Is Iran a Country or a Cause?

Published by the Atlantic

On April 21, a week after Iran’s first-ever direct attack on Israel, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with his military commanders to gloat. The assault had failed to cause much damage in Israel, but Khamenei claimed victory and tried to give it a patriotic color.

“What matters most,” he said, “is the emergence of the will of the Iranian nation and Iran’s military forces in an important international arena.”

Such national chest-thumping is to be expected from any head of state. But something stood out about the Iranian attacks that made this nationalist reading suspect. Technically speaking, the strikes had been carried out not by Iran’s military but by a militia, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization whose name doesn’t even include Iran: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The IRGC’s Aerospace Force, one of its six divisions, was what fired 300 drones and missiles at Israel.

This is not some bureaucratic “fun fact.” Rather, it illustrates a fundamental truth about Iran: the duality of its institutions, many of which are explicitly defined to be autonomous of both the nation and the state. That duality, in turn, leads to much  head-scratching and confusion about Iran. Is the Islamic Republic a rational and potentially pragmatic actor, like most other nation-states, or is it an ideologically motivated actor, bent on pursuing mayhem in support of its goals?

The charged nature of Washington debate about Iran often leads partisans to give simple, binary answers to this question. But those who follow Iran more closely realize that the dilemma has produced a tough, protracted battle within the regime itself. In 2006, a journalist asked Henry Kissinger about the future of Iranian-American relations. The doyen of American strategy responded, “Iran has to take a decision whether it wants to be a nation or a cause. If a nation, it must realize that its national interest doesn’t conflict with ours. If the Iranian concern is security and development of their country, this is compatible with American interests.”

Khamenei, the man who holds ultimate power in today’s Iran, has himself been inconsistent on this point. He is after all not just Iran’s commander in chief but also a revolutionary in chief who heads the Axis of Resistance, an international coalition of anti-West and anti-Israel militias.

Not all Iranians are happy to lend their nation-state to such a coalition. Thus a continuous battle rages, in Iran’s society and its establishment, not only over what Iran’s foreign policy should be, but over the more fundamental question of whom it should serve. Should it be the vehicle for the pursuit of Iran’s national interests—or of an Islamist revolutionary agenda that knows no borders?

The IRGC is an instrument of the latter conception. That Iran is nowhere in its title is no accident: The IRGC was formed in 1979 from a variety of Islamist militias, precisely because the revolutionaries who had just overthrown the monarchy didn’t trust traditional institutions, such as Iran’s powerful military, and wanted to serve goals beyond Iran’s borders. The IRGC’s founders saw themselves as loyal first and foremost to the revolution’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who couldn’t have been more explicit about rejecting Iranian nationalism in favor of a transnational revolutionary Islamism.

Doing so meant reorienting Iran’s foreign policy entirely. Under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran had maintained ties with Israel as well as its Arab neighbors, even proposing to mediate between them. The monarchy had christened Iran’s position a “national independent policy” and positioned Iran as Western-leaning but nonaligned, touting the country’s long and proud tradition as a founding member of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

Khomeini wanted both to do away with this tradition and to burnish his credentials as an international revolutionary leader. He began by fully embracing the anti-Israeli cause, declaring the last Friday of the month of Ramadan to be Quds (Jerusalem) Day, an occasion for global rallies in opposition to the Jewish state. In a televised message on Quds Day 1980, Khomeini stated forcefully: “Nationally minded people are of no use to us. We want Muslim people. Islam opposes nationality.”

As Islamist revolutionaries took over Iran and built their Islamic Republic, some envisaged erasing Iran’s national identity altogether. A faction close to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi dreamed of fusing Iran and Libya into a new revolutionary state. A cleric took a group of goons to vandalize the tomb of Ferdowsi, Iran’s cherished medieval national poet, near Mashhad. Many regime leaders were openly contemptuous of pre-Islamic Iranian traditions, even the single most important one: the Iranian new year, or Nowruz. In 1981, Khomeini explicitly asked Iranians not to put much emphasis on “their so-called Nowruz.”

But Khomeini’s radicalism soon collided with reality. Few people anywhere would willingly give up their national identity; Iranians are famously patriotic, and for them, the demand was a nonstarter. Nowruz would stay, as would Ferdowsi’s tomb. But the battle over whether revolutionary Iran would behave as a nation or as an Islamist cause never ceased.

When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, masses of Iranians mobilized to defend their country, in what was clearly a patriotic effort. Former pilots of the Shah’s imperial armies were released from prison to fly sorties. From his exile, the recently overthrown crown prince offered to come back to join the armed forces (he was denied). Iran’s war dead included many non-Muslims—Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Baha’is. And yet, Khomeini conceived of the war not as one of national defense but as a “holy war” to spread the revolution.

Iran liberated all of its territory from Iraqi forces in 1982, but Khomeini declared that the war had to go on “until all sedition has been eliminated from the world.” He sent Iranian forces into Iraq, where they kept pushing for six more futile years, until at last he accepted a UN-mandated cease-fire in 1988. That same year, Iran reestablished diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. By the time Khomeini died, in 1989, the country appeared to be setting a more moderate course, even shedding its internationalist revolutionary pretensions.

Whether it would really do so would be up to Khomeini’s successor. Khamenei was a hard-line revolutionary activist, known for translating into Persian the works of Sayyid Qutb, the notorious ideologue of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But he owed his ascent to the leadership in part to the new president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose pragmatism many thought would rub off on Khamenei as well. Rafsanjani came to represent something of an Iranian Deng Xiaoping, more interested in technocracy than in ideological purity.

The alliance turned out to be one of convenience, and from the 1990s to 2010s, Iran became the scene of a ferocious struggle among three broad factions: conservatives led by Khamenei, reformists (led by Mohammad Khatami, who would succeed Rafsanjani as president in 1997) who wanted to democratize, and centrists (led by Rafsanjani) who wished to maintain the closed political system but make the country’s foreign policy less ideological and more practical. As Khamenei sought to strengthen his faction against the other two, he realized that the IRGC was his best cudgel. He used it to repress and exclude from power both the reformists and the centrists. Khamenei extended the state’s largesse to his allies in the militia as it pursued its most ambitious project: that of building up an Axis of Resistance in the region, including groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shiite militias.

With the help of these proxies, the IRGC conducted a campaign of terror against its ideological enemies, Israel above all. It helped bomb Israel’s embassy in 1992 and, two years later, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The latter action killed 85 people, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentine history. Starting in 2003, wars and crises in the Middle East allowed the Axis to spread and strengthen—and, as it did so, to capture Iran’s regional foreign policy.

Khamenei understood that the rise of the IRGC’s regional power risked dangerously isolating Tehran and putting it on a collision course with Washington. And so he attempted to balance out the IRGC’s radicalism by giving some ground to the pragmatism of the centrists who favored ties with the West. Hassan Rouhani, a Rafsanjani acolyte, was elected president in 2013 with a popular mandate to conduct direct negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. He and his U.S.-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, had the support of both reformists and centrists. They bitterly opposed the IRGC, and the militia in turn opposed their talks with the United States.

The Rouhani government finally inked a deal with the United States and five other powerful countries in 2015, only for it to be thrown out three years later by President Donald Trump. The anti-IRGC coalition was severely weakened, and Khamenei swung heavily in the other direction—which better fit with his own politics in any case.

The long-lasting battle over Iran’s foreign policy has now been largely settled in favor of the octogenarian supreme leader and his allies. Since 2020, only pro-Khamenei conservatives have been permitted to run for office in major elections. The IRGC openly operates Iranian embassies in most of the Middle East, and ideological commitments, rather than national interest, drive Iranian foreign policy. This turn is most evident in Iran’s shameful support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which only makes sense as an expression of Khamenei’s anti-Western zeal. In fact, Khamenei’s men have broken with the country’s traditional nonalignment by repeatedly favoring ties with China, Russia, and North Korea. The facade of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran is still emblazoned with the revolutionary slogan “Neither Western nor Eastern”—but pro-Khamenei foreign-policy hands now speak of a “Look East” policy to justify their new orientation.

Khamenei never made the transition from Islamist activist to Iranian statesman. Having hijacked the Iranian nation for a cause, he hitched its fortunes to those of militias that wreak havoc in every country where they operate. With the IRGC’s attacks on Israel, he has now put the country on the path to a war most Iranians neither want nor can afford. Having just turned 85 years old, Khamenei has lost the respect of most Iranians and even many establishment figures. Iran is worse today in every single way than it was 20 years ago: socially repressed, politically closed, diplomatically isolated, and economically destroyed.

Many Iranians are now simply waiting for the leader to die. His cause-centered foreign policy has brought only disaster. Those who want Iran to once more act like a nation are politically marginalized, but in a post-Khamenei Iran, they will fight for a country that pursues its national interests, including peace with its neighbors and the world.

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