Iran: An Historically Unlikely Western Ally

The point of no return is not a foreseeable variable in the calculations of a White House strategist -- someone who, by definition, must consistently react to events as they occur on the ground -- and is often better left designated to the historian who later examines events with (hopefully) all of the relevant information at his disposal. A strategist relies on the notion that future actions can always be introduced at a later date in order to undo the ramifications of prior decision-making. Yet, a proper blend of historical research and insight from a trained historian can provide a solid foundation of context from which a decision-maker can form a realistic and meaningful policy when quickly adapting to evolving events. Therefore, it is helpful to understand some of the defining characteristics of the present Iranian regime in order to account for its interests and to anticipate its future actions. Particularly since Iran, according to some experts, has already reached that defining moment from which no country is now capable of preventing it from becoming the world’s next nuclear state. 

Iran has been on a decades-long march to become a nuclear state. Its strategy, in part, has relied on slow yet consistent advancements towards developing a homegrown corps of competent nuclear scientists. But more importantly, Iran’s brand of government requires it to adopt aggressive measures that will never engender it to work alongside the West -- unless doing so serves Tehran’s interests. 

To begin with, Iran’s status as a revolutionary government means that it is periodically required to reassert its ability to implement meaningful reforms for the Iranian population. Without proof of these advances in the quality of life in Iran, the revolutionary regime in Tehran loses its ability to carry out the promise of advancement that is expected from the revolution and, in the process, loses its image as the guarantor of Iran’s better future. Indeed, an opportunity was presented to topple the regime in 2012, when the full weight of Western sanctions had crippled the Iranian economy and left the population to doubt the regime’s strategy. However, the rise to power in 2013 of an allegedly progressive leader, Hassan Rouhani, was no doubt orchestrated to visibly shake off the malaise from the unpopular and corrupt leadership of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and to reaffirm the regime’s commitment to the Iranian people. 

After all, the real power in Iran lays with Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and his approval is required for most important matters of state (See, for example, Article 110 of The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran). Khamenei’s ability to retain long-term support from the Iranian people rests with his ability to read the writing on the wall and to adapt to the popular will in a way that still compliments his grip over Iran. His partnership with Rouhani and the subsequent promise of a new progressive era was staged to suggest a change in the hitherto autocratic and imperial stylings of Iran’s revolutionary government. And yet, Iran under the Rouhani government has only increased its hegemony over Middle East affairs by inter alia sending missiles to Gaza, funneling in Iranian Special Forces and Hizb’allah to bolster the Assad regime in Syria, and capturing long-sought territory in Iraq. In other words, Iran is strategically in a much stronger position today than it was three years ago -- when it was isolated and cut off from badly needed funds being held by Western sanctions. Moreover, Tehran is on the cusp of solidifying its landmark and lucrative nuclear deal with the West. This newfound success has translated into renewed faith in the regime and its ability to compete with Western nations in the global arena.

To be sure, there is precedence in Middle East politics for autocratic rulers striking bargains with popular political figures in order to curry favor with the West or to gain swift advantages from a swelling of popular support. Hence, there is the appearance of a dramatic shift in Iran’s system of government, which was purposefully crafted by Khamenei in order to reanimate support for the regime and to revitalize the public’s approval toward its favor. This has been achieved, foremost, by the Rouhani government’s championing of democratic values which seem at odd variance with the strict Islamist interpretation of law that remain the hallmark of Khamenei’s revolutionary regime.

Further bolstering Khamenei’s impressive retention of political power within Iran, he also holds religious significance as the designated substitute for the messianic Hidden Imam -- thus making him the top figurehead for Shia Islam in the world today. Interestingly, Khamenei noticeably rejected the opportunity to serve as the top cleric within Iran -- supposedly because there were more religiously qualified candidates than him -- though he accepted the “request of Shi’as outside Iran (to serve as their spiritual leader), as there is no alternative.” Khamenei notes that he will step down from the position once other foreign clerics are capable of taking over in his place. However, for the foreseeable future, Khamenei has established that he sees himself as the lead arbiter of both politics in Iran and of Shia Islam in the world. Thus, he took an opportunity at the 2014 Conference for Islamic Unity to note that extremist Sunni groups were being supported by certain Arab governments in order to divide Muslims. His comments were notably aimed at Sunni organizations operating in Syria with the backing of Saudi Arabia. This line of thinking alludes to Khamenei’s justification in utilizing Iran’s military capabilities in order to protect Muslims abroad and may even leave a clue to future interventions even closer to the Arab Middle East -- i.e. in the predominant Shiite country of Bahrain.

So how does the West deal with a nuclear Iran which sees itself as a potential temporal and spiritual authority over the rest of the Middle East? It needs to possess a realistic understanding of the modus operandi of the present regime. Some influential Western thinkers may see room for the implementation of Western style Democracy in Iran; however, as explicitly stated in the Iranian constitution, “Any form of agreement resulting in foreign control over the natural resources, economy, army, or culture of the country, as well as other aspects of the national life, is forbidden.” Likewise, it is a hallmark of Khamenei’s doctrine that Iran has been wronged in the past by Western subversion. Thus, for all intents and purposes, Iran will never be a partner to Western influence in the Middle East and therefore cannot not be trusted as a nuclear state, as it will only continue to serve its own self-interest in the region.

Gabriel Glickman is a PhD Candidate in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London.