Note #9. Understanding Iran on its Own Terms

  • Ron Machoian, Ph.D., Col USAF ret.
  • Middle East & North Africa, Strategy
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Note #8, “Mirror Imaging Iran and the World,” brings strategic culture to the forefront of today’s anxious discussion about how best to coerce Iran into cooperation with international norms. 

Contexts of Concepts

Drohan points out that in seeking “balance” in Iran’s internal spheres of power, we may be projecting onto Iran the characteristics of our own self-image, where our political world, at least by design, remains balanced in a number of manners.  

In the West, excessive power tends to be denied to any single sphere or actor by balancing forces that provide a check on the exercise of singular authority.  In Iran, this simply is not the case; a measure of imbalance characterizes public authority.  An elected president and parliament exist in a government overtly dominated by Shi’ite theocracy, in a system that draws its lineage through history.  It is within this reality that Western strategy must act to achieve regional objectives.

This principle of balance is present not only in Western social-political systems but also is a staple of our traditional American worldview.  We seek balance in economic and security relationships, with an expectation that the rest of the world responds in like manner, albeit often according to our own terms.  But this expectation may only reflect our own culture-bound view of strategic dynamics – implying policies that can skew strategy with potentially disadvantageous or even destructive results.  We are apt to view any competitive field in terms of our own tendencies, experiences and standards of behavior.  To break free or even minimize the effects of this liability, we have to attempt to understand broad complexities that intersect in a given environment.

Strategic Culture

Willis Stanley, writing in 2006, cautioned “There is no substitute for detailed expertise in area studies; the trick for students of strategic culture is assuring that we are conversant with enough data to make well informed judgments about the issues of concern to our analyses” (“The Strategic Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” SAIC paper prepared for Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 31 Oct 2006).  It is not surprising that Stanley’s counsel came as a preamble to his analysis of Iran’s strategic culture more than a decade ago – a subject that demands a level of knowledgeable grasp that I characterize in terms of “strategic situational awareness” (see Paper #4 on this blog, “Reimagining Situational Awareness in the Strategic Environment”).  

The Pit of Projection

With a nod to the study of strategic culture, and in full recognition of its shortcomings, in the case of contemporary Iran we must be careful not to project our own imagery of how the world “should” work onto the theocratic institutions of Iran’s Shi’ite state.  Even to apply a template that presupposes Iran’s strategic rationale within our own regional model would ignore the complexity of its unique strategic circumstances.  

Similarly, reducing Iran’s internal politics into a binary competition between clerical elites and a supposedly secularized executive branch would miss the complex relationship of tense accommodation that has more or less marked Iran’s governance for centuries, since at least the end of the Safavid dynasty.  Expectations that contemporary external pressures will undermine clerical authority while sowing popular clamor for liberalized democracy ignore Iran’s deeply embedded historical identity. Despite its imagery in the streets, even 2009’s ill-fated Green Movement was much less revolutionary than it was a demand for fair play within the existing social-political mold.  

A strategy that acts to “rebalance” Iran on a basis of Western rationality smacks of hope rather than reality.  Instead, the United States should work alongside its remaining strategic partners to create a more subtle strategy that recognizes the realities of Iran’s unique strategic narrative and attempts to operate on its more nuanced levers.  Coarse stratagems that attempt coercive outcomes likely will be self-defeating given Iran’s last two centuries of collective experience. The process of coercion only unified Iranians further in confrontation with the U.S. and its allies.  Any changes that could see Iran emerge as a more responsible shareholder in the world community must take place according to its own dynamics—as a progression of history, not as a replayed episode of destructive historical events (witness the short-lived 1953 installation of the Shah’s secular authority).  Moderation, with regard to developing nuclear weapons capabilities and destabilizing regional behaviors, must grow from pragmatic strains present in Iran’s own social-political fabric.  It is on these forces that a successful strategy must operate.

This assertion is by no means original—others have encouraged policies that might strengthen the hand of Iranian moderates over time.1  But the message apparently finds little traction amid current strategies that seek to physically coerce Iranian decision-makers rather than act on them with a degree of subtlety.  Nuance remains on the shelf.  U.S efforts to force transformative change according to our own norms are likely only to prolong Iran’s isolation rather than restore it to responsible participation in Gulf affairs.  

How to Anticipate?

It is within this mise-en-scène that Tom Drohan writes: “instead of preferring to look for balance, we should think about concepts that assume imbalance. In many cases we can better anticipate competitor behavior by looking for imbalances that produce relative advantage.”  Tom’s assertion is important here on the strategic as well as operational level.  It is on a competitor’s own strategic calculus that we must work to influence desired outcomes, not the way we wish that calculus to be.  In the case of Iran, if imbalance marks its internal system, then we should seek to understand the potential advantages offered by this power equation and work to influence its existing levers.    

Notice that in the above excerpted statement, Drohan demands “anticipation” to achieve advantage.  I refer again to Paper #4, when I noted that strategic anticipation is achieved only through the highest level of situational awareness. Good strategy demands a depth of expert analysis and broad understanding. Strategic culture cannot map an environment’s causal elements with any resolution, but it certainly can help us identify and understand influential factors that shape that environment – in brief, strategic actors are enculturated actors and therefore must be understood in context. 

Current tensions with Iran represent highly complex challenges that demand attention to the country’s historical identity and its expression in the country’s decision-making system.  Rather than looking to create balance in the Western sense of the term, we may find more success with strategies that appreciate and act on the imbalance that exists, offering credence to moderation in Iranian public policy.

1.  See for example, Jeffrey A. Stacey, “Strengthen Iran’s Moderates Before It’s Too Late,” Foreign Affairs, March 2, 2017; and more recently, Marik Von Rennenkampff’s interesting “A Reaganesque Approach to Iran? Embrace the Moderates,” commentary on War on the Rocks website, June 6, 2019.  

Author: Ron Machoian, Ph.D., Col USAF ret.

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