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Revolutionary ideology shackles Iran to ruinous policies

One of the greatest intellectual conceits of my decade in Washington was the notion that the US made other countries behave badly, as though they had no control over their actions, let alone internal motivations of their own. Instead, I found from years of experience that, while Washington surely influenced the actions of others, it rarely determined them.

Yet this old intellectual fallacy has recently reared its ugly head again, this time in relation to increasingly fraught US-Iranian relations. The standard US foreign policy establishment view is that it is President Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” that has somehow forced the Iranians to attack international shipping near the Strait of Hormuz and now to threaten to upend the Iranian nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

But such a facile view almost entirely omits looking at things from Tehran’s perspective. For it is not Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA and imposition of surprisingly effective new sanctions on the energy industry that has placed Iranian hard-liners in the ascendancy. Rather, they were there all the time. To reach this very different conclusion, it is vital to understand the ideology of the Iranian Revolution.

On the surface, there is little doubt that Tehran is presently playing with fire. Ominously, on Monday, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi announced that Iran’s low-grade nuclear stockpile would exceed the 300 kilogram limit set by the JCPOA agreement in the next 10 days, unless the UK, France and Germany help it evade America’s increasingly effective sanctions. If Iran was to abrogate the JCPOA, it would find itself at loggerheads with regional powers Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, and outside powers France, the UK, and the US. Why would Iran even consider following such a seemingly disastrous strategic course of action?

The simple reason is that ideas and ideology matter more to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran than the geopolitical fix they find themselves in. Iran’s revolutionary ideology is the glue that keeps the country intact and under elite control. Failure to perpetuate the Iranian Revolution of 1979 — to become instead another normal, status quo regional power by agreeing to some sort of compromise with the US — might make the best sense on the surface. But, if the Iranian government were to do so, given its appalling economic incompetence (wherein gross domestic product tumbled by a whopping 3.9 percent in 2018, and is set to fall by another 6 percent this year), the mullahs would not be long for this world.

No one is keeping the Iranian elite in power because of their economic and technocratic management skills. Instead, they remain in place for two basic reasons: First, the government has a monopoly on force in the country, making unseating it both difficult and perilous; second, they are seen as keepers of the revolutionary flame. Failure to embody this would unbind this last tenuous link between Iran’s rulers and the ruled.

Iran’s revolutionary ideology rests on a few basic principles. First, the revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini believes that Islamic jurists should be the supreme holders of both religious and political authority. Second, that the Iranian Revolution was to function as a catalyst for global revolution, being inherently expansionistic at its core. Third, and curiously in line with the deposed Shah’s regime, that the revolution desired to resurrect the past glories of the Persian Empire.

To facilitate this revolutionary triumph, Iran’s post-1979 foreign policy was founded on a fundamental anti-American position, maintaining complete independence from the West. Second, the revolution ought to be exported in the region to extend Tehran’s political reach and power wherever possible, specifically to Iraq, Lebanon and, lately, Syria.

Obviously, such a revolutionary foreign policy put Tehran at odds with the Arab powers in the Middle East and Israel, as well as the US. Given this strategic reality, with a majority of the strategic forces in the region arrayed against its expansionistic zeal, Iran has regularly been a disruptive, revolutionary power, determined to upend an order in the Middle East that does not favor it. Instead, it has embarked on its risky nuclear program and used sub-state actors such as Hezbollah to maximize its power.

So the jurists empowered in 1979 find themselves riding the back of a tiger in the form of Iran’s revolutionary legacy. They cannot significantly reform and moderate their revolutionary position either internally or externally without diluting their own power and doing away with the glue that just about keeps the country together. Much like Maoist China, Tehran needs perpetual revolution to keep the whole rickety enterprise going.

And that is precisely the problem. For to moderate means doing away with Iran’s revolutionary foreign policy, signifying the Iranian Revolution has failed in its own terms, not having brought about global victory. This warped dream keeps the mullahs in power in the short term, but it also fundamentally shackles the Iranian government to radical and ruinous policies it simply cannot turn away from. This reality, and not the oft-reviled Trump administration, is why the present crisis is so dangerous.