What Values and Beliefs Drive the Iranian Worldview?
- Ancient Cultural Anchors: Iran, once the powerful Persian Empire, is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and its cultural anchors, from history and language to literature and poetry, are embedded in Iranian society and in the psyche of its people. This ancient legacy manifests itself in nationalistic pride, and in a sense that Iran has a special destiny to reclaim its lost prestige in the world. Iranians are not ethnically Arab and do not speak Arabic; this sets them apart both culturally and politically within the Middle East.
- Islamic Influences: Islam infuses the Iranian worldview with a sense of divine destiny, and of being a chosen people. Iran is the only official Islamic Republic in the world, and its leaders see themselves as ruling with authority from God.
- A History of Foreign Intervention: Originally because of its key geostrategic location, and later its vast oil reserves, Iran has always been of interest to outside powers who have often brought war, destruction, and exploitation. For this reason, Iran’s leaders have a suspicion of outsiders that borders on xenophobia.
- A Dissonance Between the Old and New: Modernization has often been equated with “Westoxification.” Many Iranians struggle as they try to reconcile the traditions of their faith and culture with the allure and benefits of modern society.
What Does Iran Want on the World Stage?
- Recognition and Respect: Iran seeks respect and recognition for its historical legacy and geopolitical weight in the region.
- Enduring and Equal Sovereignty: Iran’s leaders seek an end to what they see as affronts to the regime’s sovereignty from the international community, led by the United States. Of particular concern is rhetoric surrounding “regime change.” Iran’s leaders believe their nation has a right to pursue whatever is necessary to protect it from foreign intervention, including the development of nuclear weapons capacity.
- Power Projection: Iran seeks to project its power regionally to safeguard its interests and to extend its influence.
- Messianic Status: Many believe Iran seeks to export Revolutionary Islam to other Muslim countries, both Sunni and Shia, and to consolidate its position as leader of the Muslim world, in part by exercising authority over the Palestinian people, both directly and through proxies.
Why is Iran Considered an International Pariah?
- State Sponsorship of Terrorism: Iran is believed to be funding, supplying, and training designated terror groups in the Middle East, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Iran’s own elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guard with its Quds Expeditionary Force, has also been recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States.
- Violations of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty or NPT: International monitoring bodies have confirmed the existence of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, begun in violation of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.
- Hostility to Israel: In its vocal opposition to the existence of the State of Israel, Iran surpasses Arab countries in the region. Iran provides critical support for Palestinian extremists groups and acts as a spoiler in the Middle East Peace Process.
- Support for Shia Militias in Iraq: Through its religious and historical ties to Iraq’s Shia majority, Iran wields influence in post-war Iraq, and has been implicated in the sectarian violence there.
- Anti-Western Rhetoric: Both Iran’s President Ahmadinejad and its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are known for their anti-American and anti-Western speeches. This rhetoric likely inflames larger tensions between the Global North and South.
- Balance of Power Considerations in the Region: The Sunni Muslim states throughout the Middle East are suspicious of Iran’s attempt to position itself as the de facto leader of the Muslim world.
- Human Rights Issues: As a semi-totalitarian state and Islamic theocracy, Iran’s leaders do not adhere to modern notions of universal human rights. Sharia law is discriminatory toward women, and the state restricts civil, social, and political rights.
Why Are Some Experts Optimistic About Rapprochement with the West?
- Common Interests: The US and Iran have shared and continue to share important common interests. These include defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, stabilizing Iraq, protecting Muslim minority populations worldwide in places such as Bosnia and the former Soviet Republics, keeping oil flowing through the Persian Gulf, and countering Sunni extremism.
- Cost-Benefit Analysis: Both the US and Iran lose from current hostilities. US sanctions hurt the Iranian economy and simultaneously create tensions for America with its allies, many of whom would like to trade with Iran but are hampered by the US restrictions.
- Pragmatism: Both the US and Iran are known for their pragmatism, although rhetoric on both sides often obscures this fact. US-Iranian coordination in the early months of the war in Afghanistan is probably the best example of the mutual benefits of cooperation.
- Leadership: There is a good chance that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be unseated by Former President Khatami in the coming election, and that Khatami could be a more receptive partner for negotiation.
Why Are Some Experts Less Optimistic?
- Divergent Interests: The US and Iran fundamentally disagree about a number of issues. These include governing philosophies, Iranian support for terror groups, and US support for Israel. Decades of mistrust are not easily overcome. The 1953 Mossadegh coup remains significant for Iranians, as the 1979 Hostage Crisis does for Americans. There are no established diplomatic channels and putting them in place may prove difficult.
- Cost-Benefit Analysis: US-Iranian enmity serves domestic political purposes in both countries. Having a visible source of “evil” can be quite useful for a politician looking to rally popular sentiment or distract from domestic problems. Unless negotiations are likely to produce significant breakthroughs, some believe it is not worth the risk of seeming weak or appeasing by reaching out.
- Leadership: The West does not understand the strategic goals of the Ayatollahs who exercise real power in Iran, or how far they are willing to go to achieve their vision of the Islamic Republic. Khatami’s potential election may be positive, but he was unable to implement significant reforms in his two previous terms in office. By most objective accounts, Iran’s regime is stable and secure, and both it and the US may lack the necessary incentive to change the status quo.
Next: Map of Iran