Collective determination needed to manage Iranian threat
In 1978, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera commissioned French philosopher Michel Foucault to write a series of articles about the developing situation in Iran. It was, in many ways, a curious choice. But Foucault thought he could create something new, an amalgam of journalism and philosophy, and in the process discover new and more profound truths about the world.
Foucault visited Tehran twice. He also called on Ayatollah Khomeini in his French exile at Neauphle-le-Chateau. On that basis, he produced six articles for his Italian employers and several others for the French newspapers Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur (whose editor was a long-standing friend).
He was seduced by the glamor of the revolutionary violence in Iran and the absolute certainty of the austere Shiite cleric. For a man who tended to get his kicks in rather more profane ways, this was extraordinary. Even more extraordinary was Foucault’s subsequent claim in an interview that, in the Iranian revolution, he had discovered a “political spirituality” that had been lost to the “West” by its worship of science, secular politics and instrumental reason.
Looking back at Foucault’s absurd predictions across the tsunami of dead bodies, crushed hopes and human misery that the Iranian revolution left in its wake, it is perhaps too easy to sneer. After all, he was not the only one willing to be deceived by Khomeini. Some members of the Carter administration initially allowed themselves to believe that he was someone with whom “they could do business.” And there were many others who welcomed the fall of the shah and thought that whatever succeeded him on the Peacock Throne could only be an improvement.
Even at the time, some people, notably the great French scholar Louis Massignon, were prepared to predict that the revolution would not end well. But Foucault — the patron saint of the critical theory that currently dominates much social science in the West — remains emblematic of a cast of mind about Iran. There are still too many people who only see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. They are ready to believe it when Iran claims to stand for truth and global justice against oppression and corruption. Perhaps, like Foucault, they are even rather excited by the idea that the path to virtue in the Middle East might lie through subversion, violence and destruction. That delusion never dies.
So, when someone claims that Hassan Rouhani or Javad Zarif are “moderates;” that Iran really does not want a nuclear weapons program; that Natanz is all about civil nuclear power; that Iran ended its research into weaponization 20 years ago; that Iran has a legitimate right to influence in the region; that if we say we admire Iran’s glorious history, the ayatollahs will like us; or that if we relax sanctions on Iran’s economy, it will become a normal country, then you can hear again that seductive voice from 43 years ago, whispering that it will all be OK because Iran is different, better, reasonable, more spiritual, an “empire of the mind,” and simply demands respect.
This was, of course, folly in 1978. And it is folly now. It is the folly that led some to believe in 2015 that, in return for relief from the sanctions that had crippled its economy, Iran could be trusted to behave itself for the next 10 to 20 years and would become a more normal country in the process. It is the folly that takes repeated Iranian statements over 40 years that it wants to destroy Israel as simply bluster. It is the folly that persists in thinking “if only the Iranians could elect someone like Mohammed Khatami again, everything would be fine,” when we all know that nothing moves without the permission of the supreme leader, his cohort of militant advisers and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is the folly that thinks it is possible in some way to manage Hezbollah, the Iraqi Khomeinist militias and the Houthis because they are “not Iranian proxies” and will be willing to do deals to preserve the states they have colonized, because statehood matters to them and they don’t care about the millions they make and the power they derive from its collapse. It is the folly that thinks compromise is possible, when we know that Ali Khamenei believes he needs eternal enmity with the US in order to preserve the regime.
And this is the necessary background to current events. The new US administration has said it is wise to Iran’s tricks. But at the same time it attempts to distance itself from the Trump administration by eagerly pushing for restarted negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, suspending some sanctions and offering to suspend others, and making noises about withdrawal or repositioning in Iraq and making plain its disapproval of Saudi and Emirati actions in the region, particularly in Yemen and Libya.
In return, the Houthis intensify their drone and missile attacks on military and indeed civilian targets in the south of Saudi Arabia and increase their efforts to secure Ma’rib. The Shiite militias in Iraq intensify their attacks on US targets and now also seem to be going after the Turks. Hezbollah continues to smuggle, deal drugs, extort and intimidate. Its missile arsenal, like those of the Houthis and Hamas, is constantly being strengthened and upgraded, with Iranian help. And Iran itself, after the mysterious April 11 explosion that seems to have disabled the power supply at Natanz, has belligerently declared that there will be no pause in its nuclear program. Instead it will enrich uranium to 60 percent, far above any previous level; not enough for weaponization but a clear signal that Tehran is on the way and will need a lot more from the US in order to stop. All this is the politics of the mafia, not of a state.
You can argue about the way the Israelis have reacted to all this. It is clearly in Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic and personal interest to be seen to be tough on Iran. After all, he has seen off successive challengers to his position as prime minister — many of them with distinguished military records — by positioning himself as the only man who can be trusted to guarantee Israel’s security in a bad neighborhood. So, when he allows it to be discreetly reported that Israel was behind the attack on Natanz, the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the exfiltration of nuclear files from a warehouse in Tehran, attacks on the IRGC, Hezbollah and other militia targets in Syria and Lebanon, and now a series of unfortunate and high-risk “accidents” that seem to be aimed at disrupting Iran’s maritime oil and weapons smuggling program, he is doing it at least partly to boost his own position. And it works — not least because demonstrating the impressive ability of the Israeli defense and security services to reach at speed into the very heart of enemy territory is always going to be a vote-winner.
There are still too many people who only see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.
Sir John Jenkins
But simply because Netanyahu wants to remain Israel’s prime minister — and however dysfunctional the Israeli political system might be — this does not alter the fact that Iran has posed a major threat to the country for decades. And it is not getting any easier. Iran continues to improve the range and capability of its own missiles. An Iranian minister has again just threatened to reduce Tel Aviv and Haifa to “ashes and rubble.” And it is not just about Israel. Iran has presided over the dismantling of the state in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq (with help, it has to be said, from others). It radiates instability out into the wider region. That is how the regime, whose demise very few ordinary Iranians would mourn, survives: On enmity, conflict and corruption.
And no one has yet managed to find a way to chart a consistent course to manage this threat. Too often, delusion gets in the way. Successive US administrations have all seemed mostly to want to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. And the EU — as I have written many times before — is divided on this, as on so many other issues. Just look at the hapless recent attempts made by Brussels to position itself toward Russia, Turkey or China. Even if we see a return to a “renegotiated” JCPOA and perhaps some sort of progress made over Yemen, the problem remains: How do its neighbors and the wider international community deal with an Iran that has no real interest in a stable regional state system that it has not created and subordinated to its own will?
Iran will naturally look for opportunities to divide the international community — for example, by offering piecemeal concessions on issues like Yemen, where it has little at stake. In return, we need to show consistency, determination, realism, intellectual honesty, toughness where necessary and compromise, but only when it genuinely serves our interests. We need to show these qualities collectively, which can only really happen if the US is prepared to resume its role as coordinator and convener. It is not clear that that is what the Biden administration wants. If Afghanistan is any guide, it looks as though Washington is more interested in reducing its own costs.
That is not irrational. But if it is the future, then Israel will do more and more to defend itself; Iran will keep trying to exploit the weaknesses of all its enemies; the Arab states of the Gulf will need to choose sides; the EU will dither; the US will be drawn in whether it wants to or not, and we shall find that the current situation, which the Israeli military has in the past called the war between wars, will emerge from the shadows to look more and more simply like war.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.