The American Interest
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The Sources of Iranian Conduct
Published on July 13, 2012

The collapse of the latest round of negotiations between the great powers and the Islamic Republic of Iran in Moscow has prompted the usual soul-searching in Washington and Brussels: Did we misread the mullahs’ psychology yet again? Could a sweeter Western proposal have overcome their natural mistrust? These are worthwhile questions to ask. But the emotional rollercoaster accompanying each cycle of failed talks—from fear and trembling to boisterous optimism, then back to anxiety—suggests that the West lacks the proper conceptual framework for answering them. Thirty-three years since Shi‘a Islamists seized power in Tehran, we are far from appreciating the sources of their conduct. We therefore stand little chance of altering it.

As George Kennan understood when he wrote “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in 1946, the behavior of every long-term adversary is rooted in a specific combination of ideology and circumstance. The mullahs are no exception. Unlocking the sources of their conduct can narrow the range of realistic options, and disclose new ways for dealing with the Iranian threat.

First, the ideology. Whether they call themselves “principlists” or “reformists,” Iran’s leaders are Khomeinists before anything else. They are still burning the initial reserve of revolutionary fuel tapped by the regime’s founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Its religious trappings often lend it an exotic air, yet Khomeinism is a modern concoction. For starters, it breaks decisively with traditional Shi‘a doctrine, which held that the pious should defer to earthly rulers on matters of state. Khomeinists show no such restraint. Indeed, they have sought to radically reengineer the Persian soul—with its love of wine and erotic poetry—by regulating every sphere of Iranian life. The mullahs thus closely resemble the totalitarians of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. 

This is no accident. Consider Ali Shariati, the Sorbonne-educated sociologist widely credited as the Islamic Republic’s intellectual architect. Shariati’s philosophy blended Marxist doctrine, Frantz Fanon-style third worldism, and Shi‘a Islamism. In his writing, Shariati substituted the opposition between the (more Islamic-sounding) “arrogant” and “dispossessed” for Marx’s class struggle. But his teaching was structurally similar to Marxism, especially in its faith in Islamic history’s inevitable march toward the total state promised by the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi‘a saints. From Lenin, Shariati borrowed the notion of an Islamist intellectual vanguard led by scholars like himself and called by history to help hasten the arrival of that state.

Shariati died in 1978, before the revolution he preached came to full fruition. Nevertheless, today’s second-generation Khomeinists retain the Manichean opposition at the heart of his worldview—above all, Shariati’s conviction that Iran and the broader Islamic world must be cleansed of Western influence. “The Westerners have polluted our world with their capitalism and our religion with their churches,” Shariati seethed. “They obscured and ruined everything we hold dear.”

How to counter the Western cultural menace? Shariati proposed that a revolutionary imamate—the Shi‘a equivalent of the dictatorship of the proletariat—should rule until the Islamic utopia could be fully achieved. That’s where Khomeini stepped in with his doctrine of the guardianship of the jurisconsult: the notion that the clerical class must exercise paternal care over the people, much as in the olden days a local mullah would take charge of orphans and invalids. They would do so until the Shi‘a messiah, or Mahdi, emerges from a millennial state of occultation to herald the end of days.

Khomeini saw himself as that steward and, after coming to power, decreed that his guardianship extends across the Muslim world. And this is where Khomeini and Shariati’s ideologies ran up against the Middle East’s harsh historical realities. The rest of the Mideast, it turned out, wasn’t so eager for an Iranian ayatollah’s paternal guidance. True, anti-Westernism ran deep across the region, but it wasn’t strong enough to overcome an Arab-Persian hatred that long predates it.

Inside Iran, Khomeinism had to contend with a populace that had experienced some five decades of modernization under the previous regime. The things Shariati hated most about the West—“dandyism, dancing, cocktail partying, wine drinking, and sexual freedoms in the name of civilization”—had penetrated broad sections of Iranian society before the Khomeinists could build an Islamic firewall around it. So it had a robust secularist tradition.

In response, the Khomeinists went to war. They incepted the terrorist group Hizballah as a proxy to fight the region’s only non-Muslim sovereign, Israel. Iran soon became the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Back home, the mullahs targeted intellectuals, women, minorities, and the young, among others. This war, too, caused enormous suffering. Thousands were tortured and executed. Many more were exiled.

It is this catastrophe that stares back at Khomeinism’s standard-bearers today—including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—as they survey the regime’s moral and historical legacy. Their domestic repression and defiance abroad have left them isolated on both fronts. The circle of loyal citizens gets smaller by day. “It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy,” Kennan wrote of Soviet leaders’ paranoia. “For if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.” The observation applies equally well to Tehran, where paranoia and messianic fervor combine to create a dangerously neurotic leadership class.

Yet these leaders must press on, brushing off critics by reminding them, as Mr. Khamenei reportedly has on a few occasions, that “I only imprison my opponents; Imam [Khomeini] killed them.” And anyhow, Khomeinism is a self-reinforcing ideology: The disapproval of the international community and their own people’s discontent only affirm adherents in the rightness of their cause. The recent rise of Islamic radicalism, albeit of the Sunni variety, looks to Tehran like a new opportunity for resurrecting pan-Islamism.

It is this intersection of ideology and circumstance which explains the Iranians’ intransigence, and which renders Western attempts to reach a negotiated settlement to the nuclear crisis highly unlikely to succeed. Even if a particular actor within the Iranian regime were open to rapprochement, the system as a whole is designed to perpetuate existential enmity against the West. No Iranian leader can make nice with “global arrogance” after all the misery inflicted on Iranians in the name of defying it.

Permanent enmity against the West, the cornerstone of Khomeini and Shariati’s worldviews, is thus a basic condition of the regime’s existence. When Ahmadinejad claims that the “Imam of the Ages” directs the events of the Arab Spring against the “Satanic” West, he is dead-serious. When he denies the Holocaust, he is not merely expressing frustration with the lack of progress on the peace process; he means business. Yet such rhetoric—not to mention the cries of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” regularly emanating from Tehran—has become a quotidian fact of life for most Western leaders. We either dismiss it as the inchoate rage of a mysterious land or else try to justify it as a reaction to legitimate postcolonial grievances.

Khomeinism shouldn’t be condescended to in this way. It is an alternative vision of the world that sees itself in competition with the liberal order led by the United States. If this fact has eluded us, especially during the Obama era of “engagement”, it is because we have forgotten a lesson we mastered during the Cold War: namely, how to think and fight ideologically. We will not win the contest with Tehran if we insist on proposing economic and diplomatic solutions to what is fundamentally a moral and ideological problem. The Iranian regime is convinced—mistakenly—that the West is actively undermining Khomeinism as an ideology and a way of life. Woe onto to them once we actually set our minds to it.

Sohrab Ahmari is a Robert L. Bartley fellow at The Wall Street Journal and a nonresident research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.