Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic

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Publication: Insight Turkey
Author: Tezcür, Günes Murat
Date published: January 1, 2010

Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam London: Hurst & Company, 2007, 272 pp., ISBN9781850659037.

Adib-Moghaddam's engaging analysis of the Iranian poUtics is an effective antidote against the widespread characterizations of the Islamic Republic as the center of Shi'i crescent and a regime ruled by messianic fanatics who are soon-to-be armed with nuclear weapons. He expUcitly states his purpose: "IdeaUy, this book equips you... with the necessary tools to widen and fill the gaps between Unes next time you read a newspaper article about Iran" (p.2). "My idea in this book is to employ critical theory in order to place Iran out of the reach of their awesome propaganda" (p.3).

The book has six sections. The four sections offer case studies of the making of Iranian foreign poUcy, the Iran-Iraq War, and the anti-Iranian activities in the US, and the reform movement in Iran. The most ambitious section of the book is Part One where Adib-Moghaddam aims to present "insights into the 'mindset' of Iran's foreign poUcy eUte" (p. 25). He claims that the foreign poUcy culture of the Islamic RepubUc is permeated by a 'utopian-romantic' meta narrative "formulated during the revolutionary years, and institutionaUzed as central norms of the Islamic RepubUc," which "inform the contemporary grand strategic preferences of the Iranian state" (p. 35). The foreign poUcy culture "functions as the guardian of identity, represents a web of shared ideals, images, norms and institutions, and provides for the foreign poUcy eUtes a coherent, if systematicaUy abstract, overaU orientation in the conduct of international affairs" (p. 71). Adib-Moghaddam argues that this culture affects strategic preferences and behavior as a result of fourdimensional dialectic: "(1) it is through externaUzation that culture is a human product; (2) it is through objectification that culture becomes a reaUty sui generis; (3) it is through internaUzation that we are products of culture; and (4) it is through introjections that culture constitutes our identities, interests and preferences" (p. 42).

Based on this theoretical discussion, he then argues how the "sociaUst, thirdwordlist and revolutionary Islamic Zeigeist in the 1970s" (p.52) has become central to the post-revolutionary Iranian foreign policy. The revolutionary eUte strongly beUeve that prevaiUng international law, institutions, and norms are based on hypocrisy and seek to perpetuate the hegemony of dominant powers. This cultural framework, which entails pro-Palestinian sentiments, anti-Zionism, anti-ImperiaUsm, and Islamic communitarianism, faciUtated the storm the US Embassy in November 1979 (pp. 59-62) and underUned Khomeinis fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 (p. 63). It also explains the Islamic RepubUc's withdrawal from the CENTO, prolonged war with Iraq, support for the PLO, sympathy with Latin American leftist movements, decision to end its relationship with South Africa, and continuing hostility toward the US poUcies (p. 67). At the same time, AdibMoghaddam claims, this cultural frame - work prioritizes "the preservation of the post-revolutionary, Islamic character of the Iranian system and the projection of Iranian power both regionaUy and domesticaUy" (p. 74). Hence, "from the perspective of contemporary Iranian decision makers there appears to be no contradiction between the utopian-romantic Leitmotif of the revolution and multilateral engagement and détente" (p. 70). According to AdibMoghaddam, revolutionary did not reaUy betray their ideals, when they arranged arms deal with the US and Israel during the war with Iraq, backed the US invasion of Afghanistan, kept silent when Russians brutaUy suppressed Chechen resistance and China crashed MusUm opposition in its western provinces, and did not oppose the US invasion of Iraq. These actions aU exemplify "instances when diplomacy and the anarchic spaces of world poUtics are/ were exploited in support of Iran's grand strategic preferences" (p. 74).

There are several problems with AdibMoghaddam's discussion of Iranian foreign poUcy. The first one is methodological: his thesis is basicaUy unsubstantiated because he neither conducted interviews with the decision-makers nor analyzed internal debates taking place among the eUte. It remains unclear whether Iranian foreign policy eUte, based in seven different institutions, share a cognitive consensus that prioritizes certain types of behavior and marginaUze alternative options. He actuaUy concedes this point when he says, "How deterministic is culture in setting grand strategic preferences? The method explored here suggests that it is difficult to discern a priori. . .this needs to be investigated in conjunction with empirical analysis" (p. 80). Yet this concession undermines his main objective of understanding "the way Iranian foreign poUcy eUtes perceive the outside world" (p. 34). The second issue concerns the way in which how culture shapes preferences and behavior. From Adib-Moghaddam's narrative, one gets the impression that foreign policy elite are prisoners of their cultural outlooks. He does not systematicaUy discuss how this culture sustains and reform itself, and eUminate or cultivate dissident opinions. FinaUy, Adib-Moghaddam's articulation of culture is too broad and aU-encompassing to provide much analytical utiUty to understand how preferences are formed and decisions are made. If "Iran's current strategic preferences" does not "represent a break from the ideals of the revolution" (p. 72), as he claims, then every decision made by eUte is justifiable within the boundaries of the revolutionary heritage. A simple reaUst account that prioritizes state interests would reach the same conclusion.

Part Two offers a convincing and empiricaUy rich account of how the Iran-Iraq war was avoidable. "[W]ithout the invention of Ba'thist Arab nationaUsm and its anti -Iranian precepts; without its institutionaUzation and reification as Iraq's preferred state identity during Saddam Husseins rule; without its internationaUzation by the Ba'thist eUtes; and without the impUcit obj edification of this invented garrison state identity by the international community before and during the conflict, the Iran -Iraq war would not have 'happened'" (p. 116). Part Three is a sharp critique of the activities of the US neoconservatives who "wiU continuously and rather relentlessly exert pressure to derail any type of diplomatic engagement between" the US and Iran (p. 153). At the same time, Adib-Moghaddam does not offer any insights regarding how the neoconservative ideology has become that powerful and whether it is able to sustain its influence with the change in the US government. Part Four discusses the reformist Iranian civil society and "its achievements vis-à-vis the state" (p. 160). One obvious shortcoming of this chapter is its reUance of a rigid state -society dichotomy that ignores the realms of interaction and cooperation among state and society actors.

In its conclusion, Adib-Moghaddam writes, "[t]his book wiU have been successful in arguing that any reduction of Iran along a set of easily digestible propositions has a poUtical purpose (pp. 188-9). One can say that it is only partiaUy successful as Adib-Moghaddam is not immune from the habit of reducing Iran to a single argument. He claims that the Iranian Revolution "granted Iranians the absolute right to rise up and criticize those who exercise worldly power and claim transcendental authority at the sam e time" (p. 169). Hence he tends to offer his particularistic reading of the lasting legacy of the revolution and denies its inherently pluraUstic and highly contested meanings.

Author affiliation:

Günes. Murat Tezcür, Loyola University

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