The Appeal of Iran, Review of Shahram Chubin's Iran's National Security Policy: Capabilities and Intentions

The Appeal of Iran, Review of Shahram Chubin's Iran's National Security Policy: Capabilities and Intentions

Mini Teaser: Before we can begin to fashion a sensible Iran policy, the first task is to grasp the full dimensions of what Iran is all about.

by Author(s): Graham E. Fuller

The Appeal of Iran, Review of Shahram Chubin's Iran's National Security Policy: Capabilities and Intentions, (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1994); and Geoffrey Kemp's Forever Enemies? American Policy and the Islamic Republic of Iran, (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1994).

Iran is probably the most emotional foreign policy relationship to confront America since the Vietnam War. Given the high drama that has characterized dealings between the two countries in the last two decades, it could hardly be otherwise. First, there was the stunning and unanticipated collapse of America's good friend, the Shah. Against the background of the love affair of various American presidents with the glitter and pomp of the Peacock Throne; the major strategic role assigned by Washington to Iran that began during the Nixon administration; and the concomitant, huge, lucrative role of American companies and defense industries in Iran, this collapse amounted to the biggest setback America has ever encountered in the Middle East. Then, in rapid succession, came Iran's seizure of the American Embassy in 1979, its detention of American hostages for nearly two years, and Carter's humiliatingly bungled desert rescue mission to save them. All this brought the Carter presidency down. Reagan's Iran policy, too, simplistically implemented and fatally damaged by the illegal Nicaraguan Contra connection, cost his administration dearly. It even tainted George Bush and made his whole administration gun-shy on Iran.

American policy failure is just one side of the story. The Ayatollah Khomeini, a stern black-robed Old Testament figure, presented a phenomenon that Americans have been quite unprepared to deal with. Yes, we Americans know that we can be stupid, make mistakes, and formulate bad or even disastrous policies. But Khomeini was the first to say that we are evil, the Great Satan; he conjured with such terms as "America, the global arrogance" and taunted Washington by saying that "America cannot do one damn thing." Several years have passed since the death of the Ayatollah, but America and Iran have scarcely lessened the visceral character of the confrontation. Washington policymakers are fearful of even touching the poisonous Iranian issue lest it infect them too. We were, it appears, born to hate each other--at least at this juncture in history.

Nor is it just a matter of ideological opposition. We opposed the Soviet Union for over forty years, yet there is not the same intense hostility to Russians among Americans. Russians, to be sure, did not kill Americans. (Vietnamese did, but even in their case most Americans are ready to forgive and forget what was a national trauma, America's first military defeat of sorts in modern times.) Iran is more unsettling to us as a country because of the apparent national hatred it nurtures and projects towards the United States, and especially for the dark, seemingly implacable religious character of that hatred and the regime that embodies it. As a nation we are culturally ill-equipped to understand the passions of religious policy. American political science, based on its Western "rational actor" school of political analysis, knows not what to make of religious zealotry, suicide bombings, and the concept of martyrdom as an integral part of the political process. Iran has invoked the resources of an entire culture--that of Islam--to marshal forces against the evil Americans, and the results of its efforts are only beginning to be apparent. Political Islam--Islamic fundamentalism--is on the march, and it scares Washington more than any other political force since the heyday of messianic communism. It knocks on the door of political power in important states such as Algeria and Egypt, and we don't know where it will stop.

In this sense, American policies towards Iran really matter; much more is involved here than simply a falling out with the dominant power of the strategic Persian Gulf region, serious enough though that is. The true centrality of Iran for us lies most profoundly in Tehran's evocation of deeper Third World grievances against the West--its search for cultural and moral authenticity in a world dominated in myriad ways by Western, and especially American, power and culture. That culture, and the social order that gives it expression, are perceived as both menacing and deeply flawed, forces to be resisted not emulated.

The implications of the Iranian phenomenon for future American policies--especially in the Third World--are extensive and likely to grow. While most other countries are not cast in the same cultural mold as Iran, some generic commonalities exist: the anguish of political and economic frustrations, failing policies, the predictable tensions and dislocations of development and Westernization, and the rising expectations of subnational groups. These phenomena will engender further passions, especially if more democratic procedures permit the unleashing of mass frustrations that are often kept under wraps today by autocratic regimes that are more or less friendly towards--or at least amenable to doing business with--the West. These symbolic, "cultural," or ideological challenges to America are not easily countered. In the case of Iran they are accompanied by several other challenges, also global in nature, including nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and the quest for regional great power status that may conflict with U.S. strategic aims.

Before we can begin to fashion a sensible policy response, the first task is to grasp the full dimensions of what Iran is all about. The Carnegie Endowment has provided major assistance in this respect with the publication of two short but valuable books: one by Shahram Chubin and the other by Geoffrey Kemp. Chubin, himself of Iranian background, is a scholar well-versed in the theoretical foundations of political science and regional politics. But above all he possesses a solid, balanced understanding of what Iran is all about as a nation, as a culture and as a regime. It is this understanding that makes the book an especially important contribution to current Western policy-makers. In a Washington environment in which Iran's leadership is commonly dismissed as "crazy," the Chubin account should go a long way towards making it clear that in fact Iran's policies flow quite naturally from the historical and modern political and military environment of the region. When the source of Tehran's policies is demystified and presented in a rational context, Iranian actions can be better dealt with. Chubin makes great sense out of the origins of Iranian policy thinking, and is particularly good at explaining the consequences of the trauma of the eight-year first Gulf War launched against Iran by Iraq--the first of Saddam's two brutal military follies.

In five chapters, Chubin sets forth his views of Iran's security perspectives, the lessons of Iran's recent experience, its arms policies and programs, its impact on regional and international security, and decision-making with respect to national security. It is the last chapter on this last topic that is the most valuable of all, for we gain insight into Tehran's policy process, its thicket of competing bureaucracies and interests, and the world-class paranoia that characterizes Iran. The presentation is crisp, concise, and elegantly argued--offering full explanations of why Tehran should reason the way it does, without any special pleading for a regime that is hostile, destabilizing, unorganized, sometimes brutal, and a negative factor in regional politics from the perspective of most states.

Geoffrey Kemp, the author of the second study, is a former NSC official who was responsible for Middle East policy under the Reagan administration. His volume focuses on the challenge of Iran from an American point of view and is thus a useful companion piece to Chubin. Kemp, too, is experienced, balanced, and extremely sensible in his policy recommendations. Both books make very clear that the reality of the "Iranian threat" is far less than commonly supposed, both in military and subversive political terms. Indeed, in Kemp's view, a combination of factors--a newly pragmatic Russian involvement in Iran, the U.S. military and security presence in the Gulf, Western bilateral security arrangements with Gulf states, the absence for some time to come of an Iranian nuclear capability, and the internal disarray of Iranian policies--makes the threat posed by Iran to the region fairly manageable. As long as most of these factors remain steady, Kemp argues, Iran's greatest challenge lies in its support for subversion and for radical organizations in the region, some of which--Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas on the West Bank--employ political violence and terror in activist opposition to the peace process. Both Chubin and Kemp recognize that Iran's conventional military threat to the Gulf is modest, with no capacity to mount a land invasion of anybody, and very limited amphibious capability. Its much touted "military build-up" is in fact modest for a country Iran's size, and, fifteen years after the fall of the Shah, it has a far smaller military machine than that ruler had.

In the end, both Chubin and Kemp see merit in constructive dialogue with Tehran, one that should be tempered by a realistic acceptance of the fact that quick results are not in the offing. These recommendations stand in notable contrast to the present policies of the Clinton administration, which insist on lumping together Iran and Iraq conceptually into a "dual containment policy" that neither illuminates the problem nor offers nuanced approaches to two very different states. While Washington does recognize differences between these two states, less flexibility is permitted in our Iran policy than is, say, in the much more nuanced and sober American approaches to two other difficult states--China and North Korea. The strategic challenges posed by both these countries are greater than that represented by Iran, and yet they evoke a less confrontational posture from Washington and are less demonized. It should be appreciated that although Iran unquestionably poses continuous, prickly problems for the West as a whole, the Germans and Japanese are careful to distance themselves from the more antagonistic American approach to inducing change there and are not likely to be enlisted as critical elements of a successful "dual containment" policy. Nor can differing German and Japanese policies be simply dismissed as driven only by crassly commercial considerations.

In terms of its location, its track record, the character of its intentions and its leadership, it is Iraq, in my view, that still presents by far the greater military threat to the region, even if it is, for the moment, hors de combat because of military defeat and the effect of sanctions. Iran's threat is much more subtle: it is mostly ideological in a region where ideological seeds can readily fall on fallow ground. Saddam threatens by brute force, but Iran talks a language that resonates in countries in which existing regimes are failing and whose peoples share a broad craving to reassert cultural authenticity and ethnic identity. Years of Western colonialism or domination have created leaderships perceived by many as simply corrupt and incompetent native oppressors playing the West's game. Fundamentalists in Iran as elsewhere are not altogether off the mark in their critique of regional regimes and that is the strength of their position. Yet while invoking a return to Islamic law as the foundation for redemption of Muslim societies, they themselves offer very little in concrete terms to solve the daunting political, economic and social problems that confront the Muslim world.

Thus Iran in one sense presents a cultural threat, an alternative vision--even if only a negative one--of the ordering of world power. It voices a call of non-submission to the dominant Western order and rejects those societies that are based on power and secularism. This secular individualism, they claim, destroys social values, breaks families apart, encourages crime, and confuses the moral order. If this line of argument stemmed solely from the visions of Islamic radicals, we could perhaps dismiss them as merely mirroring a particularly fevered and troubled part of the world. But we hear echoes of these arguments from quite diverse sources, and especially from the Confucian world, newly self-confident as its powerful economic surge continues. Western values are rejected in different ways, but no less firmly, in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, China, and Japan. The caning of an American teenager in Singapore earlier this year was the penal equivalent of the Salman Rushdie case. Never mind that these arguments against the "imposition of Western values" are sometimes self-serving--especially out of Beijing. They are all talking the same language. Little wonder then that we hear mutterings of a possible new "Confucian-Islamist" alliance to oppose the West. In this respect, Chinese-Iranian relations are especially intriguing. Yes, such an informal alliance could materialize, not because Muhammad and Confucius are anti-West but because these cultures offer a vehicle for the expression of grievances for which the West is partly blamed--a West whose political, military, economic and cultural dominance increasingly rankles in a world where states feel "they don't have to take it anymore."

In the end, Iran is its own worst enemy. It is compulsively hoisted on its own ideological petard, seeking to justify a weakening economy and a failing revolution via ideological exploits that have little practical effect other than to increase its own isolation. Iran's latest binge of support in late July for terrorism against Jewish communities and Israeli installations abroad only undercuts any case for moderation Iran's friends might make on its behalf. This brutal and feckless behavior will now deter even Germany and Japan from doing any more to limit Tehran's isolation. Indeed, events of the past six months in Iran suggest that the revolutionary clergy are reasserting themselves; the interests of Iran's revolutionary image take precedence over all other national interests. This will not be an Iran open to any kind of dialogue; the country will have to stew in its own ideological juices until a clearer national vision gains strength. Conceivably, should Tehran move towards even greater national folly, lashing out more broadly against all real and imagined foes in the region, it may actually attain a self-fulfilling prophecy: that the West is out to get it. Iran's accomplishment will be to ensure that its own vision and behavior becomes the most commonly accepted understanding of Islam in the West--the ultimate disservice to Islam.

This, then, is the heart of the West's Iranian dilemma. We can probably limit and manage its military threat without much difficulty. But Iran senses, rightly, there is an audience for its message out there--and the message is essential for legitimizing its own revolution. The more shrill the Western response, the more Tehran is convinced it must be doing something right. For this reason, it may be that American policies, whether harsh or nuanced, will be unable to bring about much change in Iranian policies in the foreseeable future. But it is precisely the very ideological nature of Tehran's challenge that makes some kind of Western accommodation with it ultimately worth attaining--one that does not forsake American commitments to the security of the region. We can indeed guard small oil shaykhdoms against invasion, but what can we do about the internal decay that is already well under way in Algeria and Egypt? Both those states like to pin responsibility for their domestic troubles on Iranian meddling. While this is a useful line for Egyptians, Algerians, and Uzbeks when Congressional talk of human rights grows too strong, the real causes for that decay are domestic.

The two Carnegie volumes perform the valuable service of placing the facts on the emotional Iran issue in some perspective. By design, they both focus heavily on the policy and security side of the Iran issue, practical security problems. The broader "cultural" issue and its internationalist implications are largely omitted in both studies. This is unfortunate, because, as I have argued, these aspects are extremely important if we are to read Iran in the context of the new world disorder and the broader ills of what we used to call the Third World. We certainly should do so, for Iran is energetically tapping into and channeling that disorder. That is the real challenge of Iran. If you can read only one book, read Chubin; his study is much the more unusual, in its evocation of the mindset of that leadership in Tehran that produces these confused, contradictory, destabilizing and fractious policies that so much worry the region as well as Washington.

Essay Types: Book Review