Originally posted January 2009
Understanding Iran’s foreign policy is the key to crafting sensible and effective policies toward Iran and requires, above all, a close analysis of the profound cultural and psychological contexts of Iranian foreign policy behavior.
For Iran, the past is always present. A paradoxical combination of pride in Iranian culture and a sense of victimization have created a fierce sense of independence and a culture of resistance to dictation and domination by any foreign power among the Iranian people. Iranian foreign policy is rooted in these widely held sentiments.
The Roots of Iranian Foreign Policy
Iranians value the influence that their ancient religion, Zoroastrianism, has had on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They take pride in 30 centuries of arts and artifacts, in the continuity of their cultural identity over millennia, in having established the first world state more than 2,500 years ago, in having organized the first international society that respected the religions and cultures of the people under their rule, in having liberated the Jews from Babylonian captivity, and in having influenced Greek, Arab, Mongol, and Turkish civilizations — not to mention having influenced Western culture indirectly through Iranian contributions to Islamic civilization.
At the same time, however, Iranians feel they have been oppressed by foreign powers throughout their history. They remember that Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and most recently Saddam Husayn’s forces all invaded their homeland. Iranians also remember that the British and Russian empires exploited them economically, subjugated them politically, and invaded and occupied their country in two World Wars.
The facts that the United States aborted Iranian democratic aspirations in 1953 by overthrowing the government of Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddeq, returned the autocratic Shah to the throne, and thereafter dominated the country for a quarter century is deeply seared into Iran’s collective memory. Likewise, just as the American overthrow of Musaddeq was etched into the Iranian psyche, the Iranian taking of American hostages in 1979 was engraved into the American consciousness. Iran’s relations with the United States have been shaped not only by a mutual psychological trauma but also by collective memory on the Iranian side of 70 years of amicable Iran-US relations.
In spite of these historical wounds, Iranians remember American support of their first attempt to establish a democratic representative government in 1905-1911; American championing of Iran’s rejection of the British bid to impose a protectorate on Iran after World War I; American support of Iran’s resistance to Soviet pressures for an oil concession in the 1940s; and, above all else, American efforts to protect Iran’s independence and territorial integrity by pressuring the Soviet Union to end its occupation of northern Iran at the end of World War II.
A Tradition of Prudent Statecraft
Contrary to the Western and Israeli depiction of Iranian foreign policy as “irrational,” Iran has a tradition of prudent statecraft that has been created by centuries of experience in international affairs beginning with Cyrus the Great more than 2,000 years ago.
To be sure, Iran has made many mistakes in its long diplomatic history. In the post-revolutionary period, and particularly in the early years of the Islamic revolution, Iran’s foreign policy was often characterized by provocation, agitation, subversion, taking of hostages, and terrorism. Most recently, Iran’s international image was tarnished by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s imprudent rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust in disregard of the importance of international legitimacy and the Iranian-Islamic dictum of hekmat (wisdom).
Yet it is also important to acknowledge instances where post-revolutionary Iranian foreign policy has been moderate and constructive. Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, President Mohammad Khatami, vehemently denounced violence and terrorism, promoted détente, pressed for “dialogue among civilizations,” improved Iran’s relations with its Persian Gulf neighbors, reversed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, bettered relations with Europe, softened Iran’s adversarial attitude toward Israel, and, above all, offered an “olive branch” to the United States. His foreign policy restored the tradition of hekmat (wisdom) to Iran’s statecraft.
Lessons to Be Learned
There are valuable lessons to be learned by countries that deal with Iran, especially those powers that are quarreling with Iran over the crucial nuclear issue.
First, Iran’s statecraft is inextricably linked to the expectation of respect. In attempting to negotiate with Iran, pressures and threats, direct or indirect, military, economic or diplomatic, can prove highly counterproductive. When the United States says “all the options are on the table” in the nuclear dispute, for example, Iran views this as a threat of military force that must be resisted. Or when the six powers issued their joint proposal to Iran for discussion, as they did in Geneva on July 19, 2008, with an August 2 deadline for an Iranian response, Iran understood it as an ultimatum that could be followed by the imposition of greater sanctions.
While Iran’s reaction to the Geneva meeting, which included the United States for the first time, was generally positive, Iranian leaders said enough to demonstrate that they expect respect and reject threats. In addressing the Iranian people on the critical nuclear issue on July 17, 2008, the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, rejected threats from the United States, saying that “[t]he Iranian people do not like threats. We will not respond to threats in any way.” Yet he specifically praised the European powers because “they respect the Iranian people. They stress that they respect the rights of the Iranian people.”
Following Khamene’i, on July 28, 2008 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the anchor of NBC Nightly News, “You know full well that nobody can threaten the Iranian people and pose [a] deadline they expect us to meet.” He rejected the August 2 deadline on the same day and said on August 3, “Iran has always been willing to solve the long-standing crisis over its disputed nuclear program through negotiations.” Reportedly, Iran would make its own proposal in its own time, perhaps on August 5.
Second, Iran’s interlocutors would benefit significantly if they also understood Iran’s negotiating style. Created, molded, and honed by long diplomatic experience, Iranian diplomats combine a range of tactics in dealing with their counterparts: testing, probing, procrastinating, exaggerating, bluffing, ad-hocing, and counter-threatening when threatened.
Third, foreign powers such as the United States should recognize the fierce sense of independence and resistance of the Iranian people, regardless of political and ideological differences, to direct or indirect pressure, dictation, and the explicit or implied threat of force. With these points in mind, American leaders can still draw creatively on the historic reservoir of Iranian goodwill toward the United States to craft initiatives that will be well received in Iran.
The Way Forward for the United States
The United States should recognize the legitimacy of the Iranian Revolution unequivocally. The United States should also assess realistically Iran’s projection of power in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf, where Iran seeks acknowledgment of its role as a major player. Thirdly, the US administration should reconsider its reliance on more than three decades of containment and sanctions, which have not weakened the regime, but have grievously harmed the Iranian people, whom America claims to support. Finally, the United States should also talk to Iran unconditionally. On the nuclear issue in particular, the United States should take up Iran on its explicit commitment to uranium enrichment solely for peaceful purposes, and President Ahmadinejad’s statement that “Iran has always been willing to resolve the nuclear dispute through negotiations.”