Correcting Scholarly Errors on Iran's Regional 'Ambitions'

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D.    

Over the years a number of expatriate Iranian scholars have done a major disservice to Iran by misinterpreting Iran's foreign policy as one driven to establish a "Shiite Crescent" and or "regional supremacy." Neither assumption is correct and each in its own way has indirectly contributed to the phenomenon of Iranophobia in the region, by lending intellectual legitimacy to it.  

Case in point, professor Anoushiravan Ehteshami has repeatedly identified "the drive toward regional supremacy" as the hallmark of Iran's foreign policy." This is rubbish and Ehteshami can reach this perverse conclusion about today's Iran only by distorting the nature of the basic tenets of the Islamic revolution and its founding ideology.  Ehteshami mistakes Iran's natural quest to enhance its influence beyond its borders, commensurate with Iran's history, geography, and relative weight in the family nations in the turbulent region, with a quest for "supremacy" and hegemony.  Although such scholarly representations of Iran -- another example being Vali Nasr's rising "Shiite Crescent" -- serve the interests of the various powers intent on "containing" the Iranian power,  in reality they bear little resemblance to the praxis of post-revolutionary Iran's foreign policy, which has been the subject of this author's research and publications for the past three decades. As I have pointed out in my first book on Iran's foreign policy, titled After Khomeni: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Books, 1994), both the attribution of a nationalist-Islamist dualism in Iran's foreign outlook and the standard realist perspectives on Iran's state-making are untenable, theoretically speaking.  As a result, I took issue with the prevailing interpretations, such as by professors Ramazani and Hunter, which I found to be theoretically deficient and rather simplistic.  In presenting an alternative perspective, I drew from the insights of Michel Foucault, e.g, on 'cameralism,' and then predicted a pattern of "permanent populism" founded on the "double characteristic" of Iran's state-movement dubbed as "quasi-state" that, in retrospect after more than twenty years, dare think that it has withstood the test of time and thereby exonerated.  to my knowledge, to this date there are very few theoretical innovations about Iran's foreign policy (behavior) and the theoretical model that I have put forth has uniquely captured the complexities of the subject matter, compared to the mostly descriptive and or empiricist other works on Iran's foreign policy.

In a recent scholarly article on the nuclear agreement and its implications for the non-proliferation treaty, in Brown's Journal of World Affairs (Fall, 2016), we have tried to deepen our understanding of Iran's foreign and nuclear policies by adopting a "constructivist-critical theory approach" that seeks to evaluate the nuclear agreement and its implications from a multi-dimensional theoretical prism. In our next forthcoming book, on Iran nuclear accord the re-making of the Middle East, we have made extensive use of the theories of international relations and tried to provide a sound academic context for the topic.  Our empirical research on Iran's foreign policy simply does not corroborate the conclusions on "regional supremacy" reflected in the writings of Ehteshami and a number of other authors.  There is, indeed, one simple explanation for this, that is, this thesis runs contrary to the principle of "good neighborly relations" informing Iran's regional behavior that is, in turn, founded on the idea of horizontal relations, mutual respect, and respect for the sovereignty of neighbors and near-neighbors.

The trouble with the "regional supremacy" thesis wrongly attached to Iran is that it conflates the notions of leadership and influence with supremacy, which denotes vertical relations of domination and subordination.  Ehteshami falsely claims that Iran seeks to determine the "destiny of the Gulf subregion."  This is the same false claim that one reads almost on a daily basis in the various dailies out of Saudi Arabia and a number of other GCC states.  But, where is the evidence for such preposterous claims that, in Ehteshami's case, is veiled under the cloak of scholarly interpretation?  Iran has no intention of acting as "king-maker" in Saudi Arabia and other GCC states and respects their sovereignty and national determination, even though Tehran may disagree and quarrel with them on various external issues, such as their supports for the extremist jihadists (takfiri) in Syria and elsewhere.  The very principle of the Islamic Revolution militates against this misinterpretation that cannot explain Iran's steadfast support for the (Sunni) Palestinians much like the support it has given to the oppressed Shiites in Lebanon and Iraq; in both these countries, Iran has backed "power-sharing" and coalition governments inclusive of both Shiites and Sunnis and so on.  The false claim of an exclusively "Shiite-driven" foreign policy on Iran's part in the region is, in other words, a myth in dire need of debunking, for Iran's foreign policy is driven to empower the oppressed and the disempowered, to support the autonomy and self-sovereignty of nations in the Middle East and beyond, in line with its third worldist weltanschauung.  To confuse and misinterpret this vital elan of the Iranian system, as Ehteshami and others have done, is a grave mistake on their part that, unfortunately as stated above, has policy ramifications by aiding the various players intent on using the "Iranophobia" card against Iran in the region, and thus to bolster their own anti-Iran alliances and priorities.  As professor Entessar and I have documented in another book, Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Accord and Detente Since the Geneva Agreement of 2013 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), the negative reactions of Saudi Arabia to the nuclear breakthrough stems in part from a built-in misperception of Iran that is best described as Iranophobia pure and simple.  But, how do we expect the Saudis to relinquish this misperception when a number of Iran-born scholars perpetuate it and, indirectly at least, give a conceptual helping hand by raising the specter of 'Shiites are coming' (Nasr) or Iranian 'hegemony' (Ehteshami, Chubin, etc.)?  This is a fair question that, one can only hope, will not be evaded by these authors, who have consistently failed to grasp the logic of Iran's post-revolutionary foreign behavior, which is genuinely wedded to the idea of Muslim unity, perpetual peace and dialogue and harmony between the Shiites and Sunnis, and struggle against foreign domination and intervention, which must be taken into consideration when, e.g., examining Iran's current role in both Syria and Iraq; in a word, in neither country is Iran seeking imperialistic hegemony or supremacy, but rather stability and assistance against the menace of foreign-induced terrorism.  The vested interests of these authors employed by Western institutions might militate against such revisions, yet the dictates of value-free scientific inquiry dictates otherwise.  Iran's regional ambition is, in a word, not domination or supremacy, but rather equality among nations and genuine leadership in collective efforts to attain the goals of stability and development, a role Iran has already demonstrated by pushing the arch of regional cooperation.

More By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:
* Anti-Joyner: Debunking the Misinterpretation of JCPOA:
* The Nuclear Accord Is Legally Binding:
*  Time to Expand German-Iran Ties:

* Photo Credit: Iran Matter
* These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.


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