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All the Ayatollah's Men

All the Ayatollah's Men

Mini Teaser: Some Westerners are puzzled that Iran’s foreign policy remains as bellicose today as it was in the time of Ayatollah Khomeini. But history shows that the regime’s foreign policy is designed to maintain its ideological identity.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

Khatami’s approach to America was more gingerly and carefully crafted. Conscious of the conservatives’ deep-seated reservations, Khatami sought to ease mutual suspicion through a gradual exchange of scholars, activists and athletes. He hoped U.S. economic concessions might provide him with sufficient leverage to influence the conservatives at home, particularly the wary supreme leader. But Khatami underestimated the extent of the hard-liners’ hostility to any thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as the rigidity of America’s unimaginative containment policy. In essence, Khatami fell victim to both Iranian hard-liners and post-9/11 politics in the United States.

Soon, a conservative counterstrategy began to crystallize. The conservatives employed their governmental leverage to negate parliamentary legislation designed to liberalize Iran’s polity. The judiciary imprisoned prominent reformers and closed down their newspapers. Vigilante and terror groups harassed student gatherings and assassinated prominent intellectuals. And foreign policy once again came into play. Conservatives dismissed the reform movement’s ability to deliver on its promises as a means of undermining international confidence in Khatami’s government. Terrorism reemerged as a means of advancing the conservative agenda and subverting reformist plans. And then Iran’s conservatives received a helping hand from an unexpected corner—George W. Bush.

Khatami and the reformers viewed 9/11 as an ideal opportunity to mend fences with America. Khatami quickly realized the advantage in cooperating with the United States on the intersecting objectives of the two countries following 9/11. A religious intellectual who saw Islam and democracy as compatible, Khatami viewed the Taliban as a particular affront to his sensibilities. He also believed the demise of the radical Sunni group would enhance Iran’s security while providing an avenue for reconciliation with the United States.

Then, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush uttered his famous line castigating Iran as part of an “axis of evil” (along with North Korea and Iraq). Bush rebuked Iran as a major sponsor of terrorism and condemned its unelected leaders for oppressing their citizens. The president declared that in the post-9/11 environment, the United States would “not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” Though perhaps designed to prepare the American public for the administration’s plan to invade Iraq, the inclusion of Iran dealt a fearsome blow to Tehran’s reformers. Thus did Khatami’s interlude in leadership prove to be short-lived, despite his impressive accomplishments. The conservatives, fearful that the reform movement could end up undermining the pillars of the Islamist state, soon rebounded.

THE 2005 Iranian presidential election signified a change, as the elders of the revolution receded from the scene and a new international orientation gradually surfaced. The 1990s often are seen as a time when clerical reformers sought to reconcile democracy with religion, and a younger generation increasingly resisted a political culture that celebrated martyrdom and spiritual devotion. But another important development also was emerging—the rise of a generation of pious young men who had served on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personified this new leadership. Often called the “New Right,” it brought to the scene a combustible mix of Islamist ideology, strident nationalism and a deep suspicion of the West. As uncompromising nationalists, they were sensitive to Iran’s prerogatives and sovereign rights. As committed Islamists, they saw the Middle East as a battleground between forces of secularism and Islamic authenticity. As emerging national leaders, they perceived Western conspiracies where none existed.

The rise of Iran’s New Right coincided with important changes elsewhere in the Middle East. As the Iraq and Afghan wars drained America’s power and confidence, and as Islamist parties claimed leadership in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Iran emerged as an important regional player. Recently, the Arab Awakening unleashed a surge of Islamist parties that may not become clients of Iran but are likely to evince greater sympathy for the Islamic Republic than the likes of Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, Tehran finds it can assert its regional influence through its determination to sustain its nuclear program, its quest to emerge as a power broker in Iraq and its holding aloft the banner of resistance against Israel. The old balance between ideology and pragmatism is yielding to one defined by power politics and religious fervor. In the early twenty-first century, Iran has a government that consciously seeks guidance from the revolutionary outlook of the long-dead Ayatollah Khomeini.

Although many in Iran’s younger generation of conservatives may have been in their twenties when Khomeini died, his shadow looms large over their deliberations. They often romanticize the 1980s as a pristine decade of ideological solidarity and national cohesion. They see it as an era when the entire nation was united behind the cause of the Islamic Republic and determined to assert its independence against Western hostility. Khomeini and his disciples were dedicated public servants free of corruption and crass competition for power, traits that would not characterize their successors. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency were the cherished values of a nation seeking to mold a new Middle East. Thus, the common refrain of the New Right became essentially: “Back to the future.”

In light of all this, the 2009 election posed a stark choice for Iran. It could opt for a return to reformist policies and an effort to become part of the community of nations by accepting the norms of the international community, or it could embark on the New Right path of self-assertion and defiance. The public chose the former path, but the governing elite chose the latter. The result is that the gap between state and society has never been wider. A broad mass of the Iranian public doesn’t share the ideological fervor of the ruling elite.

In the meantime, the hard-line outlook of the Iranian government has contributed to a situation that is both destabilizing and dangerous—the emergence of the nuclear issue. These days, all of Iran’s relationships are defined and distorted by that dispute. Iran is at odds with its Gulf neighbors not because it is seeking to export its revolution but rather because of its nuclear aspirations. For the first time in three decades of animosity and antagonism, there is a real possibility of a military clash between Iran and Israel. Washington and Tehran seem locked in a confrontation they cannot escape. The European states have abandoned constructive dialogue in favor of sanctions and hostility due to the nuclear dispute. Even the Russian Federation seems increasingly uncomfortable in its relations with Iran as its conflict with the international community deepens. Only time can answer the question of how this issue will be sorted out—whether there will be a negotiated compromise; whether one side will ultimately back down; or whether a catastrophic clash will ensue that will further destabilize an unsteady region.

But we do know that Iran isn’t likely to go the way of other revolutionary states and relinquish its ideological patrimony for more mundane considerations. Khomeini was too powerful an innovator in the institutions he created and the elite he molded to see the passing of his vision in any routine way. That’s why Iran has sustained its animus toward the United States and Israel long after such hostility proved self-defeating. That’s why the theocratic regime remains a state divided against itself, struggling to define coherent objectives, with revolutionary pretensions pitted against national interests. The Islamic Republic might alter its course, limit its horizons and make unsavory compromises along the way. Yet it will not completely temper its raging fires. In the end, Khomeini couldn’t impose the totality of his vision on Iran, much less the Islamic world. But he was not the kind of figure to become another faded revolutionary commemorated on occasion and disregarded most of the time.

Image: Pullquote: Khomeini’s internationalism had to have an antagonist, a foil against which to define itself. And a caricatured concept of the West became the central pillar of his Islamist imagination.Essay Types: Essay