Statism and Authoritarianism in Iran

ByFiras Elias

Is Iran a national or an Islamic state? Or does it represent both? I directed this question to my Iranian friend Sayed Mohammadi. He stood surprised and said; what does that mean to you?
I answered- as I am interested in Iran, I can find a substantial difference, as Iran’s political behavior usually presents itself in a complex framework that goes beyond the usual stereotypes of other countries foreign policies. Indeed, addressing the political philosophy or the ideology that drives Iranian politics has become a continuous issue when speaking of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.
The historical dimension is an integral part of the Iranian political culture and mentality, where the Iranian “Persian” finds his culture, personality and history buried by Islam. Therefore, confirming the permanent Persian identity, as “Iranian Islam” is different from “Arab Islam” due to its historical and civilizational depth, i.e. “it gave Islam more than it took from it.” Whomever tracks the Iranian political discourse discovers this fact in many expressions, in addition to other political and metaphoric connotations. The language of differentiation and miniaturization perhaps best distinguishes the Persian character. It is all evident in the manner they propose national identity and political projects, in addition to the arrogant way they treat Arabs. Moreover, this language expresses preference for the Iranian Persian character over others to be the elected figure to lead the region, and is best able to achieve this goal through maximizing the Iranian self over others.
On the other hand, Iranian cultural and religious perceptions are heavily influenced by popular beliefs and historical myths, such as ancient Iranian Zoroastrianism and Iranian Shiite Islam, which all believe in reincarnation, and so on. As King Darius announced himself a copy of the legendary hero Faridoun “who saved Iran from the tyrant Zehak, and Satan Ahriman,” Khomeini, on the other hand, claimed to be leading Iran on behalf of Imam Mahdi. The Iranian belief states that all the current events on earth reflect the celestial ones, which are rooted in an enduring vision in Iran, which Khomeini used to consolidate his image as a religious and political leader until the emergence of Imam Mahdi. In addition to the historical myths, the ancient Persian-Zoroastrian traditions play an important role in Iran’s foreign vision at the time being. These traditions classify the world into two spheres: a good Iranian-led sphere and an evil one led by the Western powers. This vision might have imposed itself eventually on the way Khomeini presented himself, particularly when he put forward a duality of “the Vulnerable and the Arrogant.” Therefore, it is necessary to emphasize that the inter-linkage between the national and the Islamic principles in Iranian foreign policy can be found in many facets, such as in its “political discourse, nuclear program and expansionist policy.” This mixing between the different principles is what Persian nationalism utilized in the past, and was followed by the Khomeinist revolution. The repeated statements by the IRGC leaders that the occupation and domination of the region was necessary, because the region was part of the ancient Persian empire is evidence of the close affiliation between the Persian national project and the Islamic revolutionary project. Indeed, Iran has succeeded in substantially using religion to serve its expansionist national project in the Middle East. To substantiate this argument, the State treats the non-Persian nationalities within Iran with racism and ascendancy, while recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood and others within the framework of Islamic unity. Furthermore, it built relations with groups and countries that are different in religion, ideology and thought. At the state-level, it has established relations with infidel and atheist countries such as Venezuela, China and North Korea. At the group-level, it has built relations with organizations that are radically different, and has accused them sometimes of blasphemy, such as al-Qaeda, the Somali Youth, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (George Habash), the Muslim Brotherhood, and others. Hence, it uses nationalism in facets, and Islam in others.
The permanent confirmation of the ideological confrontation with the outside world has represented the most prominent face of the Iranian political alignment, namely using the Iranian political and military ideology, which tends towards power and domination, within a variable national-Islamic fusion that serves the overarching Iranian objectives. The usage of Iranian religious rhetoric, both formal and informal, is an argument that cannot be fully understood yet. This deliberate style of Iranian discourse might be intended to indicate the absence of a coherent decision making unit within Iran. By the time the Supreme Leader of Iran uses the Qur’anic verses and adapts them to the Iranian regional project, the Revolutionary Guards leaders, the Presidency, or the advisors are using nationalism and historical merits in their statements. Consequently, this duality in managing the Iranian political files represents a complicated situation for the Iranian decision makers in Iran’s regional plan. In addition, Iran employs nationalism in the distant geographical framework, while the “Islamic” variable imposes itself in the short geographical context. We also find that it exploits soft power within its Persian nationalist policies of influence and assimilation, while using hard power within its “Islamic alignment” for expansion, domination and exportation of ideas. This use of a mix of soft and hard power confirms the nature of Iran’s foreign movement. In other words, the ideological system of the Iranian decision-makers stands out clearly in their dealings with the Arab world, by highlighting the Persian cultural model, national ascendancy, and packaging it into the framework of Islamic, inclusive and unitary projects such as the Islamic Middle East Project. However, the question is; What Islamic Middle East does Iran mean here? Is it to be led by the Arab or the Iranian Islam?
Any analyst that is aware of Iran’s power and mental insight governing its policies will note that there are human, economic, cultural and political resources that contribute to the implementation of some of these ambitions. Iran is already investing these resources in enforcing its national project, which is coated with an Islamic framework, but is necessarily faced with obstacles. The most important of these is the gap between perceptions of its role and the potential for implementation. Iran does have a strong political will and wants to play an ambitious regional and global role, as its leaders continuously repeat on international platforms. It also wants to create a multi-polar international system in which Iran is a central international pole that challenges American domination or its unipolar hegemony. However, there is still a difference between the desire and the truth. As the problem is with Iran having the resources to play a regional and pivotal role, via using “ruling theories” that necessarily affect the foreign policy regime of Iran. In fact, it works to maximize the Iranian self and exaggerate it, and paints it’s role more than a worldly state led by humans. Iran believes that the world is full of emptiness which requires filling. We can sense such a belief in the statements of the Iranian leadership. It assumes Iran to be the fixed headquarters, from which the other branches are derived, and rays are radiated to the rest of the world, with Iran being self-sufficient, and not deriving anything from others. For instance, “Umm al-Qura theory” is aimed at making Qom and Tehran as Umm al-Qura instead of Mecca and Medina, a center for the Islamic world and a capital for all Muslims and to put the Muslim nation under the Jurist Leadership [Vilayat-e Faqih]. In addition, former Iranian President Ahmadinejad stated in New York in September 2005 “Iran is a nation that has a history of civilization for thousands of years. The world owes us many moral and human values, we still have the potential to lead the world to those good values, and the only thing we need to achieve this goal is not to merely understand ourselves but to believe in them as well.” Thereby, the spirit of Iranian doctrine and ideology is based on the idea of Persian national hegemony over the Arabian Gulf region, as it is viewed to be part of the Persian area. This idea is fixed in supporting Shiite minorities in the region and politically empowering them. Accordingly, it is a major project that has provoked many Arab countries fears and made them view Iran with suspicion and distrust, as it aims to destabilize these countries by aggravating the Shiite minorities there.
Iran had reconciled with its Persian imperial past under former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Ali Khamenei, who served as the president before becoming the Supreme Leader, has never denied the historical greatness and value of Persepolis, but regarded it as the black facade of the cruel power of its Emperors. However, this view is contrary to the one carried by Rafsanjani, the first Iranian religious leader to visit Persepolis stressing the historical and strategic depth of the Persian Empire and calling on Iranians to cherish this history and seek to revive it. It was considered an initiative of a political leader with a religious background who sought to revive the glory of ancient Persia, as did the Shah before him. Similarly, the current president, Hassan Rouhani, explicitly refers to the Sassanid Empire saying “Today, Iran has become an empire like its predecessors throughout history. Baghdad has always been its capital, and its center of identity, civilization and culture as it will always remain so.” Although the Iranian authorities declared that his statement was distorted and taken out of context, indeed, it was true.
In fact, the world began to grant the cultural depth a considerable interest, especially in the post-Cold War era, which coincided with the emergence of new intellectual ideas such as those by the American thinker Samuel Huntington on the clash of civilizations. He pointed out that the civilizational conflict would be limited in the future between the Western civilization, the Confucian civilization, and the Islamic one. Therefore, Iran took this opportunity to highlight its cultural and historical depth through the initiative put forward by former President Mohammad Khatami known as ‘the Dialogue of Civilizations’. The primary intention of this initiative was to present Iran within a global framework that exceeds regional boundaries by highlighting its cultural and historical paradigm that is intertwined with a sectarian Islamic philosophy. This paradigm should be recognized and treated as being civilized and the Islamic paradigm that is capable of renovation and initiative.
The civilizational depth goes hand in hand with the geographical anchor about mapping and formulating Iran’s policies in the Arab region. The Iranian leadership uses this to explain the nature of how it figures out the past, in addition to utilizing it to mobilize the present generation nationally and intellectually, and to define and formulate its views towards the future. Moreover, it focuses on the history of the Iranian state that emerged 12 centuries before Islam, where it controlled vast areas from the east to west. Therefore, the historical factor of the Iranian state has become important in defining its policies throughout history. It also has become a basis and a methodical norm in the policy of external expansion. Furthermore, Iran has relied on the principle of inferior-treatment of Arabs under successive regimes as well as the current. It is based on the historical factor in which Iran had an authority over some Arab states under the Persian Empire, by being an empire that was characterized by the spirit of expansion, domination and military control.
It would be enough to visit the Iranian Foreign Ministry website to see how greatly it portrays Iran’s position and civilization, and how it distinguishes Iranians all over the world and other civilizations, with Iran presented as being altruistic, having limitless love and being a lifeline and spiritual source for other nations. The way they portray themselves aims to maximize Iran’s self and raising its position and status. These perceptions have found a place in the mind of Iranians’ and illustrate how proud Iranians are of their civilization and culture. For example, “The Iranian Renaissance represents a center of human civilization in the historical ages in the continent of Asia and the world, and enjoys an important location.” Moreover, “Iran is not only distinguished in the Middle East, but in the world as a whole,” and,” its ancient civilizational status has increased its importance throughout history, which granted Iran a fancy cultural experience that has made it a milestone for human, political and cultural progress at the national, regional and international levels.” The country pays tribute to its role, competences and energy in the field of heavy industries, and praises it scientific and developmental achievements as well as technology. Accordingly, ” the country gained political, economic, cultural and tourist distinctions and became the focus of attention of the countries in the region and the whole world. Moreover, it had become a difficult number in all regional and international equations.” Even in the field of literature and poetry, Iran glorifies the value of its literature and poetry. For example, “Iranian old and modern poetry presented bright and creative images,” which makes it peculiar. We also read “Persian poetry motivated Iranians to pour their poetic creations into private molds.” In fact, they are deemed to have “enriched the human civilization.”
It should be noted that Iran considers the dualism of the “Persian nationalism – revolutionary Islam ” the lifeline that saves it from the trouble of rigid ideology, which usually afflicts the external movement of the state with a kind of rigidity and inflexibility that results in it colliding with the national interest of the State or other States. Hence, they find this dualism as “riding two horses at once,” a national horse on one hand, and an Islamic horse on the other. This might explain the Iranian pragmatism in dealing with the issues of the region. Indeed, this pragmatism did not prevent it from negotiating with ISIS recently, when the Iranian national interest required it. What we would like to conclude is that Iranian statism has always been present in the Iranian mentality and ideology. The Achaemenid, Sassanid and Persian empires exploited nationalism for Iranian self-interests. On the other hand, the ‘Islamic’ Republic of Iran has used revolutionary Islam to serve the same purpose. Despite the difference of submission, expression and tools, the goal remains the same that is “Iran, the Iranian state, the Iranian self, and the Iranian authority,” first.


Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of The Arabain GCIS

Firas Elias
International Strategies and Policies Researcher