Hosam Matar, Al-akhbar English, Published Friday, September 28, 2012
A major dilemma faces all ideological powers about how to resolve the tensions between their material-based interests and value-based interests; it is the choice between realism and idealism. In this regional moment known as “The Arab Spring,” almost all regional powers are facing this challenge, including Iran - as an ideological Islamic actor.
The “political interpretation” of religious identity views culture and religion as one of many variables defining the behavior of international actors; as opposed to the “anthropological conception” of religious identity which presupposes it to have an essentialist and determinant nature without considering the material factors. The second approach fails to give powerful explanations in the case of Iran. It is usually used to argue that Iran is a “Martyr State” or “Mad State” that is motivated by messianic ideology and controlled by extremist Ayatollahs.
This notion of a “Martyr State” is usually used to deny the possibility to deter or contain nuclear Iran, making the best option military action against Iranian “military” nuclear facilities. This view of Iran’s “Irrational Fanaticism” is influenced by focus on Iranian discourse and rhetoric more than on its behavior, but as Ray Takeyh (senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations) says, “Iran is a country whose rhetoric is always worse than its conduct.” Moreover, Iran perceives its relation with the US as a “Chicken Game,” where the best strategy is “claiming insanity” and "brinkmanship," which Iran repeatedly uses. This approach lacks credibility and empirical evidences, and is mainly used for political reasons.
So, the influence of Iran’s religious identity over foreign policy cannot be perfectly understood without understanding its interactive relation with material factors, where the relative weight of these variables is flexible and subject to evolution according to time and national and international contexts. Ayatollah Rafsanjani in an interview 2003 insisted that the relative weight of ideology [Islam] and national interest in foreign policy decision making depends on the circumstances of a particular case at a given point of time.
In spite of its ideological character, Iran considers strategic calculations about material factors, like: economy, balance of power, and security. The Iranian regime is deeply aware of the need to save its revolutionary Islamic character while balancing it with material conditions; this is because pure Islam will protect the “Republic” and the Republic’s independence will keep Islam pure. The Iranian leadership is aware that some of its declared Islamic interests cannot be saved at certain moments due to limits in material conditions; from here, the leadership realized the need to rank these interests according to their importance, in order to direct the material capabilities to save the most important when needed. In this way, culture, mainly religion, informs and in many ways determines the priorities of foreign policy.
This ranking of religious-based interests is based on the interaction of the following variables. First, how much these religious interests simultaneously reinforce Iran’s national interests? Second, how much these interests have a strong symbolism and sacred power in Muslims’ minds and hearts, and their centrality in the ideological discourse of the Islamic Republic and their relation to “Mahdism.” Third, is how much impact these religious interests have on the legitimacy of Iran’s Islamic role at the national, Shia and Islamic levels.
The outcome of this interaction of material-religious variables is, however, affected by many elements that have significant meaning for the Iranian leadership, including: survival, rationality, and political interpretation of religious texts.
The state’s survival, according to realism, is the ultimate interest; nevertheless, survival-seeking behavior in the international system depends on the actors’ theories of what it takes to survive, and religion can affect this in diverse and significant ways, as Snyder argues. Snyder criticizes Waltz, who writes as if it can be taken for granted that the national interest of a state is its survival in its existing form, but empirically “we know that the nation-state is not an unproblematic billiard ball. The interest of the state is often in a vexed relationship with the interest of the nation as a religious-cultural unit.”
Even though Iran is not suicidal, the cult of martyrdom in Iranian politico-religious discourse cannot be ignored, as Shiism is so sensitive to this concept. So, Iranian leadership is ready to take risks and high costs in order to save certain Islamic interests according to their importance, so the cost–benefit analysis is based on material and religious scale. At this point, it is necessary to examine Iranian leadership rationality.
It is useful to refer to G. Hossein Razi’s (Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston) work, An Alternative Paradigm to State Rationality in Foreign Policy: The Iran-Iraq War. Razi argues that the assumption of equal rationality of states promoted by rational theories ignores both domestic policies and the elite’s role in foreign policy. The individuals who make up foreign-policy elites are “neither exclusively creatures of reason, nor solely a bundle of subconscious impulses and nonintellectual drives, but a combination of both, the mix of which is not constant in time, even for the same elite, or across space.” And since foreign-policy elites vary in their beliefs, images, motivation and propensity toward rationality, a set of identical objective internal and external constraints do not automatically convert into identical decisions. So, Razi emphasizes the need to understand foreign policy also through cognitive empathy which is based on knowing a leader’s beliefs, images, and motivations. This paradigm is crucial for understanding Iranian foreign policy, where religion’s role is extremely active, having a dominant position for religious leadership and informal structures headed by pro-regime elites.
So Iran as a strategic ideological actor may sometimes choose religious interests even when they contradict deeply with its material interests, for example:
- First, when the religious interests are directly related to both “Mahdism” and the legitimacy of the Islamic role of Iran, internally and externally according to these interests’ high sacred power and their persistence in Iranian religious discourse.
- Second, when the Supreme Leader holds a world view and religious understanding that rejects compromise and prefers revolutionary actions, especially when he has a president in power sharing the same visions.
- Third, in the moments of high internal tensions that may threaten the legitimacy of the Islamic regime, such interests may prevail in order to cover the loss of popular legitimacy with that of Islamic legitimacy.
- Fourth, when policy-makers fail to recognize or undermine the material costs of promoting religious interest according to lack of information or “irrational” calculations, as metaphysical power. Brenda Shaffer concludes that cultural interests may be promoted when the material trade-offs are unknown to the decision-makers; for that, the amount of information impacts the degree that culture can influence foreign policy.
In conclusion, Iran’s experience in balancing religious and material interests has evolved through time, and, as Dehshiri and Majidi argue – in Iran’s Foreign Policy in Post-Revolution Era: A Holistic Approach – Iran’s foreign policy has succeeded in balancing its religious ideals and pragmatism, as well as the national and transnational interests of the Islamic “Ummah” by taking into account the constraints of the international and regional systems while preserving its identity and principles. Thus, they conclude, the Islamic Republic of Iran becomes a model to be emulated on the world stage. This balancing process can explain many ambiguities in Iranian foreign policy since 1979 up until the “Arab Spring,” including the Syrian crisis.
Hosam Matar is a Lebanese researcher of International Relations.