For more than three decades, many Americans have viewed Iran through the lens of the painful hostage crisis of 1979-81, seeing the Islamic Republic as irrational and dismissive of international law. But the fuller story is more complicated and less frightening, write Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.
By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
One of the main themes in our new book, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, is that America’s Iran debate is fundamentally distorted by a series of myths, namely, that the Islamic Republic is irrational, illegitimate, and can easily be isolated in its regional environment and, ultimately, undermined by the United States.
An excerpt in Harper’s (see here), entitled “The Mad Mullah Myth: The Dangers of Misunderstanding Iran’s Strategy,” lays out some of the main points in our critique of the irrationality myth. It opens by noting that:
“In the more than thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, Western analysts have routinely depicted the Islamic Republic as an ideologically driven, illegitimate, and deeply unstable state. From their perspective, Iran displayed its fanatical character early on, first in the hostage crisis of 1979-81, and shortly afterward with the deployment of teenage soldiers in ‘human wave’ attacks against Iraqi forces during the 1980s.
“Supposedly the same Shi’a ‘cult of martyrdom’ and indifference of casualties persist in a deep attachment to suicide terrorism that would, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, end in catastrophe. Allegations of the Iranian government’s ‘irrationality’ are inevitably linked to assertions that it is out to export its revolution across the Middle East by force, is hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, and is too dependent for its domestic legitimacy on anti-Americanism to contemplate improving relations with the United States.”
Of course, the veteran diplomat Chas Freeman has pointed out that “to dismiss a foreign government, policy, or circumstance as ‘irrational’ is to confess that one does not understand its motivations, causes, or calculus, has no idea how to deal with it short of the use of force, and has no intention of making the effort to discover how to do so.”
And we point out that “if Western political elites were to make an effort to understand Iran and its motivations, they would discover that the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be a highly rational actor in the conduct of its foreign policy. The Iranian government did not launch a holy war against Iraq in the 1980s; rather, it struggled to defend the Iranian people against a brutal Iraqi invasion that was directly supported by many of Iran’s neighbors as well as by Western power, including the United States.
“When in the course of that was Iran was subjected to years of chemical-weapons attacks, Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father, and his associates chose not to weaponize Iran’s stockpiles of chemical agents, a move that would have enabled it to respond in kind.
“And for years now the Islamic Republic’s most senior political and religious leaders have rejected the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons, both on strategic grounds and because, in their view, nuclear weapons violate Islamic morality.”
We go on to debunk Western conventional wisdom about Tehran’s “support for terrorism.” We describe how, “if Westerns looked soberly at the record, they would discover that Iran is not aggressively exporting revolution.”
Likewise, we explain that, while Iranian policymakers believe that Israel is an illegitimate state, “Iran is not out to destroy” it, and has never threatened to do so, contrary to Western mythology.
Iranian leaders “take a long view of their standoff with Israel, expecting that the unsustainability in the twenty-first century of apartheid-like arrangements will lead to the fall of Israel’s current political structure, not to the annihilation of the Jewish people. Such an expectation, although disturbing to many Israelis, does not constitute a threat to liquidate Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.”
Furthermore, “The record also shows that Iran has not been stubbornly antagonistic toward the United States. Over the past two decades, Tehran has consistently cooperated on issues when Washington has requested its assistance, and it has frequently explored the possibilities for improved American-Iranian relations.
“It is the United States that has repeatedly terminated these episodes of bilateral cooperation and rebuffed Iranian overtures, reinforcing Iranian leaders’ suspicion that Washington will never accept the Islamic Republic.”
The Islamic Republic continues to frame its foreign policy around principles that reflect its religious and revolutionary roots. But for many years now it has defined its diplomatic and national-security strategies in largely non-ideological terms, on the basis of national interests that are perfectly legitimate: to be free from the threat of attack and from interference in its internal affairs; to have its government accepted by its neighbors and by the world’s most militarily powerful state.
For more than 20 years, the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be capable of acting rationally to defend and advance these interests. Americans may not like Tehran’s strategic and tactical choices, its links to political factions and their associated militias in Afghanistan and Iraq, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its pursuit of nuclear-fuel-cycle capabilities. But these choices are far from irrational, particularly in the face of continuing animosity from Washington.
As America enters a period of perhaps decisive choices in its Iran policy during President Obama’s second term, we offer Going to Tehran (as we write in the Introduction) as “a challenge to our fellow Americans and others to reconsider what they think they know about the Islamic Republic.”
We hope that it has an impact. (Going to Tehran will be published by Henry Holt’s Metropolitan Books imprint on Jan. 8, 2013.)
Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003 was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For a direct link of this piece, click here: http://www.raceforiran.com/iran-and-the-mad-mullah-myth-leveretts-forthcoming-book-excerpted-in-harpers