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Op-Ed: Iran's Foreign Policy Driven By Identity


This week, Iran hosts the largest international gathering in Tehran since the revolution in 1979. Analysts expect Iran to use the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement to justify its nuclear ambitions and tell its side of its contentious relations with the West, Israel and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. In a recent piece in The National Interest, Ray Takeyh explains Iran's foreign policy as an extension of Ayatollah Khomeini's theocracy and argues that it thrives on conflict as a means to sustain an ideological identity. "All The Ayatollah's Men" appears in the September-October issue of The National Interest." Author Ray Takeyh joins us now by phone. And, Ray, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

RAY TAKEYH: Thanks very much for having me again.

CONAN: And it seems that Iran will face a contradiction during this summit. Syria is a top priority. Iran cited its own revolution as an inspiration for the uprisings of the Arab Awakening. But in Syria, well, of course, Iran's on the other side.

TAKEYH: Well, it was a stretch for Iran to suggest that it's - that the Arab Awakening or what used to be called the Arab Spring were an extension of Islamic revolution. And actually they do call it Islamic Awakening in Iran. The current struggle in the Middle East is about citizens' empowerment and greater expansion of democratic rights, and that's obviously inconsistent with what is taking place within Iran itself today.

In terms of Syria, that only adds and compounds the contradiction in a sense that Iran is trying to assist the Assad regime and minority regime from - that is determined to hold onto power through means of violence. And its support for that further, I think, erodes some of the soft power influences that Iran had in the region during the years of 2005, '06, '07 and so on.

CONAN: An apparent diplomatic triumph in the decision by Egypt's new president Morsi to attend the summit. But again, his interest in Iran is going to be tampered by, well, I guess reports today that Iran is sending what might be called military advisers to Damascus.

TAKEYH: I should know that even during the Mubarak era, there were attempts by Iran and Egypt to restore diplomatic relations between the two powers. For instance, Iran speaker Ali Larijani had visited with Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, the visits by President Morsi is not insignificant, but it's not necessary a dramatic and fundamental departure from some of the warming of the relationship between Egypt and Iran that were taking place nonetheless. Iran's attempt to buttress the power of the Assad minority regime is going to be a source of contention. This means that Iran had the - not just Egypt but certainly Turkey, Jordan and also the Gulf states. In that sense, Iran has chosen a side that has less popularity and perhaps less viability in the long run in both Middle East proper and Syria itself.

CONAN: And should we see Iran's decision to host this summit of the Non-Aligned Conference as an effort to take its place more in the international order?

TAKEYH: There is no question about that. The American narrative has been that Iran is internationally isolated, economically weakened and at odds with much of its own neighbors. And that narrative, those have some value to it. The Iranians have always tried to counter that narrative, and this international summit, which has participation by many countries goes (unintelligible) way because it lends some degree of credence to the Iranian rhetoric that international community is now limited to the United States and the European states. There are a lot of countries in that international community, and Iran has diplomatic relationships with them that are robust and significant. And this further adds to Iran's case in its attempt to negate the narrative coming out of the Western powers.

CONAN: It's interesting that Iran, at the moment, faces a hostage crisis of its own of sorts. Iran and Syria are working to release dozens of hostages taken by the Free Syrian Army. I guess there's some dispute as to how connected they are with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

But getting back to the hostage crisis, we all remember back in 1979, you write in your at the National Interest that Ayatollah Khomeini was able to use that crisis as leverage to really establish his regime, oust the interim government and create the state that we know now.

TAKEYH: Well, that's right. And that's not particularly unusual against many ideological regimes that try to use foreign relations as a means of buttressing the forces of revolution at home. China did that in early 1950s, for instance.

One of the things that Iranian regime in the 1980s and beyond, I suggest, have tried to do is use foreign relations and foreign policy conflict as a means of creating - get domestic atmosphere that makes consolidation of the regime's power, but also consolidation of his revolutionary values more proper. So in a sense it is an attempt to radicalize the environment and radicalize the population and create sort of a threat atmosphere that allows the regime to exercise arbitrary powers.

CONAN: Well, you mentioned China as one example, and you cited in your piece decades after the death of Mao Tse-tung, the government in Beijing no longer hues to his revolutionary principles in terms of foreign policy; the same with Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is no longer cited as the source of Vietnam's foreign policy. Yet in Tehran, very much - that's not the case. Ayatollah Khomeini still seen as the architect of Iran's foreign policy.

TAKEYH: Well, that's what makes Iran unusual. What we have come to know from our experience with revolutionary states, usually China has defined our paradigm of how revolutionary states behave. They began in a radicalized revolutionary manner and gradually, over time, they mellow out and other competing interests, whether it's economic or otherwise, caused them to abandon their revolutionary legacy for more material if not mundane considerations.

So the arc of the revolutionary regime is intense revolutionary activity and eventually that becomes tempered, and you begin to see the rise of a more moderate if not modest regime. As I mentioned, China sort encapsulates our view about how revolutionary regimes react over time. There's nothing particularly communist about Chinese Communist Party today, and you can take that to other such cases.

Iran seems to have been an outlier. It seems to be different. And one of the difference is, for a small segment of the population, the mission of the state is to still realize God's will as explained and as interpreted by a certain clerical oligarchy. And so long as that's the case, it has managed to hang on to its revolutionary identity far longer than many people have expected.

If you look at the debates about Iran in the 1990s or even 1980s, many people were suggesting that eventually we'll see signs of mellowing, particularly if a new generation comes to power and the elders of the revolution retire or recedes from the scene.

Interestingly enough, the younger generation that are created within the Islamic Republic tend to maintain that allegiance to the revolution's original mission, and that's what makes Iran particularly different from its counterparts and in many ways an anomaly in the international system.

CONAN: You cite the example of the 1990s, when there were more reformist elements in control. Khatami, the president, was elected then and even his predecessor, Rafsanjani. Yet that effort to reform Iran's image came to naught.

TAKEYH: Yes. In the 1990s, the revolution faced its most serious challenge and you had a pragmatic Rafsanjani and the reformist president, Khatami, attempting to shift the state to a different direction and shift the bases of this relationship with the international community and its own domestic audience. However, that was resisted by what used to be called the unelected branches of government that essentially rebuffed those gestures, undermined those efforts, and have tried hard to maintain that kind of a pristine revolutionary identity. And the reformist period has come and gone, the serious challenge that the regime faced with the Green movement as well.

So there you have a sort of gap between state and society where the state has certain values that it wants to uphold while the society increasingly prescribes to a very different set of values.

CONAN: The different set of values, that's critical. But at various times, you suggest that Iran is acting its own national interest. For example, Europe was at one point quite open to Iranian overtures, yet for one thing continued terrorism caused problems.

TAKEYH: Well, again, that's not unusual. Iran certainly has put premium on the revolutionary activism and has been willing to pay the price for that activism in terms of some of the national interest setbacks that it has had over the years. But again, you put that in the context of how revolutionary regimes act, and you begin to see some degree of continuity. For instance, in the 1960s, China was offering economic assistance to countries that have a larger GDP than China did.

Revolutionary regime often behave in a rash manner. Often they don't engage in a sort of cost-benefit analysis that other countries do because their purpose is to forge a certain identity and to propound certain set of values. And at times they are willing to pay the price in both economic penalties and in terms of national interest setbacks in order to maintain stability to that revolutionary mission and that revolutionary vision.

CONAN: I was interested in the one exception to your theory, which you cite in your piece, that while Iran retains its revolutionary and confrontational aspect to the United States, certainly towards Israel, certainly towards Europe, it did not do so during the Chechnya War in Russia.

TAKEYH: Well, that's right. And even with the Muslim uprisings in China in the summer of 2009, the Iranian revolution and its radical self-definition really has as its antagonist, as its foe, if you would, the West, whether the United States and increasingly Europe that has joined the United States. And in order to nevertheless exists in the international system, have some sort of a commerce, have some degree of international trade, it has to become even more beholden and more dependent on the Eastern Bloc, if you would, which include China and Russia as well.

Therefore, in order to maintain its animosity toward the West, it ironically has to be somewhat uncritical of Russian Federation and the Chinese state when they engage in repression against Muslim populations, such as the case you mentioned in Chechnya or for that matter what the Chinese were doing in the summer of 2009 in terms of the Muslim insurrections that they faced themselves. And that actually creates some of a tension and contradiction because if this is a regime that has made the rights of Muslim population the foremost aspect of this foreign policy, then how could it afford to maintain such silence when Muslims are being slaughtered in Chechnya? But that's the price that Iran has to pay for its anti-Americanism and the anti-American values which has remained largely intact.

CONAN: We're talking with Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations about his piece, "All the Ayatollah's Men," which appears in the September/October 2012 issue of The National Interest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller in on the conversation. This is Rahtan(ph). Rahtan with us from Lapeer in Michigan.

RAHTAN: Hi there. Love this NPR show. It's really wonderful. I have a question about this. In fact, I spent three years when we arrived in the (unintelligible) I actually saw that Khomeini came into power in those days. I think that difference between Iran and to China and Vietnam is that Iran came to power - Khomeini came to power because of religion. And religious fervor can be very, very strong in keeping the whole movement going, and Mao tse-Tung, on the other hand, believed, actually did believe that religion is the opium of the masses.

Now, they were both atheisst, Mao tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh. It's quite possible once the revolution was over, they went to the economics and politics of the game. With Iran, they're stuck with the religious moving forward. I'd like to take the question of the air.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much. And Ray Takeyh, that seems to get to the heart of it. You said in your piece it's a lot easier to be a former Stalinist than a former Shiite.

TAKEYH: Well, that's right. I mean, as the caller mentioned, quite justifiably and correctly, Iran's Islamic Republic governing ideology is a form of religion. To be sure, it's a politicized form of religion. To be sure, it is a form of religious dogma that has alienated many within the clerical community itself. But nevertheless, if you believe that the mission of the state is realization of God's will, and if you believe that this is a sort of a divine ordinance that you're trying to implement, then it's actually very difficult to abandon that mission.

To become an ex-Marxist or an ex-Stalinist is a sign of political maturity. To become a sort of an ex-Shiite or ex-member of the Islamic Republic, it sort of become signs of apostasy. And that's a very different kind of a commitment and a very different kind of a commitment to break. And that, I think, goes a long way to explain the longevity of Islamic Republic's vision for a small, slender category of individuals that still subscribed to its tenets.

CONAN: They are still in power, of course, but it raises the question of how this applies to the standoff on the nuclear issue.

TAKEYH: Well, to some extent, one of the explanations or one of the motivations for the nuclear issue, not the only one, is that some degree of tension and estrangement from the West is beneficial to the Islamic Republic's domestic ideology as the leadership of that states sees it. So the nuclear standoff, which is quite debilitating for Iran in terms of its economic predicament, may actually enhance the solidarity of the regime among its core constituents. And that's not necessarily a development that Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, looks at with alarm.

CONAN: Yet people are digging themselves into positions they may not be able to dig themselves out of.

TAKEYH: I think that's happening on all sides. Certainly, Iran has made a commitment to atomic science and nuclear program that is difficult for it to maintain in light of economic pressures and possibility of military confrontations. And other neighboring countries and the United States and others have suggested that this capability is unacceptable. And it's hard to see how these very different perspectives can nevertheless come together in some kind of a diplomatic settlement.

CONAN: And another aspect of revolutionary foreign policy is that it is based on export, and that explains Syria a bit too.

TAKEYH: Well, it explains Syria. It explains Iranian activism elsewhere in the Middle East, whether it's in southern Lebanon or whether it is in the Gulf. Southern Lebanon being the case, Iranian activism in the Levant, Syria, or Southern Lebanon, don't really enhance its national interest. But nevertheless, it is engaging in activity today that is estranging its neighbors, further causing alarm among the international community. And still, it is engaging in that combat because it views it as beneficial for his own revolutionary mission.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

TAKEYH: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: There's a link to Ray Takeyh's piece on our website. You can just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Again, he's a senior for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin on Romney, Ron Paul and the GOP convention. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.