What Iran Really Wants
A primary rationale for much U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to curb Iranian “influence.” But that is too generic a concept to be a basis for sound policy.
Iran is doing much less elsewhere in the Middle East. One such place is Yemen, which is a sideshow for Iran. The Houthi rebels, who ignored Iranian advice not to capture the capital city of Sana, are hardly Iranian proxies. Whatever material aid Iran has given the Houthis, however, is a low-cost way of making the Saudis and Emiratis—with their far greater and more direct military involvement in Yemen—bleed, as long as they are determined to continue their misadventure.
IRANIAN PERSPECTIVES toward the region have evolved during the four decades of the Islamic republic. More than one generation has come of age since the revolution. Some of this change represents the sort of natural evolution that has occurred after revolutions elsewhere, with ideological fervor giving way to pragmatic acceptance of what it takes to defend and advance the interests of a nation-state in a Hobbesian world. Some of the change represents a learning process, as Iranian policymakers have come to recognize that greater influence in the region does not come from ideological rigidity and destabilizing conduct. Regional leadership is part of the Iranian self-image, and leadership does not involve tearing apart what one wants to lead.
In the early days after the revolution there may have been some almost Trotskyite thoughts of permanent revolution, according to which the Islamic republic’s chances of surviving were seen as slim if not followed by like-minded revolutions elsewhere in the neighborhood. Any such thoughts are now in the past. The regime has survived, despite challenges ranging from Saddam’s war to domestic turmoil over disputed elections—and, most recently, street protests over economic conditions. Incorrigible revolutionaries are still to be found in parts of the regime, but the dominant Iranian ethos today is not that of a revolutionary movement. The evolution has been reflected domestically in hijabs being pushed ever farther back from women’s hairlines; it is reflected internationally in how Iran today measures its foreign-policy success in terms of integration into regional and international orders rather than upsetting those orders.
At the tactical level, the evolution has been reflected in, among other things, a much-changed attitude toward international terrorism. Voiced as frequently as other mantras about Iran is the label “leading state sponsor of terrorism.” For many years now, the principal rationale for the label has been Iran’s aid relationships with Hezbollah and Hamas. The rationale gets invoked regardless of what operations Hezbollah or Hamas, much less Iran itself, has or has not been conducting. As such, the image accompanying the label is outdated. Iran once was deeply involved in international terrorism, including taking American diplomats hostage, as well as carrying out a sustained campaign of assassinating Iranian political opponents elsewhere in the Middle East and in Europe. That stopped years ago as the political cost to Iran, in terms of foreign relations and Iran’s acceptance as a legitimate actor in international politics, became apparent. It was another example of Iranian leaders learning what it takes to advance their nation’s interest in a world in which norms against destructive behavior often are not observed, but nonetheless exist and shape many governments’ foreign relations.
Iran competes with other Middle Eastern states for influence, against other states that compete as vigorously as Iran does. As in other regions, the competition is waged amid some interests that conflict with those of the neighbors, and other interests that converge. Like its neighbors, Iran is attuned to what it sees as threats to itself, it resists and tries to counter those threats, and it opposes any one neighbor (or outside power) dominating the neighborhood. In these respects, its posture is rather ordinary. It would be unsurprising coming from any regime that governs Iran’s space on the Middle Eastern map, and is quite at odds with rhetoric that depicts Iran as a phenomenon whose behavior diverges fundamentally from that of other nation-states.
In competing for influence, Iran plays to the mostly Arab neighborhood crowd. Tehran’s posture toward anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best understood in these terms, in addition to whatever natural sympathy there is in Iran for the Palestinians’ plight. The issue continues to have resonance on the Arab street in ways that Arab governments cannot ignore, as demonstrated by recent votes at the United Nations in response to the Trump administration’s decision on Jerusalem. Iran does not have an interest in being more Palestinian than the Palestinians, but it does have an interest, as a means of gaining favor in the Arab world, in being a vocal and active leader on the issue. This has been the basis of Iran’s support for Hamas, which never has longed to be embraced by Iran, but which welcomes its aid in the absence of other alternatives. It also is one of the factors of importance to Iran in its relationship with Hezbollah, given that group’s posing as a protector against Israeli predation.
IRAN’S POSTURE toward Israel also illustrates a major characteristic of Iranian policy across the region, which is its reactive quality. Far from being an implementation of some grand design hatched in a conference room in Tehran, most of what Iran does (and says) in the Middle East is in response to what somebody else does. Sometimes this means, as with aid to the Houthis during an ongoing civil war, seizing an opportunity to score points or to complicate matters for a rival. Most often it means trying to counter or defend against what Iran sees as direct threats to its interests. In this regard, the salient aspect of current hostility between Israel and Iran is that it runs both ways.
More important to Iran than the rhetoric is the possibility of armed attack. Whereas imagining a possible Iranian attack on Israel has mostly entailed expansively interpreting imagery in an Ahmadinejad speech or other Iranian bombast, far less imagination is required to envision an Israeli attack on Iran. Israel has the air power and projection capability—not to mention what everyone in the region assumes are nuclear weapons—to inflict far more damage on Iran than Iran ever could do against Israel. Israel has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to initiate military attacks against other Middle Eastern states, including a nonimmediate neighbor such as Iraq. A few years ago, an Israeli military attack on Iran appeared not just possible, but of sufficiently high probability to have helped spur the Obama administration to accelerate negotiations that eventually led to the JCPOA. Against this backdrop, the relationship with Hezbollah is for Iran important, not just for anti-Israel posturing but as a deterrent. The capability of its Lebanese ally to inflict some pain across Israel’s northern border is one of the few threats Iran has available to try to dissuade the Israelis from launching yet another attack on a regional state—this time on Iran.
Iran’s one recent probable departure from its previous abandonment of international terrorism of the clandestine-assassination variety was also reactive. This was a set of (not very successful) attacks against Israeli soft targets in places like Thailand and Bulgaria in 2012. The timing, targets and even some of the methods used made it obvious that this was an attempt to retaliate for a series of assassinations of Iranian scientists.
Iranian policies have repeatedly been reactions to someone else’s unfriendly actions, including on other matters involving Israel. The Iran-supported creation of Hezbollah was in large part a response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the ineffectiveness of Lebanon’s warring factions in resisting that invasion. Hezbollah was then strengthened, as it could use nationalist appeals in opposing the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that continued for years afterward. When the United States convened a conference in Madrid in 1991 to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as other Middle Eastern issues, forty-three states, including fifteen from the Middle East, attended, but the United States excluded Iran from the invitation list. Tehran’s response to this snub was to adopt a more militant position than it had before toward Israel, to make its first serious effort to work with Palestinian rejectionist groups and to organize a counter-conference. This was a classic case of exclusion leading the excluded party to try to become a spoiler when it otherwise would not have been.
The reactive nature of Iran’s policies permeates its activities throughout the Middle East. Iran did not start the wars in Iraq, Syria or Yemen. It did not start the earlier war in Lebanon. It had nothing to do with the war that led to the fifty-year Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. It did not set off the uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring (although Iran responded with propaganda asserting that Iran had already had its revolution and set an inspiring example for others wanting to throw off repressive regimes). It did not promote a reaction to the Arab Spring in Egypt that established a new repressive regime with destabilizing effects in the form of increased extremist violence. These and other region-shaking developments would have given any regional state with the size and position of Iran, no matter the coloration of its regime, plenty to react to. Iran has indeed reacted—in order to try to shore up its existing interests, to ward off what it sees as threats and to attempt to expand its influence in the sorts of fluid situations in which influence often changes. Its responses are readily understandable in terms of the specific situations to which it has responded. The responses are not consistent with rhetoric about an unsettled Middle East being due only or even primarily to Iranian actions, much less with a purported Iranian scheme to take over the region.