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Parsing Iran's Grand Strategy

November 16, 2015 Topic: Global Governance Region: Middle East Tags: IranHassan RouhaniAli Khamenei

Parsing Iran's Grand Strategy

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

What emerges from a reading of Iran’s grand strategic adjustments in the preceding —“adjustments” being, as mentioned, the empirical basis of our evidence—suggests a tortuous but no less sustained effort to achieve greater strategic consistency of purpose, despite contradictions at twists and turns. Since the late 1980s, Tehran has come to evince a recognition of its limited means as opposed to its initial totalizing aims, attested in its recourse to a far more nuanced toolkit in comparison. Iran’s tactics no longer merely include the martyr’s iron faith, categorical rejection of everything opposed to Khomeini’s Revolution and the bloody art of the human wave. Iran has now also placed a premium on maximizing both influence and soft power, constantly renegotiating its margins of maneuver and seeking “situations of strength” where possible. Whatever hard power it still held, it repurposed into tools of deterrence in order to hold its enemies hostage against the threat of regime decapitation and war. Iran’s decision makers have no doubt also proven responsive to threats and opportunities in respect of its relative international position, pursuing self-preservation at the very least, and ever probing the promise of self-aggrandizement. Overarching this entire enterprise is the logic of expediency, deference to which provides in some ways the organizing principle in matters of peace and certainly war, and which bears testament to the flexibility so necessary for any viable grand strategy.

What of the inconsistencies, then? The push-and-pull of domestic inter-elite competition pulsing to the country’s multiple centers of power goes a long way towards explaining seemingly irrational outcomes. This includes the reification and, indeed, sanctification of a rejectionist outlook that precludes overtures to anything associated with the Shah and the U.S., along with its “imperial-colonial-Zionist outpost” in the heart of the Muslim world. The cast of mind identified with a Supreme Leader historically dependent on the hardliners for personal legitimacy, influence and power also predisposes Iran towards a particular set of grand strategic options rather than others. Factional wrangling, because the hardliners do not maintain absolute control despite their influence, ultimately lay behind seeming bouts of suboptimal rationality—if the definition of such a term can even be pinned down. In other words, domestic actors have more often than not leveraged on foreign policy in seemingly irrational ways with the aim of effecting superbly rational outcomes in the internal balance of power.

What this all boils down to is that while Iran has untiringly sought to defend its legitimate interests, it has done so in ways that often instead aggravate the threat perceptions of others, which in turn feeds into a vicious circle intensifying Iran’s own insecurity and paranoia. Iran’s own uncompromising animus against the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular has, as any mildly informed observer would point out, come to shape and dominate Tehran’s own threat perceptions and national security thinking. One of many historical parallels that come to mind is that of Ming-dynasty China. The Great Wall, which reached its structural culmination during this period, was not so much necessitated in and of itself by unprovoked and unrelenting Mongol aggression from the northwestern steppe. Instead, the refusal time and again by the Son of Heaven and his courtiers to treat with what they considered inferior barbarians compelled the nomads to take by the sword what they could not take by trade and diplomacy, eventually forcing the militarily outclassed Chinese to prioritize static defense. As we now know in hindsight, the gainly wall, in conjunction with internal treachery, did little to prevent another nomadic people, the Manchus, from replacing the Ming with the Qing dynasty.

Ultimately, while Iran’s leadership has proven that it is by and large equal to the tasks of reconciling ends and means and identifying the critical threats and opportunities necessary to the conduct of grand strategy, the trouble with it lies somewhere else: in its stubborn inability to transcend the vicious circle of self-provoked challenges. True, Tehran has so far proven able to deter and keep at bay war and regime change. Yet it has also confined its own grand strategic maneuvering to responding, however adequately, to its own self-manufactured crises.

Kevjn Lim is an independent researcher focusing on foreign policy and security in the wider Middle East. He is also senior analyst for the UK-based Open Briefing: The Civil Society Intelligence Agency.

Image: Flickr/Örlygur Hnefill