Editor’s note: A lot of commentary, from reasoned to extreme, has followed the July 14 announcement of a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Little of it, however, has examined the deal as it might look from Iran – what’s motivating its leaders, the state of its politics, how it sees the region and the world – which can be key in evaluating any agreement. Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi is a University of Illinois professor of history and of sociology, an Iran native, and the author of “Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran.” He discussed the view from Iran with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Fears about Iran getting the bomb have been so strong, it’s no surprise that many find it hard to trust that this deal will work. But what do you think is motivating Iran here?
I think the concern about the Iranian nuclear weapons program to a large degree is a manufactured crisis. According to a 2007 National Intelligence Council report on Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities, Iran had already halted its research project on the militarization of its nuclear enrichment program in 2003. In another report to Congress in 2010, 16 different U.S. intelligence agencies concurred that they could not find any indication that Iran plans to develop nuclear weapons.
In regards to Iranian nuclear technology, there has always been a serious disconnect between the political rhetoric and grounded intelligence reports. I do agree that such a fear exists, but I do not see any evidence that that fear has any documented connection either to Iranian intentions or to its capabilities.
The alarming rhetoric that often shapes our policy toward Iran needs to be tempered with the concrete realities of Iranian national/regional ambitions and interests. More than two decades ago, Henry Precht, a former director of Iranian affairs in the State Department, aptly observed that the Islamic Republic’s leaders are more concerned about political and economic independence at home, rather than dominion abroad. I think that very much holds true, and perhaps more so, today.
The dominant American image of Iran is as a Middle East troublemaker, promoting extremist groups and a radical Islamic ideology, and propping up dictators like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Yet you argue that these and other actions in the region can be seen as very pragmatic from Iran’s point of view. How so?
This is also related to how one should make sense of the Islamic Republic’s regional politics. I say that the Islamic Republic follows a more pragmatic policy to highlight that what motivates it to support one group and oppose another has less to do with its ideology and is more informed by its national interest. For example, Iran has strong trade relations with China. If the Chinese government pursues a repressive policy against its Muslim population, the Iranian government is not going to jeopardize its economic ties for the sake of defending Chinese Muslims’ rights.
Bashar al-Assad’s regime is a secular nationalist regime and has no ideological affinity with the Islamic Republic. The reason the Iranian government supports Assad’s regime has nothing to do with Islamic ideology. Rather, it regards the war in Syria to topple Assad’s regime as part of a strategic plan to expand the influence of American allies in the region, a plan that eventually, it believes, will threaten Iran’s national security and sovereignty. Again, this is in response to those critics who argue that the Islamic Republic is a suicidal state blinded by its radical Islamist ideology.
You see developments in Iran as part of a long process since the revolution of 1979, with swings back and forth between extremism and moderation. Where is that process now? And what does support or opposition by various factions on the nuclear deal tell us about where Iran might be going?
All revolutions in world history have gone through different periods of radical politics, reigns of terror, and then moderation and accommodation. The Iranian revolution is not an exception in this regard. Revolutionary politics eventually gives way to realpolitik, a shift from what is desired to what is possible. These changes in Iran have not gone through a linear progression. We’ve seen periods of accommodation, particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but then we have seen a return to a more militant discourse more similar to the early revolutionary periods.
But there has been a steady move in Iran from a confrontational anti-Western posture to the acceptance of peaceful coexistence. We should not interpret this as the willingness of the Iranian government to compromise its sovereignty and independence or to allow the “Westernization” of its society. This partly is a response to the Iranian public, which is acutely fatigued after more than three decades of political militancy.
That is why those in Iran who oppose the recent nuclear agreement will find it not so easy to mobilize their constituents behind their cause. It would be much easier for those in Iran who advocate the doctrine of peaceful coexistence to see a similar paradigm shift in the U.S. That shift requires us to view Iran less as a rogue state to be contained than as a potential stabilizing force in the region.
Editor’s note: To contact Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi call 217-359-7807; email