The 1979 Iranian Revolution was perhaps an unusual revolution of the 20th century, an era where revolutions were deemed to be passé (despite the various upheavals that defined the “short century”). While many explanations have been proffered for the origin(s) , trajectory and denouement of the revolution in Iran, the salient one was that it was in the nature of a revolt against coercive, top down modernity, corrupted by misrule of the various Shah’s and the monarchical establishment of the country. Some alluded to the revolution as Iran finding its voice in an original and organic idiom, both within and without. This brief and rather reductive delineation of the Iranian Revolution would be incomplete without stating and mentioning its chief architect and protagonist, Ayatollah Khomeini, who revolutionized the quietist doctrines and philosophy of Twelver Shi’ism and introduced the concept and practice of Velayat a Faqih which, in turned , turned Shi’ism into an activist, political creed. It may also be pertinent to note the contributions of intellectuals like Ali Shariati, who enunciated and articulated the creeds of the Revolution. ( It is believed that Shariati was assassinated by the then dreaded secret service of the Shah, the SAVAK)
By its very nature, the 1979 Revolution, upended the International state system; it might even be stated that given the Revolution’s credo of exporting it constituted a statement of rebellion against the system, and by extension the West. Iran, after the Revolution, took great pride in its revolution and presented itself as a Revolutionary state. But, thirty nine years, after the Revolution, it would appear that Iran’s ardor appears to have waned. In other words, Iran is becoming a member of the International State system. This, however, does not mean that it is or has become a friend of the West, especially the United States.
Grist to the mill of this assertion is lent by Iran’s contemporary politico diplomatic overtures and maneuverings. From being a status quoist actor in the Syrian imbroglio and fiasco, to being a player in Iraq’s politics, to propping up the Houthis in Yemen and to approaching India and buttressing the country’s quest to be a veto holding member of the United Nation’s Security Council, to negotiating a deal with the West over its nuclear ambitions, among other things, Iran appears to be ensconcing itself in the sinews of the International System and politics thereof.
The question is why?
The reasons are both internal and external.
Externally, the United States’ misadventures in the Middle East and nearby regions, its policy commissions and omissions, have enabled Iran to assert itself and created space for it to be a regional hegemon. If there is a player, with heft and clout in the region, other than Saudi Arabia, it is Iran. Iran’s moves and maneuvers, following the Second Gulf War, have corresponded to clear cut and prosaic geopolitics. In this sense, Iran now is a player to contend with. At the same time, however, Iran being subject to sanctions has paid a price economically. The country’s economy, as a result of these sanctions, and the political economy of Iran, has not diversified significantly beyond traditional sectors and the oil economy. There then has been no real economic growth that could percolate to the masses. Moreover, a pall of uncertainty hangs over Iran’s nuclear deal with the West, with the United States’ erratic president, threatening to scuttle it, time and again.
These issues or even themes lead to the internal dimensions and dynamics of Iran. Rather stagnant economic conditions, political stasis and fissures within , which Iran appears to be fearing , might be exploited by foreign powers, suggest that the calculus of powers that be in Iran might be more in the nature of consolidation and retrenchment , than anything else. ( It may be recalled here that in the early fifties, a democratically elected nationalist leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, was removed from office after the CIA, orchestrated a coup against him , following his threat of nationalizing Iran’s oil industry). So, the name of the game for powers that be in Iran, contemporarily, might be regime survival and consolidation.
In lieu of this, Iran’s foreign policy becomes the ramrod through which it ensures the character of the Republic and the survival of the regime. The country’s overtures to India might constitute a case in point here. It appears to be premised on Iran’s investment needs to recalibrate its economy and support in international forums like the United Nations. Again, the move is in accord with geopolitics and international relations.
All this becomes salient and significant against the backdrop of the Trump presidency. Trump is no friend of Iran and as the sabre rattling and posturing between the United States and North Korea simmers down and a kind of a stalemate descends in this region, it might be Iran that could be in the cross hairs of Trump and his cohort. In all likelihood, there will no war on the Korean Peninsula. There’s too much at stake and there are robust countervailing pressures on both Trump and King Jong Un to not to go beyond a point. But, the danger lies in Trump’s failures, which are both domestic and foreign , and which are set to exacerbate with the passage of time. To obscure these and to divert the attention of the American public, Trump , at the tether end of his presidency ,might turn his gaze and attention to Iran. This could either be in the nature of a “targeted “ pre emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear sites under the pretext of Iran not fulfilling its obligations of the nuclear deal. Or, it could be in the nature of a green signal to Israel to strike Iran.
It may, in the final analysis, then be the need for regime survival and preserving the character of the Republic, which appear to be dominant themes in the calculus of powers that be in Iran that are forcing a rethink of the foreign policy premises and orientation of the country. What remains to be seen is how this approach will pan out and denoue. All in all, to iterate a cliché, we live in interesting times.
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]