Revision — From the November 2012 issue

The Mad Mullah Myth

The dangers of misunderstanding Iran

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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 powers, including the United States. When in the course of that war 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.

Tehran’s support for terrorism is another persistent theme in Western narratives. Yet the most comprehensive study of suicide terrorism to date, Robert Pape and James Feldman’s Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, has determined that there has never been an Iranian suicide bomber. While Iran backs groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations—Hezbollah and Hamas—or that have threatened American military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, its support for such groups is concentrated in theaters where the United States, Israel, or Sunni states allied to Washington are working to undermine important Iranian interests. For years after 9/11, some neoconservatives even claimed that Osama bin Laden was “living in luxury” in Iran, an assertion elaborated in a 2010 “documentary” extensively touted on Fox News. The allegation was picked up by more centrist journalists such as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who pushed Ahmadinejad in an interview to say whether Iran was, in fact, harboring bin Laden. (Ahmadinejad retorted: “I heard that Osama bin Laden is in Washington, D.C.”) But beyond the absurdity of this claim, public statements by Al Qaeda leaders as well as documents obtained by American Navy SEALs from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011, show that the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Islamic Republic has been deeply antagonistic.

If Westerners looked soberly at the record, they would discover that Iran is not aggressively exporting revolution. Although it is true that in the years immediately following the Shah’s overthrow, sudur-e enqelab (“exporting the revolution”) was proclaimed a principle of Iranian foreign policy by Khomeini himself, what this phrase actually meant was hotly debated: should the Islamic Republic actively work to replicate the Iranian Revolution elsewhere, disregarding international norms of sovereignty, or should it concentrate on making itself an exemplary model of Islamic governance from which other states might draw inspiration? Khomeini made statements that seemed to support both positions. But the postrevolutionary constitution—in which the phrase “exporting the revolution” never appears—notes that the Islamic Republic must scrupulously refrain “from all forms of aggressive intervention in the internal affairs of other nations.” Moreover, all the major figures in Iran’s post-Khomeini leadership—including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the first president of the Islamic Republic elected after Khomeini’s death—have been clearly committed to the exemplarist approach. Early in his tenure as supreme leader, Khamenei declared that “the Islamic Revolution of Iran has taken place and was simultaneously exported throughout the world. The revolution was exported once, and that is the end of the story.”

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’s Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran will be published by Metropolitan Books in January.

 

’s Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran will be published by Metropolitan Books in January.

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