Ideology not Iran's main game


President Mahmoud AhmadinejadThe neo-conservative lobby in Washington DC is working hard to convince President George W. Bush to attack Iran in 2008. There is a consensus among observers in the United States that a Democratic president in the White House would not have the guts to take this step. So the pressure is on to commit George W. Bush to an air strike before he leaves office.

In the February 2008 issue of the pro-Israeli magazine Commentary, Norman Podhoretz placed the responsibility squarely at Bush's feet. Podhoretz argues that Bush should not leave this decision for his successor. Moreover, he insists that air strikes against Iranian targets are best carried out by the United States, not by an Israeli proxy.

The neo-conservative lobby is unrelenting and has a track record in steering US foreign policy in the past decade. Podhoretz was among the original founders of the New American Century think-tank arguing for the supremacy of the United States in the wake of the Soviet collapse, and an ardent advocate of military action against Iraq in 2003. That the US invasion of Iraq prompted a bloody civil war and a complete breakdown of civil structures do not seem to have dampened Podhoretz's resolution.

The neo-conservatives have insisted on the inherent ideological foundations that prevent the Iranian regime from responding to the international 'carrot and stick' approach. Podhoretz argues that 'religious and/or ideological passions' in Iran do not allow for a 'cost-benefit approach'. In other words, the Iranian regime is bent on the destruction of Israel and the United States, and no amount of positive incentives, or threats of negative consequences, would deter it. In this perspective, Iran is presented as an irrational actor, blinded by fanatical rage against the United States and its allies.

This is a gross misreading of the Iranian regime and its objectives. Contrary to assumptions regarding the supremacy of ideology in Iranian foreign policy making, Iran has been quite careful not to jeopardise its geo-strategic interests for the sake of ideology. When its two northern neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war (1988-1994), Iran supported the Christian state of Armenia against the Muslim state of Azerbaijan, despite extensive cultural, linguistic and, of course, religious links between Iran and Azerbaijan. Tehran feared that an Azeri victory would boost separatist sentiments among Iran's large Azeri ethnic minority who predominantly live in the Azerbaijan province of Iran.

Similarly, Iran refused to be drawn into the civil war of Tajikistan (1992-97) fought between the Islamic Renaissance Party and its allies against the former Communist regime. Instead, Iran worked with Russia and the United Nations to resolve the conflict. Tehran now maintains warm relations with the government of Tajikistan which is dominated by former Communists, while the Islamist party languishes in opposition.

When the United States moved to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan (2001), Iran surprised observers by not objecting to the enormous military campaign on its door step. The Taliban were a constant threat to Iran's border security and it served Iranian geo-strategic interests to have them removed.

None of the above suggests that Iran ignores the rational 'cost-benefit' calculations that govern other states. This is true of Iran's relations with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, the latest US National Intelligence Estimate (December 2007) reported a halt in the Iranian nuclear weapons program in 2003 as a result of international pressure.

Iran is not an exceptional state. Geo-strategic factors govern foreign policy making in Tehran, just as they do in other states. It is important to bear this in mind in the current debate on sanctions.

National Centre for Islamic Studies Australia
National Intelligence Estimate – Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities


Shahram Akbarzadeh Associate Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh is Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne.


Flickr image of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by midnightquill




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Existing comments

I read Karen Armstrong's account of the life of Mohammed, which envisages Islam, to a much greater extent than Christianity as a religious construct that can support a civil society, albeit perhaps a medieval civil society. Prof Akbarzadeh shows that the present Iranian regime acts in accordance with this construct, and Podhoretz is found to be one of the megalomaniacal neo-con men who would have this world shaken in their wake.
David Arthur | 06 March 2008

I had a personal experience in November 1999 which adds credibility to Prof Akbarzadeh's assertions. On a consulting assignment for a major Iranian enterprise in South Eastern Iran, I was provided with an armed escort by the Iranian army to protect me from kidnap in the unstable Afghan frontier region. At this stage the Taliban had not yet been catapulted onto the front page of the world's newspapers by the events of 11 Sept 2001, but they were showing form. I asked the president of the corporation what the Iranian view was of the Taliban. He laughed and replied, "We think they are as crazy as the rest of the world thinks we are! The difference is that they really are crazy, and we just seem crazy."
Richard Olive | 11 March 2008


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