The Iranian revolution and political realism

The Iranian revolution and political realism

The Islamic Republic of Iran has consistently pursued theologically driven and jurisprudentially formulated policies in pursuit of religiously defined interests. The goals of foreign policy, and domestic policy in Tehran stand opposed to the conventional Western paradigm of democratic legitimacy.

Together with Saudi Arabia’s countering policies to minimize Shiite influence, the policies of Iran are a stark reminder that sectarianism is far from over in the Middle East.

The most prominent feature of Iran’s foreign policy has been its hostility to the U.S. The storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 resulted in the rupture of formal diplomatic ties. Bilateral relations were not resumed even at several important junctures when their foreign policy perspectives overlapped.

Three factors can be identified as possible culprits. First, countries that are rivals of the U.S. perceive Iran’s anti-American stance to be in line with their national interests, and they tend to encourage the status quo. Second, anti-Americanism seems to be the lasting slogan of the revolution. Lastly, the internal struggle amongst the elites in Iran has meant that no faction is in full control and is ill prepared to risk a resumption of ties with the U.S., lest rival factions would use this as an excuse to undermine their position.

The most formidable challenge for Iran is its nuclear policy. Tehran denies any charges that it is pursuing a nuclear arsenal and insists it is seeking peaceful nuclear energy for medical and civilian purposes. However, even a potential nuclear military capability, whereby Iran could produce nuclear weapons in a short period of time may not be acceptable to countries such as Israel.

The real motive for Iran’s nuclear aspirations may lie elsewhere. The conventional military prowess of the U.S. demonstrated in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq has alarmed Iranian revolutionary leaders. They are aware that nuclear arsenal may deter Washington from seeking a regime change in Tehran through military means.

Israel on its own lacks the capacity to effectively strike the suspected Iranian nuclear sites. Any effective military strike on Iranian nuclear sites would require the involvement of the U.S, but for U.S. policy makers, the issue has important ramifications. First, there is no guarantee that the U.S. strike could permanently paralyze Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Second, an assault could lead to further suppression of public dissent by the authorities in Tehran and cause Iranians to rally behind their rulers. Third, the Iranian government could turn even more radical in the face of the attack. Last but not least, while the U.S. will be bombing Iranian nuclear facilities, the world media will most likely blame and chastise Washington for invading yet another country.

However, even in the absence of definitive prospects for a regime change, the U.S. may still feel compelled to go ahead with the military strike on Iran if it feels it is the only way to prevent the nuclearization of the Iranian arsenal.

Syria’s political orientation, as the only Arab ally of Tehran since the early days of the revolution, is of utmost importance to Tehran. Should Bashar al-Assad fall, it would be unlikely for the succeeding regime to maintain the same level of relations with Tehran. That could seriously jeopardize Iranian influence over Hezbollah and Lebanon.

The internal challenges for Iran are also daunting. The economy is in dire condition, with no prospects of improvement. The populace at large feels disenfranchised and disillusioned with Islamist rule. The internal fighting between factions has intensified and cracks of the establishment have now appeared. In the face of such threats to the status quo, Tehran’s nuclear policy can indeed be a double edge sword.

The unstable political situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, the elusive Arab-Israeli settlement and the uncertain outcome of Iran’s nuclear issue all point in a dangerously violent direction.

*Farid Mirbagheri is a Professor of International Relations and holder of Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of European Studies and International Relations of the University of Nicosia. This abridged article was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).