How to Deal with a ‘Rogue’ State: Engaging the Islamic Republic

by John Turner

Three concerns confront policy makers and the international community in general when engaging with the Islamic Republic of Iran: Nuclear proliferation, the exportation of terrorism and the stability of Iraq. It may be reasonable, as many have done, to simply label Iran as a rogue state that defies the will of the international community, supports terror organisations and attempts to subvert the security of its neighbours. In fact Iran does indeed act in such a way. However, as much as contentious statements by Ahmadinejad and the fire brand speeches of the Ayatollahs may concern policy makers in the West and Arab world, these are not so much the boastings of a powerful regime. They are more reflective of the insecure actions of school yard bullies who are well aware that those around them may be catching on to the bluff. It is imperative to understand why Iran acts as it does. In doing so it may give clues as to how the international community should respond to the security questions that are posed when encountering Iran.

Revolutionary states have founding myths. For Iran its myth is based upon its credentials as an Islamic state, a vanguard of Islam itself. However, equally Iran’s governing elite have employed the idea that Iran is a state under siege to legitimise their leadership. They can point to the Iran-Iraq war in which the world largely supported Iraq, the overthrow of the democratically elected Musadeq in 1953 by CIA plotters and the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that it is indeed a country that has long been threatened by Western powers. The Iranian government is composed of a complex state apparatus that contains competing elements of a bold executive, a strong and often independent military elite and a squabbling clerical establishment, all competing for political space. Iran is caught between the hardliners and the reformers, those who see Iran as a state based on Islamic principles and a vanguard of Islam and those who wish for reform and desire to tend to the pragmatic issues of state management. What is more evident is that the people of Iran may no longer be willing to hold to the state’s founding myth and view the West as a significant threat to Iran. This was demonstrated through the uprisings that followed the 2009 elections.

The behaviour of the Iranian government is indicative of the legitimacy crisis it faces, not just from the domestic population but among the reformers within the government itself. Through denouncing Israel and the West, support for Hezbollah and the drive to obtain nuclear technology the governing elite seek to underscore their leadership credentials and convince the population that the regime can best serve the interests of its people. The pursuit of nuclear weapons not only proves the strength of the regime but becomes a guarantee of security.

Iran does have security concerns that cannot be dismissed. However, the way in which Iran asserts itself is often more reflective of the ruling elite’s insecurity than proof that Iran is a pariah state. Sitting on the side lines hoping events will develop favourably has historically been a stark gamble. Equally, however, intervention particularly military, can be even more hazardous. Iran is a highly developed civil society and contains a population that is well aware of Iran’s position in the world and its political circumstances. The people have demonstrated a desire for change even if they have not been willing to challenge the regime with such force as others in the region have. The regime in some ways is baiting the international community with its policies and rhetoric. Any attempt at applying force to Iran could potentially leave the population with little option but to embrace the regime that governs them. Stopping nuclear proliferation has proven to be relatively unsuccessful, and even using force in a tactical capacity to stop Iran from acquiring such technology would likely prove unsustainable in the long term. The other option is a full scale invasion of the country that no one is likely to endorse. It would be wise then of policy makers not to force the people to make a choice between reform and security, allowing them on their own terms to bring political change to the Islamic republic in the hope that in the future these policy concerns that confront the international community can be dealt with in a productive fashion.

As concerning as the security threat Iran poses appears upon first glance, it may be less dire than most imagine. The regime is largely blustering in regards to the threat it presents to Israel and its neighbours. Iranian influence in Iraq has been a reality since before Iraq was a state. However, as the Iran Iraq war proved this may not be all that significant, Iraqi Shias still fought for Saddam. As much as the international community rightly promotes non-proliferation, Iran is still a rational actor that privileges its own survival and security. Any attempt on the part of the regime to aggress against its neighbours would almost certainly bring ruin to the nation. Additionally, al-Qaeda and the Sunni terrorist organisations that concern the rest of the world are equally dangerous to Iran, meaning that the idea that Iran would supply these types of organisations with nuclear weapons is largely overstated. Change in Iran will not come as swiftly as it did in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. But it is the assertion here that change will most certainly come if the international community has the patience to let it occur. In this case, no intervention may well be the best intervention.