IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

Iranian-Israeli hostility is actually quite odd. Tehran is well over a thousand miles from Jerusalem. The two countries do not border each other. They have no major bilateral claims toward one another. Whereas large Arab neighbors of Iran, like Iraq or Saudi Arabia, might be considered its natural competitors, Israel cannot. Even fans of the “ancient hatreds” school of Middle East conflict would come up short.

What historical memory there is of Persian-Judaic interactions is largely positive in Jewish eyes: Streets in Israel are named for Cyrus the Great, who allowed the Jews to return to Judea from their Babilonian exile in 538 BCE. Conversely, Judea never rose to compete with Persia for regional prominence, as did Greek or later Arab forces.

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Forty years have passed since disparate groups of revolutionaries—many of them united only in their opposition to the Imperial State of Iran’s alignment with the United States—toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. 

Since then, hundreds of American scholars and practitioners have attempted to understand the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and how to best respond to the challenges it poses. Some have long advocated for engaging the Iranian regime, while others have pushed for a tougher stance against it. US President Donald Trump has argued that a maximum pressure campaign would force the mullahs to negotiate and strike a deal on the entirety of their foreign policy, including their missile and nuclear programs and interventions in a number of theaters throughout the Middle East and South Asia. But the Islamic Republic isn’t likely to change the course of its foreign policy.

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The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah trilateral partnership has been decades in the making. It pre-dates the Syrian civil war, has strengthened as a result of the war and will likely endure in the post-war years.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, shared enmity of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Israel and the United States brought Damascus and Tehran together. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Tehran and Damascus joined forces to found Hezbollah, mainly to enhance their respective deterrence capabilities against Israel and the United States. The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war and Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war since 2012 turned the Lebanese proxy into a strategic partner and earned the Party of God a seat at the grownups’ table. 

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With the advent of another presidential election cycle in the United States, many US and foreign politicians and policy advocates have already begun thinking about recommendations for the next occupant of the White House.

In both domestic and foreign affairs, it will not be sufficient to simply revisit decisions made by President Donald Trump but to come up with a proactive agenda for a new president—or a second Trump administration.

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Among the unalterable “laws of the Medes and the Persians” that have ruled US-Iran relations for decades are the following:

  • Everything takes longer than you think.
  • Everything is harder than you think.
  • Whenever you begin to make progress, some bad fortune or stupidity will screw up everything.

The first two are obvious. In the last two years, with a new American administration, we have seen the third operating at full force.  

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When I moved to Tehran twenty years ago, I wore a black manteau that stretched to my ankles and a headscarf pulled down to my forehead. By the time I graduated high school in 2005, my highlighted fuchsia hair stuck out like tentacles from a white shawl, and a matching manteau barely covered my rear.

Such social changes, as minor as some might seem, were and continue to be a barometer of change in Iran.

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When it comes to women and the Islamic Republic, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

For forty years, women have resisted the Islamic Republic’s attempt to deny them rights previously won. They have waged a war—on the streets, in social media and even in the privacy of their homes—for equality and against the regime’s attempts to impose on them a broad range of controls. 

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June 15, 2009 was a historic day in Iran’s recent history. Some three million people marched in silence on Enghelab (Revolution) Street in the capital of Tehran to convey their anger at the Islamic Republic in the most peaceful manner. 

The regime had disconnected cell phone services in a failed effort to prevent the march, which followed the manipulated “re-election” of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and had announced in advance that any demonstrations would be deemed illegal. When this author reached Enghelab Street at 3 pm, the normal sounds of traffic and yelling vendors had been replaced by silence. Every few minutes, one could hear a “shush” coming from the enormous crowd.

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