How History Shapes Strategic Thinking: The Iranian Case

Mohammad Mosaddegh (left) with U.S. President Harry S. Truman (Wikimedia Commons)

by Mohammad H. Pirkoohi

It is almost impossible to decouple the behavior of international players from their historical experiences. From this perspective, history does not belong to the past but to the future. It is a compass that helps anticipate the future policy directions that countries can be expected to take. Within that understanding, three events have basically formed Iranian strategic thinking during the last seventy years and will continue to shape Iran’s foreign policy behavior for the foreseeable future. Even if they so wish, Iranian decision makers—regardless of their political beliefs or worldview—cannot avoid the weight of these three major events. Almost all of the current and future international decisions of Iran and their consequences will be directly linked to these three events, although the impact of one of them is still developing.

The first event is the failure of the constitutionalist movement in Iran following the 1953 U.S.-UK orchestrated coup that overthrew the popular government of Mohammad Mosaddegh for his role in the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry. The coup that restored dictatorship for another twenty five years in the country, engraved the deepest hatred of colonialism in the Iranian mindset. It would not be far from the truth to argue that the seeds of the 1979 Islamic Revolution were sown immediately after the coup. Winston Churchill himself may have had no idea what unforgettable damage he was doing to the Iranian image of the West while he was whispering to Dwight Eisenhower about the falsely exaggerated threat of Communism in Iran.

The reason for this imprudence may have been that the British already had a record of launching successful coups in Iran. However, Iranians had no particularly strong feelings when a British-instigated coup in 1921 ousted Ahmad Shah Qajar, who unlike his ancestors was loyal to the principles of constitutionalism. That military coup wiped a royal dynasty out of Iran’s history and yet it was not the only 20th century success story for the UK. In September 1941, Britain, supported by the U.S. and Soviet Union, intervened again and intrusively ousted Reza Shah, the same king they brought to power in 1921, expelling him from Iran in absolute disgrace. 

Unlike those 1921 and 1941 coups, in 1953 Iranians felt as though their democratic aspirations were defeated by a foreign intervention. Even religious politicians, who at least in public show little attachment to nationalists or nationalism, often bring up this bitter part of Iran’s 20th century history to their supporters. Resentment over the coup still weighs heavily on Iranians’ mindset. It is fair to assert that anger over the 1953 coup provided the motivation, following the 1979 revolution, behind the creation of the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or even the occupation of the U.S. Embassy. These measures were basically reactionary moves to prevent a repeat of what happened in 1953.  The coup seems to be one historical event that the Iranians could neither forget nor forgive.

The second event was the eight-year Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. That war was imposed on Iran by one of the world’s cruelest dictators, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and the whole world—from the Soviet Union to the United States and Europe—offered him their support (an exceptional turn of events, given the Cold War environment). On the other side, Iran—not yet fully recovered from the turmoil of the 1979 revolution—found itself isolated and fighting a full-fledged war. Iran’s historical loneliness in that war was profound. Its inability to secure even rudimentary defensive materiel meant that it could not protect its civilians and soldiers. It is said that Iran had even problem buying barbed wire. When the world turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of banned chemical weapons against the Iranians, and when the U.S. Navy cruelly shot down an Iranian civilian airliner with 290 passengers on board, the Iranians learned their lesson. Iranian politicians have realized that, for its security, the country must stand on its own .

The need to strengthen Iran’s military capabilities was a priority for senior decision-makers even before the 1979 revolution. However, the Shah of Iran was of the view that to do so he could fully rely on the United States. Like other tyrants, he had little appetite for listening to dissenting voices, but his view that Iranians were not capable of securing the country against Soviet and Iraqi invasions, and that Iran had no choice but to buy security from the U.S. and to some extent Europe, was shared by many. However, Iran’s post-revolutionary isolation led to a strategic decision that changed the security realities of not only the Persian Gulf region, but the whole Middle East.

Iran’s focus on developing its domestic capabilities, producing relatively inexpensive and not-so-sophisticated defensive tools (speed boats, drones, missiles and cyber warfare capabilities) to encounter highly sophisticated and expensive military equipment, and most importantly its development of an effective asymmetric capability throughout the Middle East, have made any potential aggression against Iran too costly. Unlike the 1980s, should another Saddam in the neighborhood dream of military conflict with Iran, he must think more than twice. In fact, this strategic shift in the regional security environment is the source of the anger in the U.S., in Israel, and among some Arab rulers. It explains to a large extent the drive behind their pervasive Iranophobic campaigns.

Besides the Iran-Iraq war, other major events during the last four decades have further developed the strategic thinking of Iranians as to the way that the country should defend itself. The 1981 pre-emptive attack by Israel against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and its total destruction, which was viewed around the world as a sign of Israeli strength rather than aggression, was a powerful lesson for the Iranians. However, the wars that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks were the most instructive. The West, led by the U.S., essentially destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq, and, within a few years, Libya, all on the basis of false and erroneous pretexts. Then came Syria’s turn to be crushed. One thing was common in all of these situations: the targeted countries  had developed almost no meaningful means of defense against foreign aggression and inevitably collapsed. The one exception was Syria thanks largely to the defensive capabilities mustered by Iran.

All these developments have opened Iranians’ eyes to reality. During these years, the lessons of the war with Iraq have been repeated over and over, making Iranians even more determined to protect their country against the arrogance and greed of the West. Iranians have realized that Western governments do not take weaker nations seriously enough to negotiate with them. Iranians may have forgiven those behind the Iran-Iraq war, but they have not forgotten its instructive lessons.

More recently came the third historic event: the completion of the 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and the U.S. withdrawal from that deal in 2018. Though this event’s repercussions are still taking shape, it seems safe to assume that it will leave a lingering and deep impact, on par with the other two events, on the strategic thinking of Iranians. Perhaps similar to Churchill in 1950s, Donald Trump and his inner circle had little understanding of the scars that the U.S. departure from the deal would leave on Iranians’ mindset. Iran entered sincerely into an intensive negotiation process. To prove and guarantee that their nuclear program is solely peaceful, they made significant concessions. In order to relieve international sanctions, Iranians fulfilled in a timely manner, with honesty and without any excuse, all their commitments under the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as the agreement’s authoritative monitoring body, has verified in one report after another Iran’s full compliance. In return, what the other parties to the deal did was essentially hopeless. During negotiations, they time and again resorted to good cop-bad cop games. While negotiating, the U.S. continued imposing new sanctions on non-nuclear grounds, casting the shade of dishonesty on the negotiating table. They continued the same path following the conclusion of the deal until Trump found his way to the Oval Office.

Hawkish warmongers in Trump’s administration, along with Iranophobic lobbyists, took advantage of his personal feud with former President Barack Obama and persuaded him to scrap the hard-won deal by the turn of a pen. Instead of appreciating Iranians for their flexibility and for keeping their promises, the Trump administration has targeted the people of Iran with the harshest sanctions ever imposed, sanctions that have been described as “economic terrorism.” The target of the U.S. orchestrated “capitulate-or-else campaign” against Iran and Iranians has been crystal clear: regime change in Tehran or, even better, the obliteration of Iran’s economy and ultimately its annihilation as a country. At the same time, the rest of the parties to the deal, instead of complying with their commitments in accordance with the JCPOA and the related UN Security Council resolution 2231, have chosen to waste time and threaten Iran.

As a matter of fact, the JCPOA is not an Iranian deal per se. It does not belong to Iran. Having been enacted under UN Security Council resolution 2231, its implementation is mandatory for all members of the international community. It is an international security agreement, an advanced non-proliferation text and an outstanding achievement for multilateralism in the field of international peace and security—a win-win solution for all involved parties. It could have been replicated elsewhere as a reliable model for nuclear non-proliferation. However, what happened in practice has been sad yet instructive—sad for international peace and instructive for Iranians. 

The way that the JCPOA was treated by the U.S. revived the lessons of the past seven decades for Iranians. They already knew that powerful players had a repulsive desire to interfere in the internal affairs of weaker countries and to defeat their nationalist and indigenous democratic movements. Iranians had also learnt the lesson that to defy such interference in the future there is no choice but to rely on their own defensive capabilities. It is not yet clear what the combination of these three historic lessons will mean for the future of Iran, the Middle East, and the world. However, the bitter fact that multilateralism has been overweighed by the unilateral coercion of a single state while others exhibited complacency will linger for a long time in the Iranian strategic mindset. Once again, they have learned their lesson.

An alumnus of the College of International Relations in Tehran, Mohammad Hassani Pirkoohi is a career diplomat and currently serves as the Counsellor in the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations. This article reflects personal views of the author.

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  1. So here is, the classic pro Ayatollah now, or the pro Communists’ argument have used to rationalize their existence.

    But they do not answer these simple questions.

    1. Mossadegh was not elected by the full parliament. The night before the vote, Tehran had a huge snow storm and many abstained. His claim to being “democratically elected” is false. There is a lot more to this.

    2. Khomeini enticed the Iraqi population, and so set in motion a verbal war that led Saddam to attack Iran. But he knew that in the process his IRGC would have a reason to exist.

    Obviously, the most important quote about history, is that those who deny the truth about history, are prone to repeat it. And obviously this lot occupying Iran, are doing just that.

    This alien angry violent force, is now suffering and will have to deal with an ancient anger it nurtures, to justify its existence, that will eventually force it’s self-destruction. It is contained by the non-violent forces of Iran. We non-violent culture of Iran and the world have surrounded it and let it implode.

  2. Mr. Pirkouhi

    I fully agree with you; these events are some of best historical lessons learned by Iran in her recent history. Iran and Iranians are, and always were much larger than what west has historically imagined thanks god for that. If it wasn’t for this historic fatigue western imagination of Iran, Iranian wouldn’t have wouldn’t have discovered the inner ill intentions of western hegemonic mentality. Iranian nationalism is about preservation of Iranian culture and interaction with others, doesn’t include an iota of racism, superiority or exceptionalism.
    On the contrary, English, American nationalism is all about expansion, superiority, race and being exceptional. These two cultures wouldn’t mix and can’t coexist, IMO, Iran would be safer and better off facing to east .

  3. Offending the author by inappropriate language does not amount to “we non-violent culture of Iran”!

    On the two points:

    1. Dr. Mossadegh accepted the position of Prime Minister of Iran in May 1951 – It was spring and not winter – relying on the confidence vote of the majority of parliamentarians, for the purpose of nationalizing the oil industry and running the country. He, therefore was democratically elected!

    2. Saddam and not the Iraqi population, was enticed by the Saudis and the Americans to invade Iran. When Saddam started the war, the Reagan Administration, to contain the Islamic revolution, was up to ensuring his victory. The money and support dispersed by the US and generously by the Saudis helped Saddam to access wide range of arms including chemical precursors. The battlefield intelligence provided to Iraq by the US was in particular a determining feature. In the late 80s, when Iran was on offensive particularly in Southern fronts, the US Administration and its Arab allies spared no effort to prevent Saddam’s defeat, including by allowing chemical attacks to continue intensively to turn the tide of war. Throughout the war, the UNSC did not issue a single resolution against the unlawful act of aggression or use of chemical weapons by Saddam. The US went far to prevent a move in the UN, against Saddam’s nerve gas attack on Halabja in March 1988. Saddam, therefore, had no reason but to believe that the US and regional allies were behind him at every turn, during the war. Later on, prior to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, his conviction of the US support was reinforced, when he met the U.S. Ambassador Glaspie, on 25 July 1990. Saddam was keen to test the water concerning his plans on Kuwait. The US Ambassador reportedly told Saddam that “we have no opinion on the Arab–Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait”. She added that the President has very recently reaffirmed his desire for a better relationship, following opposing some sanctions bills. Earlier, the US State Department had informed Saddam that Washington had “no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.” Saddam, therefore, was under the impression that he could go ahead and absorb Kuwait.

  4. “The target of the U.S. orchestrated “capitulate-or-else campaign” against Iran and Iranians has been crystal clear: regime change in Tehran or, even better, the obliteration of Iran’s economy and ultimately its annihilation as a country.” “Western governments do not take weaker nations seriously enough to negotiate with them.”
    Those are discouraging words from the Counsellor to the Iranian Mission to the UN, which lay bare the Iranian assessment of the U.S. Administration’s intentions.

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