What Washington Doesn't Get about Iran

What Washington Doesn't Get about Iran

Policymakers fail to grasp how Tehran's political system operates.

While Iran’s abuse of sovereign privilege—running terror operations under the cover of diplomatic secrecy and immunity in such capitals as Ankara, Damascus, Bonn and Buenos Aires—has long branded it a serial violator of international law and norms, these hostile acts abroad are better understood for their intended effect on regime cohesion and the loyalty of its footsoldiers, as manifestations of Khomeini’s bast doctrine, his unique theory of empowerment through religious extremism, pursued at the direct expense of the Westphalian system.

The one goal the international community has sought in all its dealings with Tehran—a readiness to adhere to accepted norms of state conduct, including respect for universally recognized rights at home—is the very condition that the Islamic Republic of Iran could least tolerate. The acceleration of both bast and hefz since 2013 under President Rouhani, at the same time that Iran was garnering international goodwill, relief from economic sanctions and legal recognition of its nuclear rights at the negotiating table, may have been a response to popular discontent inside Iran. It was not, however, a move toward any version of reform that would comport with American principles or ideals.

 

Signs of Failure and Desperation

A compelling case can be made, and should be the subject of policy debate today, that Iran’s exertions around the Middle East are falling well short of Khomeini’s doctrinal requirements calling for export of its revolution and leadership of the Muslim world against the West, particularly the United States. In 2016, much of the Muslim world rejects Iran’s brand of revolution. Even the fifty-seven-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation has formally “deplored Iran's interference in the internal affairs of the States of the region and other member states. . . and its continued support for terrorism.”

 

With the exceptions of Syria’s secular dictatorship and some Shia factions in Iraq, states surrounding Iran continue to defy and resist Tehran’s pretensions of religious hegemony. Tehran’s overt attempts to influence Shia populations within Arab Gulf states have only served to poison relations with those governments, which to date have refrained from reciprocal meddling on behalf of 18 million Sunni Iranians, to whom the mullahs have denied a single mosque. Influential Shia figures, including Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, refuse to accept the system of velayat-e faqih or endorse Khamenei’s leadership among Muslims. Iran’s funding, training and sponsoring of warring factions in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan could as rightfully be assessed a losing as a winning effort by the regime’s own metrics.

The costs of these campaigns, particularly casualties suffered by the IRGC and the Quds Force, which have struggled to replenish their ranks and their leadership cadres from today’s young generation, would likely prove unsustainable over time. Recent losses reportedly suffered by the IRGC along the Iran-Iraq border, and claims by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Freedom Party that they have recently resumed “armed resistance” against the revolutionary republic, reinforce perceptions that the momentum of the ambitious crusade launched thirty-seven years ago by Khomeini is now in retreat.

The supreme leader’s office has therefore viewed the nuclear weapons program as a game-changing substitute for Tehran’s unproductive paramilitary efforts—hence Khamenei’s denial (without further explanation) that the JCPOA leaves Iran stripped of nuclear deterrence. In recent years his office has lauded the “jihad spirit” of Iran’s nuclear scientists in their drive to stand up to foreign powers “like a lion.” He earlier declared the program an essential aspect of Iran’s “national identity” and “dignity,” all part of a narrative intended to compensate for, and obscure, Khamenei’s diminishing power at home and in the region.

Recall that the nuclear program began during Rafsanjani’s presidency; it was institutionalized during Khatami’s time, and expanded to a multitrack program during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Whatever Washington analysts may believe about the June 2013 elections, the clerics made clear months beforehand that they would “ engineer” the electoral process to succeed Ahmadinejad. Khamenei’s expectation of his one-time nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, was that he would deliver the program despite all the external and internal pressures.

Rouhani’s pursuit of a nuclear deal entailing sanctions relief, far from representing a policy split from Khamenei’s embrace of the nuclear program, was done with the supreme leader’s full support. While the P5+1 secured arrangements to inhibit and detect any near-term nuclear weapons breakout efforts by Iran, the many statements by Khamenei are consistent with the conclusion that Rouhani’s diplomatic approach was deemed more likely to enable the Islamic Republic to maintain the posture of nuclear deterrence than a policy of escalating confrontation and defiance of the West.

Two years of high diplomacy—extended repeatedly without complaint from any side, despite the absence of agreement—by the regime, sharing the global spotlight with the world’s leading powers, rehabilitated Iran’s image after a period of growing isolation, threats of military confrontation and, yes, economic pain from targeted sanctions, falling oil prices and a weakening currency in 2012. Such considerations lay behind Iran’s success in shaping the JCPOA as a nonbinding agreement in which the language and process to enable the “snap-back” of sanctions is convoluted—the term never appears—and thus hard to portray within Iran as a concession.