By Judith Yaphe, PhD
For the United States, any consideration of Persian Gulf security must begin with Iran: its ambitions, perceptions, and behavior. For many in the West, Winston Churchill’s famous quip about the Soviet Union—being a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma—could apply equally well to Iran given its complex, opaque, and often turbulent politics. And yet the key to understanding Iran is to figure out what it sees when it looks in the mirror. What are the fundamental influences that shape Iran’s view of its role in the world?
The first, clearly, is Iranian nationalism. It is a means of unifying society while assuring territorial integrity and political power. The second is Islam, which is the country’s source of faith and ethical code. The third is Persia as the basis of its historical identity and cultural pride. Taken together, these factors and the aspirations they embody—to secure Iran’s territorial and political integrity while gaining acceptance of the regime’s legitimacy and the country’s status in international relationships more generally—are deeply rooted in Iranian society. But there is also a fourth, latter-day imperative that wields great influence over Iranian attitudes: the quest for strategic self-sufficiency.
Everywhere they look, Iran’s leaders see their country encircled by real and potential enemies—by Iraq, which used chemical weapons and missiles against Iran in their 8-year war; by the Gulf Arab states, which financed the Iraq War, host the U.S. military presence, and are seen as repressing their Shia communities; by Pakistan, which is occasionally involved in hostile skirmishes with Iran on their common border and has encouraged anti-Iranian activity in Afghanistan; and by Central Asia, once pro-Soviet, now a source of economic opportunity, sectarian risk, and host to U.S. military forces. Above all, the United States, a virtual neighbor since the occupation of Iraq in April 2003, and Israel are viewed as enemies: both threaten Iran’s nuclear achievements and deplore its efforts to derail any peace process between Israel and the Palestinians or Israel and Syria. Washington, in particular, is seen as keen to keep the Persian Gulf as its militarized zone, maintain pro-U.S. regimes in Baghdad and Kabul, and marginalize Iran.
Iran’s leaders—whether moderate Persian nationalists or conservative Islamists—view the world with a mix of confidence and trepidation. Regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, they most likely share a common view of the threats to the homeland and the measures necessary to protect Iranian interests. This consensus also includes a strong, underlying sense that they may well have to fight alone, again—just as they did from 1980 to 1988—and that Iran must be able absolutely to defend itself without assistance. Thus, Tehran aspires to independence and self-sufficiency in both strategic and operational terms. It believes that it must build its own military industries, reconstitute a modern military force, and have minimal reliance upon foreign suppliers. It also seeks to acquire nuclear technology and, eventually, the wherewithal to produce nuclear weapons, probably as a cost-effective way to compensate for military weakness and relative strategic isolation.
The predicament that all this poses for Iran’s neighbors and the larger international community is not only how military self-sufficiency is defined by Tehran, but also how this self-sufficiency impulse plays into an already strong sense of Iranian exceptionalism—specifically, that the country is endowed with the natural right and historic destiny to dominate the greater Middle East as well as to lead the world’s Muslims.
Iran’s ambitions to be the preeminent power in its neighborhood are longstanding. The quest for regional hegemony began under the shahs and has been continued by the clerics of the Islamic Republic. Iranian foreign policy has always been designed to protect a nation and an empire that were long coveted by more powerful neighbors—Ottoman Turkey and tsarist Russia—and divided into spheres of influence by the great powers of the 20th century—the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Viewed through this historical prism, these ambitions have little to do with exporting its Islamic revolution or expanding its borders, although occasional reminders to the Gulf Arabs of the Shia and Persian-origin communities within their borders prompt those Sunni Arab–led states to recall their vulnerability.
Iran assumes it is by right the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East region. It has the largest population, largest land mass, largest military, and oldest culture and civilization. It believes it is the economic engine of the region and the most innovative in application of science and technology. In the Iranian worldview, that “region” is more than the Gulf or Central Asia. It extends from Afghanistan through the Gulf, Iraq, Turkey, and the greater Middle East (especially anything affecting Syria, Lebanon, Palestinians, and Israel). As the preeminent power, Tehran expects to be consulted on all issues affecting the region, in much the same sense that Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad interpreted his and Syria’s role. Iran believes that all the roads to a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq, to a peace settlement in the Arab-Israeli context, and to stability in the Gulf run through Tehran. Without Iran, according to this view, the country’s leaders believe, there can be no peace, no resolution of conflict, and no “justice.”
Iran wants to expand its influence and authority in the region, but it is not interested in territorial expansion. Rather, it seeks to build its clout through a policy of aggressive outreach short of war—by building and backing support networks throughout the region; providing political support and economic assistance to key actors; bolstering trade and commercial ties with neighboring countries; and signing security and defense agreements. In implementing its policies, Iran operates on two intertwined principles that underwrite its ability to build networks of surrogates, intimidate opponents and critics, influence governments, and make foreign policy: the first of these is plausible deniability, and the second is deliberate ambiguity.
This post is an excerpt from Strategic Forum No. 237, “Challenges to Persian Gulf Security: How Should the United States Respond?”
The document in its entirety may be found here.