Bombastic claims of nuclear achievement, threats to close critical international waterways, alleged terrorist plots and hints of diplomatic outreach — all are emanating from Tehran right now. This past week, confrontation between Iran and the West reached new heights as Israel accused Iran of a bombing attempt in Bangkok and others targeting Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia. And yet, on Wednesday, an Iranian nuclear negotiator signaled that Tehran wants to get back to the table.
What does Iran really want? What, as strategists might ask, are the sources of Iranian conduct?
The key to unraveling the Islamic republic lies in understanding Iran’s perception of itself. More than any other Middle Eastern nation, Iran has always imagined itself as the natural hegemon of its neighborhood. As the Persian empire shrank over the centuries and Persian culture faded with the arrival of more alluring Western mores, Iran’s exaggerated view of itself remained largely intact. By dint of history, Iranians believe that their nation deserves regional preeminence.
However, Iran’s foreign policy is also built on the foundations of the theocratic regime and the 1979 revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini bequeathed to his successors an ideology that divided the world between oppressors and the oppressed. The Islamic revolution was a battle for emancipation from the cultural and political tentacles of the iniquitous West. However, Iran was not merely seeking independence and autonomy, but wanted to project its Islamist message beyond its borders. Khomeini’s ideology and Iran’s nationalist aspirations created a revolutionary, populist approach to the region’s status quo.
Iran’s enduring revolutionary zeal may seem puzzling because, in many ways, China has come to define our impressions of a revolutionary state. At the outset, ideology determined Beijing’s foreign policy, even to the detriment of its practical interests, but over time, new generations of leaders discarded such a rigid approach. Today, there is nothing particularly communist about the Chinese Communist Party.
By the 1990s, Iran appeared to be following in the footsteps of states such as China and Vietnam, as pragmatic leaders such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and reformers such as Mohammad Khatami struggled to emancipate their republic from Khomeini’s onerous ideology. But what makes Iran peculiar is that this evolution was deliberately halted by a younger generation of leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who rejected the pragmatic approach in favor of reclaiming the legacy of Khomeini. “Returning to the roots of the revolution” became their mantra.
Under the auspices of an austere and dogmatic supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a “war generation” is taking control in Iran — young rightists who were molded by the prolonged war with Iraq in the 1980s. Although committed to the religious pedigree of the state, the callow reactionaries have at times been critical of their elders for their passivity in the imposition of Islamic cultural restrictions and for the rampant corruption that has engulfed the nation. As Iran’s revolution matures, and the politicians who were present at its creation gradually fade from the scene, a more doctrinaire generation is taking command. Situated in the security services, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and increasingly the elected institutions, they are becoming more powerful than their moderate elders.