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JNS: Misunderstanding Iran

Periodically, the United States or Israel makes a concession to an adversary, planning—or hoping—for reciprocity. The underlying assumption is that, as the stronger party, they can afford to be generous and even, on occasion, to miscalculate. This is a fundamental misreading, not of the strength of the American or Israeli position, but of how the Muslim world will understand the concession. In the Muslim world, only weak people make concessions. An offer to compromise is a sign of weakness, encouraging those receiving one not only not to reciprocate, but to increase the pressure against their adversaries.

The frameworks are different.


For the United States, the Cold War had a lot to do with the Western presumption of superiority. After decades of conflict with the Soviet Union around the globe, the balance of the West and its allies against the USSR and its allies tipped in favor of the West. The nuclear war everyone feared never happened, the Soviet Union collapsed, the “Captive Nations” were freed and Russia became an acceptable trade and political interlocutor. For a while.


The United States now seeks a balance with Iran, making the Islamic Republic an acceptable interlocutor in the region rather than an enemy of America and its allies. This sometimes is referred to as Security Architecture (whatever that means). On the surface it seems admirable/positive, but the idea of bringing Iran into a balanced relationship with its adversaries is not how things work in the Middle East.


Sadly, we don’t understand how people in that part of the world think. And more importantly, we seem almost never interested in learning. And in this case, our policy is based on a misunderstanding of how Iran sees itself.


(Shi’ite) Iran doesn’t want a “balanced” policy with its neighbors, or with us. It is pursuing a policy aimed at defeating and humiliating its Sunni Arab neighbors. And America is helping it do so.


How do we know? If we knew how to listen to and understand Iran’s subtle propaganda and nuances regarding its Arab neighbors, we would realize that what concerns Iran most of all is to prove that its version of Islam—Shi’ism—is the correct one, and to eviscerate Sunnism.

This battle may seem unimportant, even marginal, to Westerners—that is, to us—but it is paramount to Iran and its Arab neighbors.


Iranians and their Arab (mostly Sunni) adversaries/enemies have been fighting this battle since their Prophet Muhammad died in 631 C.E. We ask ourselves: Why can’t they sit down and find a compromise they can live with?


The Western concept of compromise does not exist in the Middle East. In that part of the world, giving in on issues before defeating one’s enemy means the person offering the compromise is humiliating/shaming himself. For those rooted in this culture, humiliation is worse than death. This, along with the historical enmity between Arabs and Persians, looms large in the background and percolates up to the surface, often to explode into the open when one side perceives a weakness in the other. This is all predicated on a tremendous sense of history and memory.


The Western concept of history is to bury it. “Let bygones be bygones.” Abraham Lincoln tried to set aside the raging emotions of the American Civil War in his second Inaugural Address, saying, “With malice toward none, with charity for all….” Americans often say, “that’s history” meaning something that happened in the past is of no importance.

This is alien to the Middle Eastern way of thinking. In that region, people have long memories.


Take, for example, President Joe Biden’s public berating of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan (MbS), holding him personally responsible for the murder of a Saudi journalist in Turkey. Almost two years later, Biden went to Saudi Arabia to beg MbS to increase oil production.


The Saudis knew exactly why Biden was coming. So, before the president arrived, MbS publicly announced the kingdom would not increase oil output. The Saudis were humiliating Biden, who either didn’t understand why MbS announced this before his arrival—because to the American administration, Biden’s blistering accusation against the Saudi leader was “in the past”—i.e., “that’s history”—and therefore of no importance.


Saudis, like Iranians, harbor grudges and wait for the appropriate time to get even. And that is exactly why the Saudis who loathed Biden waited to get back at and humiliate him for what Biden had said before he became president.


Another incident, this one involving Iran, comes to mind. From an Iranian perspective, the United States had been pro-Saudi for decades. So, when in 1988 the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner carrying more than 200 civilian passengers flying from the Arab side of the Gulf to Iran, the Iranians “knew” America shot it down intentionally. They “knew” because they “knew” America loathed the Iranian regime. The U.S. government went out of its way to apologize profusely and wanted to pay restitution, but Iran never believed Washington was sincere.


Despite America’s protestations, some years later then-Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani in an interview mentioned that Iran knew for sure that America had intentionally shot down the plane. Some Iran specialists in the U.S. government were flabbergasted by Rafsanjani’s claim. Some even had no memory of the incident. After all, it was “history.”


It is essential for us to understand the Iranian regime as it sees itself. How we define Iran’s interests is secondary. Iran has a long sense of history, dating back more than 2,600 years, of which it is extremely proud. This is meaningless to us.


On the other hand, the Iranian government is filled with senior officials who do understand Western/American culture and have learned to use it to their advantage. One of Iran’s former foreign ministers—Javad Zarif—was intimately familiar with American culture. Zarif “negotiated” with then-Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama in 2015 for the Iranian nuclear weapons deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Zarif wrapped Kerry around his little finger and wrote about how he did it in a “tell-all” book in Persian.


Kerry, during part of the talks, had injured his leg and was walking with crutches. Crutches are a sign of weakness in Middle Eastern culture, though certainly not in America’s. And Iranians love cynical cartoon caricatures. The more Kerry submitted to Iran’s demands, the larger Kerry’s crutches grew in the cartoons. And we were clueless.


When some Westerners, steeped in Iranian culture, tried to explain what these cartoons meant to our “negotiating partners,” the people dealing with the Iranians either responded that they are “only cartoons,” or belittled those who tried to warn our side.


Even worse for the United States, Iranian culture sees lighter/whiter skin color as a sign of beauty. Darker skin, on the other hand, is a sign of inferiority. Interestingly, the depiction of President Obama’s skin color darkened in these disgusting cartoons the more we conceded to Iranian demands.


Clearly, we cannot stoop to the level of Iranian indignities, nor should we.


There are things we can do to make life difficult for Tehran by using Iranian culture to create discord within the senior levels of the regime. And that requires an understanding of the different forces at play, which seem not to be grasped in the West. The United States instead appears adamant about its “rightness” and declines to learn how the Shi’ite religious establishment works. It seems esoteric to Westerners and is therefore ignored.


An important—crucial, even—example is as follows: In Iranian Shi’ism, there is a question of when and how the return of their messiah (the 12th Imam—the Mahdi, descended directly from Muhammad), will reappear. The Mahdi is the only true leader of the Shi’ite world, which is to say the Islamic world from their perspective. He disappeared (went into occultation) in the 870s C.E. These Shi’ites “know” he will reappear, but the overwhelming majority of senior clerics have historically believed that they cannot do anything to hasten his return. Until then, for them, all political rule is illegitimate. The senior clerics, therefore, cannot rule.


The most senior Grand Ayatollah—Ali al-Sistani—who has been living in Najaf, Iraq (one of Shi’ism’s two most important holy cities) since 1951, strongly supports the view that clerics should not hold political power. Their job, he believes, is to tend the spiritual and related needs of their flocks.


From time to time throughout history, a tiny group within the Shi’ite clerical establishment argued that a cleric could rule until the Mahdi returns. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, was one of them.


He believed in the concept of Velayat-e Faqih (the Rule of the Jurisprudent), which almost all of the Shi’ite 12er religious establishment opposed. But Khomeini had power, military and political, so the Shi’ite establishment (called Quietists) remained silent. History had taught them that it is dangerous to publicly confront power.


But then, an even tinier, even more extreme group emerged from within this small clerical class. They argued that if they provoked a conflagration, they could force their awaited 12th Imam to come down and save them, and thus show the rest of the Muslims world that their view of Islam was correct.


Khomeini strongly opposed them, believing that if they provoked a conflict, the reaction from the outside world could be so violent that Iran would not survive. He therefore did his utmost to keep them constrained and out of power.


But when Khomeini died in 1989, this extremist group managed to wrest power from those who had Khomeini’s view. Which is why the late professor Bernard Lewis often said that MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, a Cold War concept) might very well not work with the Iranian regime. As he stated, “a conflagration might be an incentive, not a deterrent.”


To Westerners, and to most Shi’ites, and Sunnis as well, this might sound preposterous—even absurd, but that’s how Iran’s present rulers see things.


Could we use this dispute to our advantage, just as Zarif used American culture to his advantage against us?


From time to time, internal differences among the senior clerical establishment have led to violence—sometimes serious violence. Surely, we could use such fissures to our advantage, but it would require us to study and understand how the Shi’ite clerical establishment functions, to learn about its internal disagreements, etc., which are totally alien to our way of thinking.


These fissures might hold the key to aiding those Iranian Shi’ite figures who believe that the Iranian regime has seriously damaged the survival of their beloved Shi’ite 12er Islam. Yes, Iranians are overwhelmingly Shi’ite, but from what we can tell, they by and large seem to want all their clerics to return to their seminaries and worry only about the spiritual and economic needs for their flock.


We might think about using these internal and potential dangers of descent into an apocalyptic war to our advantage, and thus help the Iranian people liberate themselves from tyranny and rejoin the international community as a member of the forces of good, where the Iranian passport is again respected and its holders welcomed throughout the world.


But here in the West, almost no one thinks about using these fissures to our advantage. Perhaps this is because we don’t take our own religions seriously anymore, and don’t take Islam seriously either.


Originally published by The Jewish Policy Center.

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