In the Middle East, Iran is on a roll, and the United States adrift. In the Syrian free-for-all, the Trump Administration has focused attention and fire power on ISIS while neglecting the methodical expansion of Russia and, above all, Iran. Now that ISIS, the most urgent threat, has been ejected from the game, what is the “Great Satan” to do—deal, raise, or fold?
Ten years ago, Henry Kissinger asked whether the Islamic Republic is “a nation or a cause.” If Iran “thinks of itself as a [normal] nation” hankering merely for a bigger pile of chips, he reasoned, we might be able to do business with the theocracy. “Do ut des,” as the Romans counseled: “I give, so that you shall give” until we reach an understanding.
Kissinger spoke in the conditional: “if…” In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, former State Department official Vali Nasr, now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, believes the “if” can be scratched.
Iran’s “foreign policy is far more pragmatic than many in the West comprehend,” Nasr writes. It is quite willing to “engage with the United States” and “is driven by hardheaded calculations of national interest, not a desire to spread its Islamic Revolution abroad.” According to Nasr, “Working with Iran” is better than “confronting it.” Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria concurs, and heads around the capital must be nodding.
In this view, Iran is not a zealot out to overturn the table. It is driven not by heavenly visions, but plain old nationalism—plus fear of encirclement by the United States, Israel, and sundry Sunni rivals. Tehran is actually a status quo power trying to cash in its winnings and to get some respect. So the burden is on Washington: Alleviate the fear and accord Tehran its due. Once satisfied, Iran will act as a responsible citizen of the Middle East.
Such advice follows smoothly from the premise of normalcy. When offered a grand bargain, traditional states will wheel, deal, and seal. So let’s scrutinize the premise.
Revisionists vs. Revolutionaries
Half a lifetime ago, Henry Kissinger’s colleague at Harvard (and my teacher) Stanley Hoffmann came up with the critical distinction between “revisionist” and “revolutionary” powers. A revisionist—more for me, less for you—could be tamed by regard and reward. Alas, revolutionaries want more than just a bigger pile of chips. They want the entire casino so that they can rewrite the rules and instill proper behavior in the players. After all, they are the Chosen. They are on a mission from God or History.
Napoleon’s France was revolutionary; its secular god was democracy. That sacred task drove Napoleon all the way to Moscow, where he was finally stopped. Hitler, another revolutionary, was not appeased when the European powers allowed him to pocket Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland in September. It had to be all of Czechoslovakia, which he grabbed six months later. Nor was Hitler satisfied by the conquest of the rest of Europe. In the end, he took on the Soviet Union and the United States.
After the war, revolutionary Russia absorbed Eastern Europe with the consent of the Western allies, then struck out for the Middle East, Cuba, and Central Africa. Stalin’s heirs were only ready to deal after decades of unyielding containment.
Though they claim to serve History or Providence, revolutionary powers like today’s Iran always cloak their imperialism in self-defense. Look back. Yes, Europe’s great powers wanted to restore the French monarchy by force, and so the revolutionary regime fought back. But why did Napoleon have to go to Madrid and Cairo? True, the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet it takes a creative imagination to depict the Islamic Republic as the real target of the wars against Saddam and al-Qaeda.
Fear or Fervor?
Did the West really stoke Iran’s dread of encirclement? The nuclear deal—allowing for continued enrichment and the lifting of sanctions—was a major act of propitiation. The JCPOA did not keep Iran from grabbing a wide swath from Basra to Beirut and churning out ever longer-range missiles. If this is what the pious revolutionaries do out of fear, what will they do once the United States and its Sunni allies stand down?
Hezbollah will not send its 100,000 missiles arrayed against Israel to the shredder. Iran will not leave well enough alone in Iraq once the United States pulls out. Nor will it rescind its annihilationist threats against Israel.
The best way to illustrate the difference between revisionists and revolutionaries is to use the Shah’s Iran as a case in point. Modest his ambitions were not; in fact, it was Mohammad Reza who laid the groundwork for an Iranian bomb by buying four nuclear power reactors from Germany in the mid-1970s.
Yet he was also America’s and Israel’s best friend in the region. And why? Because his lodestar was calculated national interest, not Allah. Nor did he seek to harness the Shi‘a faithful all the way to the Mediterranean. To return to Kissinger’s distinction, the Shah ran a nation, not a cause.
In the end, it does not matter whether Iran’s theocrats act out of fear or fervor. Fear may have animated Bonaparte, Hitler, and Stalin. But angst does not explain their limitless ambitions; the key driver was their righteous cause. Alas, faith is not negotiable.
Whether it is angst or ambition may be debated sine die. The real issue of statecraft is a balance of power that inhibits expansion. Conversely, opportunity makes thieves. Eager to avoid entanglement, Barack Obama practically invited Tehran (and Moscow) in when he abandoned his “red line” in Syria and drew down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of pacifying Iran, retreat fueled desire. Why would retrenchment work this time?
Revolutionaries from Napoleon down always invoke encirclement to justify their conquests, inverting cause and effect. Expansionists create the counter-alliances they denounce as conspiracies. The American-Sunni-Israeli alliance did not cause, but reacted to, Iranian hegemonism. Of course, traditional great powers have not been immune to the lure of primacy. Yet countries with a cause would betray their mission and bargain away their soul if they commune with the enemy. This is why the United States will not succeed in recruiting today’s Iran as a regional police force, let alone as a “continental sword,” as in the Shah’s days.
To boot, Tehran’s theocrats need the Great and the Small Satan (Israel) to stay on top of an unhappy nation rendered more miserable by the cost of empire. The enemy at the gate is a life insurance policy for revolutionary regimes, with the added benefit of justifying sacrifice ranging from rampant inflation to double-digit unemployment. To deal with the Great and the Small Satan is to give away the regime’s raison d’être.
So what is the United States to do? Go back to the catechism of containment authored by George F. Kennan in 1946: The Soviets, he prescribed, “can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at … constantly shifting … points.” They “cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.” Instead, patient resolve will result in “either the break-up or gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”
It did just that—bringing first the mellowing and then the break-up. Given the sweep of Iran’s ideological and strategic ambitions, mellowing would be just fine. Once the revolutionary fires burn out, interests will dwarf dogma, and we can get down to business.