Karim Sadjapour recently published a piece in Foreign Policy that clearly aspired to be the “Mr. X” article for America’s current policy debate on how to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We are pleased to publish this rejoinder to Sadjadpour’s piece, by Reza Esfandiari, an independent analyst of Iranian affairs.
The Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be compared to the Soviet Union.
Karim Sadjadpour’s recent piece in Foreign Policy, “The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct”, likens the Islamic Republic to the Soviet Union and political Islam to communism: in doing so, he reflects a very profound misjudgment. While it may be true that Iran needs America as an enemy as the Soviets did, in also much the same way that it can be argued the United States needs the scourge of terrorism as a nemesis, it is hardly the case that any perceived enmity is artificial and purely for the purpose of internal consumption.
Sadjadpour predictably and unfairly dismisses Iran’s legitimate security concerns. Since 1995, Iran has become increasingly enveloped by a “military belt” of American forces positioned to the west, south and east. Although the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have actually boosted Iran’s strategic importance in the region, the Iranians are acutely aware that the United States wants to coerce and pressure them by applying its considerable military presence. There are also Iranian fears, justified or not, about the possible role of the National Endowment of Democracy and others in promoting ‘velvet revolution’, and the CIA in fomenting unrest in the Sunni regions of the country.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, it is widely recognized within Iran’s political and security establishment that rapprochement with the United States, on favorable terms, is a fundamental foreign policy goal. While Sadjadpour dwells incessantly on Ayatollah Khamenei’s rhetoric, he ignores the fact that the Iranian leader approved of the overtures of the Khatami administration to the Bush administration in cooperating over Afghanistan in 2001 and offering to help stabilize Iraq in 2003 (even though it was designated an “evil” state a year previously). [editor’s note: Khamenei also approved ambassadorial talks with the United States in and over Iraq in 2007, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had succeeded Khatami as President of the Islamic Republic.]
It is common within neoconservative circles to compare the present-day Islamic Republic with the final years of the Soviet Union and to anticipate another “Berlin wall moment” leading to regime change. It was incorrectly believed that Iran’s political system was disintegrating in the aftermath of the presidential election last year, when in reality the various centers of power were carefully maneuvering to preserve their vested interests and influence.
The circumstances, moreover, are markedly different. The Soviet Union collapsed because it was a multinational empire whose member republics desired independence from Russian domination. It was also a failing economy that could not modernize and provide even basic goods for its people. Iran, although multiethnic in nature, is well-integrated as a nation. The exception to this are Kurdistan and Baluchistan provinces where there are indeed separatist movements, but which do not have majority support among the local population.
The Iranian economy, although plagued by structural problems and stressed by sanctions, is both stable and growing—Iran’s trade with international markets has picked up significantly in the last few years while inflation has fallen dramatically according to the IMF. The government feels confident enough to implement an ambitious economic reform program that would eliminate the subsidies which literally fuel the corruption, waste and inefficiency that Sadjadpour refers to.
The Iranian situation might be better compared to that of the French Revolution which took about 80 years to settle following the overthrow of the ancien régime. Iran, as a resurgent and proud nation, is going through the motions of finding its national identity in the modern world. There are indeed many competing factions within Iran but all envisage the country being the regional powerhouse in the Middle East, as it has been over the course of the last 2500 years, and a leader within the Islamic and Non-Aligned World. That means that there will be an inevitable conflict with the United States over the latter’s desire to preserve its global hegemony. The policy objective should be in finding the common ground and a broad framework for mutual interest and cooperation between both nations.