August 11, 2017
Why Iran's 'Enemy narrative' is Flawed
By Shahir Shahidsaless
Javani, the founder of Sobhe Sadiq, the political organ of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and one of the IRGC’s top theoreticians, opens his piece by asking: “Why do the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic have enemies? Can’t these hostilities be brought to an end? Can something be done so that one day the enmity between us and, for instance, the Americans, Zionists, some of the European countries, some of the countries in the [Persian Gulf] region, and some political currents, end? … Can’t we protect our interests better in a friendly environment having friendly relations with Americans and the others who are hostile to us?”
Javani then maintains that, according to experts, there is no permanent friend or foe in the international arena. Rather, international relations are shaped around the aim of protecting countries’ interests. However, this theory, according to Javani, does not apply to relations between Iran and its enemies. Without mentioning the theory itself, his argument is based on identity politics.
“A not very deep observation can lead us to the right answer to the above questions,” he adds. “For the Iranian nation, with a special identity, the existence of the enemy is definite, permanent, and inevitable. In other words, it is the national identity of Iranians that clashes with America and the Zionist regime and forces them to adopt a hostile position toward the establishment of the Islamic Republic.”
The article continues, “This means that America is the enemy of our identity we must therefore strive to change this identity. … [Now], any effort aimed at reducing the distance between the Islamic Republic and America knowingly or unknowingly targets our identity while seeking to transform it, thus helping to implement the enemy’s plan.”
According to Javani, the main components of the Iranians’ identity are “Islam, revolution and historical depth.” It is based on these characteristics, he asserts, that “Iranians seek to build Islamic civilization, defend the oppressed and the poor, and stand against the oppressors.” He argues that these characteristics are diametrically opposed to our “avaricious enemy and its tendency to bully and plunder” weaker nations.
Javani’s argument is flawed on several accounts.
First, there is no doubt that identity politics plays a role in US-Iran relations. However, contrary to Javani’s claim, Iran’s deep state, which operates at, and thus reflects, the highest level of the political decision making apparatus, conducts cost-benefit analysis in determining the country’s relations with the US. “We have never said that the relations will remain severed forever. Undoubtedly, the day relations with America prove beneficial for the Iranian nation, I will be the first one to approve of that,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has remarked.
So even in the eyes of Javani’s boss, enmity with the US is neither permanent nor simply about identity.
Why then does Khamenei think there is a cost attached to restoring relations with the US? He fears that the Americans will aggressively enter the Iranian market, sideline other industrial countries, and become the dominant foreign actor in Iran, thus giving rise to the arrival of pro-American white-collar workers and technocrats. This development could lead to the expansion of the US economic, but more threateningly, cultural, influence within Iran and shake the authority of the religious establishment and system.
Khamenei fears American pop culture, which according to Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard University who coined the term “soft power,” is an important element of America’s global influence.
Following the conclusion of the nuclear agreement, Khamenei, wary of the Americans’ return to Iran, remarked, “We would allow neither Americans’ presence in Iran, nor their economic influence, nor political influence, nor cultural influence.”
However, Western cultural influence in general and US influence in particular are clearly visible in a significant portion of Iranian society, primarily among middle- and upper-middle class urbanites. This is evident in fashion trends and lifestyle, and young urbanites are engaged in a constant struggle with the morality police over dress codes in public in the large cities.
Even the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had radical anti-American sentiments, did not think that Iran’s enmity with the US would last forever. Mohsen Rafighdoost, a founding member of the IRGC, gave an interview in 2015 pointing out that Khomeini dissuaded him from setting up the IRGC headquarters at the former US Embassy in Tehran. “Why do you want to go there?” Rafighdoost recounts Khomeini asking him. “Are our disputes with the US supposed to last a thousand years? Do not go there.”
Javani knowingly or unknowingly misses the point that what he defines as the Iranians’ identity does not apply to a large section of society. There is no doubt that the conservatives, partly because of their religious beliefs and partly because they enjoy advantages that their opponents do not, follow Javani’s worldview. However, drawing on the outcome of the May presidential election, in which Hassan Rouhani had a decisive win over a conservative rival, it is safe to claim that conservatives represent a minority of Iranian society.
Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president (1997-2005) who won two elections with crushing victories against his conservative rivals, as well as millions who followed and supported him, did not view relations with the US in the framework of the clash of civilizations. Khatami initiated the discourse of “Dialogue among Civilizations” and advocated a détente policy with the West, including the US.
Rouhani and his team wholeheartedly believe that Iran should interact with friends and foes and that Iran cannot live in isolation. In 2012, Javad Zarif, Iran’s top diplomat, published a 360-page book in Farsi titled Mr Ambassador, which was drawn from a lengthy interview. In it, Zarif drew the framework of his vision on foreign policy: “The art of diplomacy is to maximize your benefits at minimum expense. As such, it is impossible to maximize your benefits through confrontational policies in this interconnected world.” This is a technical description of what Rouhani says in simple, publicly understandable words. Rouhani describes “the logic of the administration with the whole world” with a reference to an Iranian saying: “Generosity with friends and tolerance with enemies.”
Following the 2015 nuclear agreement, clearly but implicitly referring to the relations with the US, he said, “This is a first step towards productive interactions with the world. … Some think that we must either fight the world or surrender to world powers. We say it is neither of those, there is a third way. We can have cooperation with the world.”
During the nuclear negotiations, Rouhani remarked, “It is not written in stone that the relationship between Iran and the US must be hostile forever. One day this will change.”
Despite the rise in anti-Iran rhetoric in Washington following the election of Donald Trump, Rouhani has not changed his pro-engagement discourse.
In a speech marking his inauguration to a second term on August 5, he emphasized that “promoting constructive interaction with the world, deepening bonds with neighboring and regional countries [that are deemed to be irreconcilable enemies according to Javani] … are not only an informed choice but also a necessity to improve international peace and security.”
This view was supported in the May presidential election in Iran by 24 million voters, which gave Rouhani a significant victory over his conservative rival.
Javani, representing the deep state, presumes that Iran is a uniform society with a monolithic culture and that its culture is irreconcilable with the West. The reality, however, is that Iran is a divided society where modernity and tradition are separated along contrasting cultural fault lines. In fact, this explains the constant struggle within Iranian society, what this author has called the “clash of civilizations within a civilization.”
Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless