Friday, February 19, 2010

Regimes have their own logic

This extends a comment I made here.

Rhetoric is how a leadership communicates publicly with its supporters and reaches out to undecideds. The trick is to work out what it is communicating.

In the case of the recent statements by Iran's Supreme Leader, it is pretty clear. The ideology of the regime remains unchanged and the US is still the Great Satan: that is, the Great Tempter, the great source of all the corrupting distractions of the modern world. Given the democratic anti-regime agitation within Iran, this is more true, not less: since full democracy gives sovereignty (which belongs to Allah) to the people. (Hence opponents can be hanged for the "crime" of "enmity against God".) The US notions of separation of church and state, of female equality, religious freedom, open sexuality and the legitimacy of the pursuit of happiness are all affronts to the fundamental principles of the Iranian regime.

For the regime to be conciliatory is to imply that the Great Satan has its positive points. This would undermine its position domestically, not strengthen it.

Whatever chance the Obama Administration's realist (in the international affairs sense) approach of engagement had (very little IMHO), it died as soon as Iranians began to make clear their rejection of the (patently) rigged Iranian Presidential election. It is not clear to me that the Administration has grasped this point. But, of course, this is always the weak point of realist analysis: it tends to take incumbent regimes as givens while not giving due weight to how foreign policy can be driven by the specific logic of a regime's nature rather than always being trumped by the logic of the state's geopolitical position.

In this case, the specific logic of the regime is that it is the instrument of Allah's sovereignty, which is universal. So its foreign policy is to promote acceptance of that sovereignty to reflect and maintain its internal legitimacy as the manifestation of that sovereignty. The Iranian regime has inevitable limitations, including being unable to evade the constraints of Iran's geopolitical position and the resources available to it. Nevertheless, the regime sees itself as a global player: in some ways as the ultimate global player.

There is nothing the US can offer the regime in any permanent strategic sense that it wants (apart from the US's submission to the sovereignty of Allah). The regime's push for nuclear weapons is the culminating military-power expression of its role as the instrument of Allah's sovereignty. What can the West offer Iran which would be worth giving that up? Which would be worth a state whose legitimacy is as the embodiment of Allah's sovereignty accepting indefinitely second rank status?

To ask the question is to answer it. Either the regime collapses or this is all going to end badly.

ADDENDA I have edited this post to make it clearer without changing the argument.


  1. But… the exact same "logic" applies to Saudi Arabia and they're buddies with us. So, how come it works in that case?

  2. Good question. First, the Saudis have been a breeding ground of jihadi terrorists who typically berate the al-Saud for betraying their own principles. Second, the al-Saud have taken the education path, financing Islamic schools and mosques around the world, rather than the terror path because, thirdly, they are not an overtly revolutionary state. On the contrary, they have been integrated into the state system since the 1920s with a long history of cooperating with the US against common enemies (revolutionary socialism and revolutionary Iran). They also have the extra element of legitimacy in being "guardians of the two holy places".

    To put it another way, their logic is they are the guardians of the homeland of the Faith and seek, by example and education, to promote submission to the sovereignty of Allah. That the regime is a monarchy also means it lacks the need to be actively populist in mobilising support.

    The Iranian regime lacks any basis for legitimacy other than promoting submission to the sovereignty of Allah, having demonstrated that its conception of that principle completely trumps any democratic element, Furthermore, it is a state born in revolution and committed to revolutionary action.

  3. Hi Michael -

    Interesting post. The important point as I see it is that for the regime, its rhetorical stance is a means, not an end; its end is staying in power. So while the tactics it can use to promote that end are constrained by the past rhetoric it's used, because (as you point out) it would undermine its own position by too rapid a change of front, it still has a lot more flexibility than it would if, for example, in its own leaders' minds promoting submission to Allah was more important than staying in power - but I see no evidence that that's the case. Provided they've got the time & skill to prepare public opinion for it, regimes can often survive major turnarounds in their rhetorical position. That's why I think prior to last year's rigged election the prospects for a "realist" accommodation with the US were quite reasonable, since the answer to your question "What can the West offer Iran which would be worth giving that up?" is simply "A better chance of staying in power." Much less so now.

    BTW, why don't my navigation keys work in you comment window?

  4. I am not sure that the Iranian regime sees any tension between it staying in power and promoting submission to the sovereignty of Allah. That is, it staying in power is a necessary part of promoting the sovereignty of Allah. Hence, in part, my scepticism about opportunities for engagement prior to the election (the other part being doubt that it perceived the West as being willing to seriously threaten its hold on power).

    Regimes can survive shifts in their rhetoric, depending on their skill and circumstances. It is easier if one shifts means rather than ends. So an Iranian regime which decided example and education were the path would be a lot easier to deal with. If any engagement was possible, that would be the avenue, though the rhetoric of the regime was highly jihadist from the beginning.

  5. As to problems with navigation keys: got no idea.

  6. Agreed, I don't think the Iranians see a tension between the two. But if at some point they do, I'd be confident that submission to Allah will get shifted into second place.

  7. Yes, well, it is the fear that that is not so which drives much of the nervousness about them getting nuclear weapons. I doubt, for example, Israel is keen on betting its national existence on hoping that they do prefer staying in power to being good little instruments of God with the expectations of eternal rewards for being so. The rise of homicide bombing is, after all, not entirely reassuring on this matter.