are baseless; to borrow a phrase from the U.S. Army, it won't be parking its tanks in anybody's front yard anytime soon.
While some revolutionary states have been aggressors, they are not inevitably so; history shows that a revolutionary order can just as easily become the target of aggression by states that, fearful of destabilizing contagion, calculate that its internal upheaval makes it more vulnerable to defeat. This was precisely the Islamic Republic's experience. It had to fight off a devastating Iraqi invasion launched less than eighteen months after its creation — an invasion prompted by Saddam's confidence that the fledgling state could not defend itself. Coming out of this war, Iranian policy makers understood that a stable region was crucial — for postwar reconstruction, for longer-term economic development, and for the growth of the Islamic Republic's regional influence. As one Iranian academic points out, his nation's "interest in a stable Middle East is arguably greater than that of the United States — after all, this is Iran's neighborhood."
The essence of sound strategic calculation — whether by a diplomat, general, CEO, or coach — is what game theorists and business school professors call "interdependent decision" — the recognition that determining your best course of action depends in considerable measure on understanding the agendas of your competitors and assessing accurately how they will react to your decisions. But American myths badly distort the discussion of Iran's strategic concerns, perceptions, and goals. The irrationality myth, especially, insulates Americans against having to face their real problem with the Islamic Republic: its unwillingness to accede to American domination. As a result, the record of U.S. policy toward Iran since the 1979 revolution reflects an extraordinary and ever worsening obtuseness about Iran's national security and foreign policy agenda and its evolving role in the Middle East's balance of power.
How should Americans understand the Islamic Republic's international behavior? Its national security policies are shaped, like everyone else's, by a mix of factors. Material realities — geography, demographics, military and economic capabilities (what political scientists call "structure") — play a large role. But softer factors — shared identities and aspirations, principled beliefs about right and wrong, subjective assessments of other states' intentions (what scholars call "strategic culture") — bear an influence as well. These and other factors embedded in domestic politics function as a prism through which policy makers, in Iran and elsewhere, interpret the international environment, identify strategic options, and choose among them.
Iran's national security strategy cannot be properly understood without grasping the way Iranians see their country and its place in the world. In particular, their sense of being part of a profound political experiment — an Islamic Republic — conditions their responses both to their history and to lived experiences like the Iran-Iraq War. Those responses, in turn, shape their relationships to other actors in their strategic environment. More specifically, they shape the way Iranians perceive the threats emanating from others.
THE HISTORICAL LEGACY
For Iranians, questions of national identity are inextricably bound up with their country's history of domination by great powers from outside the Middle East. Iran's location in the heart of the Persian Gulf and at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia has long made it a focus for ambitious states seeking influence over a critical part of the Eurasian landmass. Since the advent of the oil age, its enormous hydrocarbon resources — the world's third-largest proven reserves of conventional crude oil and second-largest proven reserves of natural gas — have reinforced its strategic importance. Between its natural gas reserves and its oil reserves, the country's hydrocarbon resources are effectively equal to those of Saudi Arabia and significantly greater than those of Russia.
Western powers — especially Britain and Russia — began asserting influence over Iran in a serious and sustained way in the early 1800s. Their "great game" for regional primacy in Central Asia culminated in the Anglo-Russian Convention (or Entente) of 1907, which formally divided Iran into British and Russian spheres of influence. For most of the twentieth century, Britain and Russia, and then the United States, exercised strategic control over Iran's foreign policy and domestic politics, including the creation and maintenance of the Pahlavi dynasty. British machinations facilitated Reza Pahlavi's ascension to the Peacock Throne in 1926. In 1941, after he had cultivated relations with Nazi Germany as a hedge against British and Soviet influence, collaborative maneuvering and armed intervention by Britain and the Soviet Union led to his replacement by his son, Mohammad Reza. The perception that the new shah had been installed by Iran's two long-standing foreign masters doomed any prospect of indigenous support he might have had, and opposition to his reign mounted over the next decade. In 1953, popular pressure forced his departure from Iran. But later that year, a CIA-instigated coup brought down Mohammad Mossadeq's democratically elected government and reinstated the shah.
For Khomeini and those who shared his quest to overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty, restoring Iran's sovereignty after a century and a half of rule by puppet regimes was an essential element of the revolutionary agenda. In his earliest writing about politics — Revelation of Secrets (Kashf-e Asrar), a book written shortly after Reza Shah's forced abdication — Khomeini decried Iran's domination by the West and the Pahlavis' collaboration in it:
The day everyone was forced to wear a Pahlavi cap, it was said, "We need to have a national symbol. Independence in matters of dress is proof and guarantee of the independence of a nation." Then a few years later, everyone was forced to put on European hats, and suddenly the justification changed: "We have dealings with foreigners and must dress the same way they do in order to enjoy greatness in the world." If a country's greatness depended on its hat, it would be a thing very easily lost! While all this was going on, the foreigners, who wished to implement their plans and rob you of one hat while putting another on your head, watched you in amusement from afar and laughed at your infantile games. ... Meanwhile, the historic patrimony of the country was being plundered from one end to the other, all its sources of wealth were being carried off, and you yourselves were being reduced to a pitiful state.
Two decades later, in one of his first high-profile challenges to Pahlavi rule, Khomeini charged that the shah and his government had "nothing to do with the people" and had treasonously surrendered Iran's freedom and independence to "our masters" in Washington. Iran, Khomeini said, was effectively "occupied by America," while the shah's deputies and ministers were "all agents of America, for if they were not, they would rise up in protest."
Those words cost Khomeini dearly. He spent the next fifteen years in forced exile — first in Turkey, then in Iraq, and finally in France. During this period, his scathing indictment that the shah was an American puppet resonated across Iranian society. Ever since Britain and Russia had subverted Iran's 1906 Constitutional Revolution — when Iranians created both their first written constitution and their first elected parliament — Iranian elites had chafed at foreign powers' using the country as a pawn in their strategic games while undermining its political development. The unpopularity of the shah's partnership with the United States helps to explain why, in 1978, as the Iranian Revolution reached its climax on the streets, one of the slogans demonstrators most frequently chanted was "esteqlal, azadi: jomhouri eslami" ("independence, freedom: Islamic republic"). Once the shah was gone, Khomeini promised, an Iranian state no longer beholden to outside powers would look to the true interests of the Iranian nation and its people.
Protecting Iran's independence and sovereignty, de facto and de jure, became the primary goal of the Islamic Republic's foreign policy; it remains so today. As Khomeini put it, "Our policy is always based upon the preservation of freedom, independence, and interest of the people. We will not sacrifice this principle for the sake of something else." Similarly, the Islamic Republic's constitution declares that
the freedom, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of the country are inseparable from one another, and their preservation is the duty of the government and all individual citizens. No individual, group, or authority has the right to infringe in the slightest way upon the political, cultural, economic, and military independence or the territorial integrity of Iran under the pretext of exercising freedom.
(That is why the mere perception of American support for opposition movements in Iran dooms them to failure.)
This historical legacy has important consequences for the Islamic Republic. International relations scholars explain that a nation confronted by a more powerful state chooses between two basic options: it either "bandwagons" with the powerful state or "balances" against it. For the Islamic Republic, bandwagoning is simply not possible. Such an alignment, with the compromises to sovereignty it necessarily entails, was a key aspect of what Iranians rejected when they revolted against Pahlavi rule. During the Cold War, Khomeini took as the motto for Iran's new foreign policy "neither East nor West" — words that are literally carved in stone at the entrance to the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From its outset, the Islamic Republic has been irrevocably committed to balancing.
Many Western and expatriate Iranian analysts either refuse to accept or simply ignore this point. Some of them argue that "neither East nor West" might have made sense during the Cold War but that, in a post–Cold War world, "getting ahead" requires compromising on foreign policy independence to cultivate better relations with the United States and avoid being left out of the prosperity generated by globalization. Others, like Ray Takeyh, one of Washington's mainstream Iran analysts, argue that the Islamic Republic, "by virtue of its size and historical achievements," believes it has "the right to emerge as the local hegemon"; the key strategic questions for Iran, according to Takeyh, are "how it should consolidate its sphere of influence and whether it can emerge as a regional hegemon in defiance of or accommodation with the United States."
Such a reading of the Islamic Republic's strategic orientation is doubly flawed. First, the Islamic Republic does not seek to replace American aspirations to regional dominance with its own hegemonic ambitions. As a matter of policy, it aspires to become the Middle East's leading nation, economically, scientifically, and technologically. But as we will see, its foreign policy and national security strategy are defensive, with the overarching goal of ensuring its security and safety, defined in terms of national independence and territorial and political integrity. Second, and more immediately relevant, there is no way the Islamic Republic could pursue regional hegemony in "accommodation with the United States." That was the shah's strategy. He did not bandwagon with Washington to neutralize an American threat to the security of an Iranian regime that the CIA had returned to power; rather, he was willing to trade off aspects of Iran's autonomy and partner with America because he calculated that this was the best way to realize his ambitions for Iran to become a regional hegemon. (In this sense, his strategy was far more revisionist than any course the Islamic Republic has even considered.) Seeking regional dominance in accommodation with Washington has also been Israel's strategy. It could not be Khomeini's strategy or the strategy of those who, since his death, have guided the political order he founded.
Excerpted from Going to Tehran by Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett. Copyright © 2013 Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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