Figuring out what Iran’s foreign policy establishment is thinking is akin to playing chess against the computer on an Atari. The opponent is impossible to gauge because he is hidden by a byzantine corridor of complex systems wrapped in enigmas. As a result, the player tends to overestimate his opponent’s creativity and ability to play the game. Every pundit who has weighed in on Iran has evaluated the regime with a gamut of international relations theory. A look through Foreign Policy or Foreign Affairs over the past few years would provide enough material for someone to teach an international relations theory course solely by using Iran as an example. However, when we look at the Islamic Republic, we can’t rely strictly on realism, constructivism, internationalism, or most other “-isms.” Given the history of Iran since 1979, the most effective way to look at Iranian foreign policy is through the lens of regime security, a variant of realism.
To understand Tehran’s decision making, we have to make the distinction between regime security and state security. State security is something that the United States would use to make its decisions. Washington sees threats coming from different sources that want to harm American interests and citizens with violence or other types of malfeasance. Iran, on the other hand, is more concerned with attacks to its regime, which it does not necessarily equate with the state. While Iran does have a national military and threatens from time to time to close the Strait of Hormuz or lash out against a wide assortment of enemies, these decisions are based upon perceived threats to the Islamic Republic based in Tehran and Qom, more so than any conception of the “nation.” One could argue that these two things are the same. But Iran’s recent calculations suggest otherwise. It doesn’t help that people in the U.S. constantly ring the bell of regime change whenever speaking about Iran.
First, the nuclear program. Tehran also has to realize that their pursuit of a nuclear program is severely affecting their state security as it is. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons can, and should, be seen as something that is done for the sake of domestic stability. Tehran has to know that no amount of nuclear missiles would prevent the United States or Israel from annihilating it if those weapons were ever used. Even with the doubts as to the regime’s intentions to create nuclear weapons, the United States and it’s allies have slapped a bevy of sanctions on Tehran aimed to destroy the Iranian economy as well as hinder its ability to project power. Imagine what would happen if Iran actually had nukes.
If state security was paramount to Tehran’s policy, then ending the nuclear race and regaining economic viability would be the sensible path to pursue. It would take Washington’s main reason for animosity away and place the United States as the clear cut aggressor, while allowing the state to amass oil wealth and effectively subdue its citizenry with the spoils of rentierism. The one hiccup preventing all this is that the nuclear program (weapons or not) is popular across all fronts in Iran. Contrary to popular belief, public opinion matters to the regime. Otherwise it wouldn’t have reacted so harshly against the Green Movement in 2009, and it wouldn’t have to demonize Israel and the United States every time Tehran believes a crisis is afoot. The bottom line is that nuclear weapons make Iran less secure as a state, but the pursuit of a nuclear program preserves the regime’s domestic popularity during what it perceives as a dangerous time.
Second comes the country’s recent foreign policy moves. Iran’s praise of the various uprisings throughout the Arab world have linked the success of Islamist parties in elections in Egypt and Tunisia to the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Taking the side of the Islamist victories in the Arab countries, regardless of sect, sends a message to Iran’s people: we–the regime–were right all along. Tehran can manipulate regional developments, so far, as a justification for the regime’s existence and rule at home. On the other hand, Tehran’s continued hypocritical support of Assad’s Syrian “killing machine” as a direct result of regime security dictating policy. If Tehran’s friendliest ally in the region were to fall to demonstrations, it would make the regime look weak and vulnerable to its domestic opponents. Iranian politicians might ask “Who lost Syria?”–just as Americans once asked, just after World War II, “Who lost China?”
The Islamic Republic’s recent saber rattling over the Straight of Hormuz also enhances the regime’s viability, symbolically and materially. The symbolism comes from facing the Great Satan in the Persian Gulf and not backing down. This is easy when all Tehran has to do is make empty threats and conduct some war games. This is the type of strategy that Kim Jong-Il successfully used to survive in Pyongyang. This is the same reasoning behind Iran’s inflammatory rhetoric towards Israel. Statements proposing to “wipe Israel off the map,” are dangerous. Not dangerous because Iran might act on it, but dangerous because Iran elevates the likelihood of a military attack by Israel and/or the United States in order to feed its population shallow rhetoric. If state security were the main concern, provoking a nuclear adversary would not be on the to-do list. Materially, Iran benefits from the rising oil prices that these actions encourage. The perceived instability in the Persian Gulf has sent oil higher in recent weeks, marginally boosting Iran’s tanking economy. Remember, a failed economy can end a regime as well–see Tunisia and Egypt.
So what does this mean for Washington? Understanding the logic and recent history behind Iran’s decision making is crucial to gaming what the Islamic Republic’s next move might be. Not everything Iran does falls under regime security. It’s support for Hezbollah and Shi’ite factions in Iraq are classic proxy power moves designed to increase Tehran’s power projection across the region. This is classic realist philosophy. However, when looking at the big picture, Washington must realize that Iran’s calculations overwhelmingly come from the Ayatollah’s desire to stay in power. The regime is just another dictatorship, cloaked in the piety of Islam, but no different. Everything they do might not make sense to the West; but the regime’s actions and words are tailored as much for the domestic audience as for the international one. The ultimate goal being preservation of the regime and the privileges it has accumulated over time.
Threats to destroy Israel and wreak havoc in Iraq should be taken seriously, but Iran’s rhetoric should not be used as kindling for the fire of another war. An American or Israeli strike would simply galvanize the Iranian population behind the regime, not to mention accelerate the nuclear program. It would be the patented American move to execute a policy that completely deconstructs the result Washington was going for (more on that in a later post). Currently, the regime is on shaky footing given the state of the economy, international opinion against Iran, and the threat of Assad falling in Damascus.
Washington should not give in to the temptation of responding to Iran’s bombastic (excuse the pun) rhetoric. The status quo should be acceptable to Israel and the United States. The regime is too weak to act aggressively, unsure of its power projection regionally, and doing everything it can to keep domestic public opinion on its side. The hawks of the Republican Party and some in the Washington punditocracy are playing the chess game against Atari, overestimating their opponent and making moves based on mirroring. Washington should not fall into the habit of assuming its opponents are somehow smarter than it, especially if that opponent is Iran. Using the regime security lens to predict Iran’s behavior sets a necessary ceiling on Iran’s potential and intent to create trouble. It also keeps the United States rational in responding to Tehran’s provocations. The Ayatollah’s grand strategy is to stay in power, not take over the world. Assuming any different would be to ignore the facts on the ground and more than 30 years of historical evidence.