Parsing Iran's Grand Strategy

To understand the Islamic Republic, look not at its consistencies but at its adjustments.

When it comes to understanding a state’s grand strategy, that is, the calibration of intentions and the sum of capabilities to assure its relative position within the international system, the specialist is frequently faced with the challenge of divining intentions—assuming the leaders in question themselves know what they want. This is doubly the case for states such as Iran that, while authoritarian, are at once riven by significant domestic divisions, possessed of impenetrably opaque decision making and consequently disposed to emitting mixed signals. Consider the ink Iran watchers have spilt debating Tehran’s undying revolutionary ends, regional hegemonic ambitions, “rationality” and survival-motivated expediency, often within the same breath. For non-great powers with only a limited margin of maneuver, however, a more empirically grounded approach that allows us to better carve the subject at the joints, so to speak, is by focusing on the notion of “grand strategic adjustments.”

Take again the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance. At three specific inflection points at intervals of roughly ten years, Iran’s decision makers undertook just such “adjustments” in response to systemic pressures and incentives. The end of the Iran-Iraq war and the Cold War, along with Khomeini’s death, fundamental revisions in the domestic structure of rule and the onset of the Gulf War compelled the first major crop of far-reaching changes. For one, the relatively moderate and forward-thinking Rafsanjani government shifted Iran onto a surer, pragmatic footing, a more balanced calibration of ends and means, along with the streamlining and rationalization of strategic decision making and institutions, signaling Tehran’s readiness to play by the rules of the international system. No longer would factional caprice set the tone and pace for foreign policy, as it had done in the context of the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. Instead of undying antagonism, Rafsanjani’s technocrats reached out to industrialized and rentier states alike, whose cooperation was necessary for the rehabilitation of the Iranian economy, including its inveterate rivals Britain and Saudi Arabia. The impetus for internal balancing, however, failed to overcome the inertia posed by the increasingly influential traditional conservatives led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who rejected mending fences with the sole remaining superpower—the U.S.—and its Zionist ally Israel.

In security and military affairs, Iran under Rafsanjani’s stewardship shifted from an obstinately gladiatorial thrust perfected during the eight-year war with Iraq to a more indirect Byzantine approach to pursue its national objectives. Not only did it cultivate the godless Russians and Chinese as major-power counterweights to Washington, which was by now running the entire show in the Persian Gulf to Tehran’s consternation, but it relied on both to shore up its critical defense, energy and nuclear sectors. Rather than earmarking massive resources towards a conventional military buildup, Iran opted to develop or acquire high-leverage asymmetric capabilities, including a brood of non-state armed allies, ballistic missiles and ultimately a nuclear program. What it lacked in coercive capacity it more than made up for in deterrent capability. If a pattern emerged that betokened this physical “line of least expectation,” to use Liddell Hart’s turn of phrase, Iran nonetheless maintained an ideological “line of greatest resistance” when it came to the US and Israel. No doubt this proved strategically costly within Iran’s ends-means calculus. Yet the alternative of détente or even worse, entente, would have insured political suicide for the helmsman of such a policy turnaround, thus routinizing a pattern for subsequent grand strategic thinking.

The second inflection point came when Osama bin Laden’s planes brought down the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, followed by the U.S.’ campaign of retribution in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the space of eighteen months, this suite of events completely remolded Iran’s strategic environment, engendering both threats deemed existential as well as crucial strategic opportunities. The reformist Khatami government of this period recognized the symmetry of interests on its wayward eastern border under the new circumstances, and labored to first put in place, and then maintain functional security cooperation with the Americans. When a series of contretemps embarrassed the official government in Tehran, including alleged Iranian support for terrorism, a ship carrying weapons to Gaza and, importantly, the clamorous disclosure of the Natanz and Arak nuclear facilities, things quickly headed south and forced Tehran to confront the reality that it might be next on the Pentagon’s crosshairs.

Feeling the heat, Khamenei gave the cue to then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rouhani to engage the EU3 (Britain, France, Germany) in the first major round of nuclear negotiations. According to the CIA’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran had effectively put its nuclear weapons program on ice in the autumn of 2003. The run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom that eventually decapitated Saddam’s Baathist regime offered another hit-and-run avenue for potential cooperation, pursued to the hilt, if reports of the “grand bargain” facsimile hand-delivered to the Bush administration through the Swiss ambassador are to be believed.