To Make a Deal with Iran, Consider Culture, Not Cliche

by Siamak Tundra Naficy
When U.S. economic sanctions, military threats, and outright demands fail to ensure political success with Iran, there may be a temptation to put down Schelling and Clausewitz and instead pick up Franz Boas. While an understanding of anthropology and the nuances of culture is itself not a bad thing, a misinformed and misguided approach is a path to poor predictive power.
Of course, some Iran hawks still openly call Iran irrational, sometimes evoking synonyms like abnormal, and continue tired, perpetual Munich analogies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo only recently demanded Iran behave like a normal nation, echoing State Department Iran envoy Brian Hook’s normalcy end state goal for Iran from last year. Aside from the condescending notions of implicit hierarchy, moral superiority, and Iranian childlike immaturity, these statements beg the question as to what just what they mean to act like a normal nation.
The problem of course, is that but a glancing look at history or indeed, current headlines regarding America’s allies in the region reveal the hypocrisy—from support of non-state armed groups that destabilize neighbors to human rights violations of one’s own people. Of course, when interests clash with (stated) values, the United States—as like every nation—tends to choose the former. We shouldn’t expect others to do any different. In slightly more nuanced circles, irrationality is rebranded as culture, and many unreflectively still imagine it’s something that afflicts the other. So, even when it’s admitted that culture affects foreign policymaking, there is a tendency to assign rationality to “us” and irrationality to “them.” In this way, an implicit assumption of superiority persists: a rational, normal nation in Manichaean conflict with an irrational, abnormal one.
Culture in Strategic Context
Elsewhere, I have illustrated how such a simplistic approach mistakenly and unnecessarily imagines culture as being both distinct to, and contained within, specific territorial boundaries—like nation-states. On the contrary, a culture is never really uniform (there is meaningful variation), nor is it usually confined to its borders. So don’t buy the talk about a distinctive, unique, and homogenous way of life. There is no single authentic Iranian way of life just as there as there is no single authentic American way of life. All cultures are traversed and cut with radical antagonisms. In fact, there has never been a state whose foreign policy has not been troubled, constrained, or affected by the different, sometimes contradictory values, preferences, and aspirations of those within its society. There are always differing domestic forces and sources working at cross-purposes and thus no regime is monolithic in its approach. From conflicts of interest between local ethnic groups and the state, to tempting demands from powerful business lobbies that are at odds with national interests, the fears and desires of influencers at home limit and constrain foreign policy choices abroad.
Embracing this, we can then consider how a culture can develop around a state’s strategic context in an assessment of the plight of Iran. Since its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic has been able to take advantage of various crises at its borders by legitimizing itself around a defensive narrative—safeguarding Iran against various foreign threats.
Today, numerous U.S. military bases dot the region and the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its ilk remain a threat to Iran. But, recall that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran less than a calendar year after its revolution, and backed by both the U.S. and the Soviets used chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds, fighting Iran to a standstill for 8 years. Just three years after that war, in 1991, the U.S. attacked Iraq, resulting in an estimated 1.3 million Iraqi refugees in Iran, and a near civil war. Of course, 12 years later the U.S. ended Hussein’s regime in the Iraq War, and tore down the existing geopolitical order in the region.
To the East, the Taliban, assisted by al-Qaeda, massacred 11 Iranian diplomats along with thousands of Afghan Shia civilians in and around Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. Iran almost went to war with the Taliban over this, in the end choosing restraint perhaps because of Pakistan’s (a Taliban backer) newfound nuclear capacity. But, again, in just three years, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, this time with Iran—along with its ally the Northern Alliance—eager to provide the U.S.-led coalition with vital intelligence and military assistance. Throughout these crises the Islamic Republic has presented itself as the longstanding defender of Iranian territory, and the reason why Iran has yet to become an Afghanistan, an Iraq, or a Syria.
Paradoxically, however, these sources of strength regarding a defensive foreign policy narrative have also served to screen both Iran’s greatest weakness in its rift between state and society as well as its considerable strategic inadequacies. Iran today is surrounded by some hostile Arab states and Israel, as well as the forces of the United States. It is heavily sanctioned and secluded within its ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that submerges other interests and activities. The political, cultural, economic, and legal aspirations of the Iranian people ceased to be the primary concern of the government long ago; political thought in Tehran ever centers around a defensive strategy.
A cultural approach informed by history can help illuminate why Iran, with a nationalistic and well-educated population having a collective memory of both recent and ancient existential crises and foreign interventions, is overcome with a siege-like mentality—a sense of itself as having circled the wagons and being surrounded by militarily superior adversaries—is overly reliant on unconventional military solutions, soft power, and an absolute sense of security. Culture, then, can be thought of as comprising the collective living memory of historical experience and the mythology and narratives that the group develops to share and pass on that experience.
National Interests Trump Culture
Still, an overly deterministic culturalist approach underestimates the tangled relationship between war, politics, and culture. In multicultural polities like Iran, the United States, and elsewhere, this can result in a contradictory experience at different levels of policymaking—a reality that can make any coherent and constructive international response problematic. Pragmatic leaders are not necessarily trapped in their own articulated state identity, even when their foreign policy choices compete with or contradict the official rhetoric.
If we fail to understand, we may come to see culture (and not, say, the economic and social unmooring of traditional territorial societies and identities that inevitably accompanies the uncertainties and insecurities of an increasingly globalized world) as the primary source of international conflict. But in the real world, of course, nations don’t act like culturally-scripted actors. From alliances of convenience between sixteenth-century England and Safavid Persia (for his part, Shah Abbas I “preferred the dust from the shoe soles of the lowest Christian to the highest Ottoman personage”), to Nazi Germany’s alliance with Imperial Japan, to the security cooperation between modern Shia Iran and Christian Orthodox Armenia (rather than Shia Azerbaijan), it becomes obvious that pragmatic leaders can pivot and play musical chairs with identities.
In his 2018 book, The Shah of Iran, the Iraqi Kurds, and the Lebanese Shia, Arash Reisinezhad provides further illumination. For contrary to popular belief, Iran’s investment in non-state actors is nothing new. Before 1979, it was often carried out through the Shah’s secret service—the SAVAK—which, just like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard today, specialized in external operations and internal repression to build up potential allies and undermine the state’s opponents. SAVAK delivered weapons to Lebanese Christian Maronites and CIA archives demonstrate knowledge of its funding of, and military aid to, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Its support of the Lebanese Shia was channeled through the Pahlavi Foundation (Bonyade Pahlavi), and continued, as the Alavi Foundation, after the revolution. The Shah, who held several titles including that of Aryamehr (Light of the Aryans) also channeled money to Lebanese Shia through Iranian Ayatollahs, local Arab ayatollahs, and religious schools. He funded these and other groups strategically, in hopes that they could be useful to challenge Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism. Note that the justifications are virtually identical: “We should combat and contain the threat [of Nasserism] in the East coast of the Mediterranean [Lebanon] to prevent shedding blood on the Iranian soil.” 
So, if a pre-Islamic, Aryanist nationalist ideology of defense or a post-Islamic religious trans-national ideology fail to fully account for Iran’s consistent geopolitical strategic goals and consistent use of proxies both during the Shah and after, then what does? Hint: it’s not religion, culture, nor ideology.
As such, it’s important to restate that while Iran’s foreign polices might at times be provocative, they are not irrational. Furthermore, they are predictable—but not from a utilitarian cost/benefit approach that sees the world and everything in it in terms of numbers (all zeros and ones). Similarly, Iranian foreign policy does not simply fall out of religious or ideological scripts, with actors just reading their lines. Nor for that matter, is Iranian foreign policy due to a single, continuous, 2500 year old Achaemenid culture linking Xerxes to Zarif. Instead, the Iran-U.S. conflict has endured because of a willingness to reciprocate among participants. As an alternative to unnecessarily reductive or absolutist notions of culture, religion, or ideology, we should always first consider the contexts of current geopolitical rivalries, narratives about recent history, and the constraints on local politicians.
Repeating ahistorical mantras of us (good) vs. them (bad) and wishing upon stars still won’t change these facts. Culture may matter, and civilizations may appear to clash, but the world is far more complicated than the simple mental maps that paint one people red and another blue. Iran is both to the East and to the West of the United States.
Siamak Tundra Naficy is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s department of Defense Analysis. An anthropologist (PhD at UCLA, 2010) with a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach to social, biological, psychological, and cultural issues, his interests range from the anthropological approach to conflict theory to sacred values, cognitive science, and animal behavior. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the Naval Postgraduate School.

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