As mentioned in Tuesday’s Daily Talking Points, Karim Sadjadpour has written a thought provoking piece which makes the case that Iran is best characterized as a “villain inside a victim behind a veil” and should be compared to the Soviet Union to explain both its domestic and foreign policies as well as to provide a road map for how the U.S. and other Western countries can deal with a confusing foe.
Sadjadpour, an associate the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, starts by laying out the three accepted analogies most often employed by American analysts. Namely: Iran is like China and can be coaxed into modernity through rapprochement; Iran is like Nazi Germany and should “pre-emptively” attacked to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons; and Iran is like the Soviet Union and will change or collapse under the weight of its own insular policies and expansive domestic security apparatuses.
The most clear parallels, he says, can be drawn between Iran and the Soviet Union. Iran shares neither the military capabilities nor the expansionist ideology of the Nazis, and Ahmadinejad and Obama don’t face a common enemy as Mao and Nixon did with the threat of the Soviet Union.
Instead, Sadjadpour says that Iran most clearly resembles the Soviet Union and, in reading George F. Kennan’s 1947 essay on the Soviet Union, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” comes up with “10 striking examples of Kennan’s text anticipating today’s Iran.”
1. Iran’s sense of siege is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“[I]deology, as we have seen, taught them that the outside world was hostile and that it was their duty eventually to overthrow the political forces beyond their borders. Then powerful hands of Russian Iranian history and tradition reached up to sustain them in this feeling. Finally, their own aggressive intransigence with respect to the outside world began to find its own reaction.… It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.”
2. The security apparatus designed to protect the state has begun to subsume it.
“The security of Soviet the Islamic Republic‘s power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party Supreme Leader, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police Basij and Revolutionary Guards, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state. The ‘organs of suppression,’ in which the Soviet Iranian leaders had sought security from rival forces, became in large measures the masters of those whom they were designed to serve.”
3. The looming foreign enemy is needed to justify domestic suppression.
“[T]here is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow Tehran on the menace confronting Soviet Iranian society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.”
4. Revolutionary ideology has not evolved.
“Of the original ideology, nothing has been officially junked. Belief is maintained in the basic badness of capitalism liberalism, in the inevitability of its destruction, in the obligation of the proletariat downtrodden believers to assist in that destruction and to take power into its their own hands.”
5. The Islamic Republic may make tactical offers of compromise, but its enmity toward the West is strategic.
“It must inevitably be assumed in Moscow Tehran that the aims of the capitalist Western world are antagonistic to the Soviet regime Islamic Republic, and therefore to the interests of the peoples it controls. If the Soviet Iranian government occasionally sets its signature to documents which would indicate the contrary, this is to [be] regarded as a tactical maneuver permissible in dealing with the enemy (who is without honor) and should be taken in the spirit of caveat emptor. Basically, the antagonism remains.”
6. The United States must focus on a long-term strategy, rather than short-term tactics.
“Soviet Iranian diplomacy [is] at once easier and more difficult to deal with than the diplomacy of individual aggressive leaders like Napoleon and Hitler. On the one hand it is more sensitive to contrary force, more ready to yield on individual sectors of the diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power. On the other hand it cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory on the part of its opponents. And the patient persistence by which it is animated means that it can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only [by] intelligent long-range policies on the part of Russia’s Iran’s adversaries — policies no less steady in their purpose, and no less variegated and resourceful in their application, than those of the Soviet Union Islamic Republic itself.”
7. Ideological fatigue has set in.
“The mass of the people are disillusioned, skeptical and no longer as accessible as they once were to the magical attraction which Soviet Iranian power still radiates to its followers abroad.”
8. The succession of power in the Islamic Republic is uncertain.
“[A] great uncertainty hangs over the political life of the Soviet Union Islamic Republic. That is the uncertainty involved in the transfer of power from one individual or group of individuals to others.
“This is, of course, outstandingly the problem of the personal position of Stalin Khamenei. We must remember that his succession to Lenin’s Khomeini’s pinnacle of pre-eminence … was the only such transfer of individual authority which the Soviet Union Islamic Republic has experienced.… Thus the future of Soviet Iranian power may not be by any means as secure as Russian Iranian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men of the Kremlin Islamic Republic.”
9. You can’t reach an accommodation with a regime that needs you as an adversary.
“It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet Iranian regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union Iran as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet Iranian policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist Islamist and capitalist liberal worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power.”
10. U.S. policies can expedite, but not engineer, political change in Iran.
“It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone could exercise a power of life and death over the Communist Islamist movement and bring about the early fall of Soviet power the Islamic Republic in Russia Iran. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet Iranian policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin Islamic Republic a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet Iranian power.”
To act on these observations will require a far more nuanced Iran policy — one with a horizon of decades instead of months or years. In the near term according to Sadjadpour’s analysis, neither sanctions, a military strike or rapprochement will bring meaningful change to a country which defines itself as in resistance to Western demands. Hooman Majd has discussed the same. A more visionary policy would look back at the U.S.’s experience in the Cold War and examine the lessons learned from decades of détente with an enemy whose collapse was ultimately self-imposed.