Thirty-six years ago on February 11, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy came to an end and with it the commencement of an era of disorder throughout the Middle East. Just previously characterized by President Jimmy Carter as an “island of stability,” the political Shi’a clerics’ rapid confiscation of the state apparatus under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini dramatically shifted Iran’s foreign policy by frequently supplanting national interests with sectarian ones. Khomeinism blended Third Worldism (anti-US), pan-Islamism (political Islam), and Shi’a-tinged liberation theology while also occasionally appealing to Persian historical greatness. That radical shift persists to this day. The consequences of this deviation from a more rational, national interest based, approach to policy formulation reverberate throughout the region today, particularly in the Levant and Mesopotamia. This reversal upended what had been a mutually beneficial de facto strategic alliance between Iran, Israel and the US that helped to maintain a balance of power in the region. Today’s relations among the three states could not be more different from the pre-1979 era as there is very little hope for democracy and secularism in today’s Iran.
How Did We Get Here?
In the wake of the events marking that wintery day of 1979, the trilateral Iran-Israel-USA alliance gave way to counter-natural realignments with unforeseeable consequences. Indeed, a cascade of incremental regional disintegration was to follow. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rent asunder the generally amiable relations between the countries since the signing of a friendship treaty in 1921. To the south, the House of Saud-led Arab Sunni sheikhdoms engaged in an ongoing battle against the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose supreme leader overtly challenged the former’s religious legitimacy. From this struggle for the leadership mantle of Islam, a particular brand of Islamic extremism developed and became militarized, thus giving rise to the forces of al-Qaeda and ISIS decades later. On Iran’s west, Saddam Hussein assumed Iraq’s presidency in a brutal bloodbath, turning his military on what he perceived as a vulnerable Persia in the following year. Lacking allies in an increasingly unstable and threatening Middle East, post-revolutionary Iran took its friends where it could find them, targeting Shi’ite co-religionists in Damascus and southern Lebanon in need of oil and financing. And as Hezbollah (and eventually even Sunni Hamas) opened up smoldering fronts on Israel’s borders, that country’s political leadership gradually shifted from kibbutz-minded labor Zionism towards one increasingly religious.
While these events and the regional realignments they produced are varied in their underlying causes, they are in many ways direct consequences of Iran’s revolution. Taking into account the exceptional degree of regional instability borne of policies beholden to the ideological precepts of the Vilayat-e Faqih, it remains highly unlikely that a greater peace will come to the Middle East while the present regime’s concept of the Islamic Republic of Iran persists. This is not to say that Iran’s current leadership behaves irrationally: if rational is the systematic pursuit of a set objective, then that leadership has consistently been rational from the onset in 1979. However, its calculus is based first and foremost in the survival of the revolutionary regime with a focus on sectarian concerns, and the relegation of genuine national interests to a distant second. For evidence, one needs to look no further than the milestones of this leadership’s record of the last 36 years.
By way of example, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the savage dismantling of the country’s military chain of command, as it immediately followed the `79 Revolution, with Saddam’s armies offensive as its direct consequence. Similarly, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the post-`79 destruction of the nation’s civil society, coupled with the executions and exile of its entrepreneurs and academics, which further placed Iran on a downward trajectory that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps only accelerated for the sake of its religious ideology with corollary financial benefits. On current display is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s intransigence over the nuclear issue, despite those debilitating sanctions presently levied against his country: since the so-called “revolution of the disinherited” and over the past 30 years, the number of people living in shanty towns in Iran has been multiplied by seventeen.
The regime’s combined efforts to control any and all spaces for dissent culminate in a turn from a pluralistic reading of the country’s history to one that is strictly dogmatic in its Shia mania: a realistic reading of this country’s millennia-long journey shows that reducing Iran’s history, culture and identity to Islam, reducing Islam to Shiism and Shiism to Khomeinism is an academic nonsense. As a result, there is little hope of a reliable relationship with a “partner” committed to a culture of sectarianism despite today’s common concerns, be they geopolitical, geoeconomic, or environmental.
Consider this state of affairs with the regional policies of pre-revolutionary Iran. With Reza Shah’s drive to modernize and reform in the 1920s, Persia simultaneously embarked on a policy of good relations with its neighbors in order to better concentrate efforts on its internal development. This conciliatory, non-interventionist approach was consistently reaffirmed from the 1937 Sa’dabad Pact through the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO; 1955) to the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD; 1964), the latter comprising Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan. Significantly, Mohammad Reza Shah’s Iran further maintained its regional balance through its reliance on US and Israeli military and economic aid, designed to contain Soviet ambitions from the north and increasingly radical governments in Arab states, such as Egypt and Iraq. Combined, these alignments coincided with an unprecedented period of stability throughout the Northern Tier states, with resultant socio-economic benefits for Iran, prospering under the protective umbrella of the country’s well-equipped and trained armed forces.
Once a Successful Alliance
The former functionality of the Iran-Israel-US alliance was noteworthy in its pragmatic aspects:
- US and Iranian concerns of Soviet expansion into the Middle East, with Iran securely straddling a region bridging the Asia Minor to the Indian Ocean.
- The multitude of US business interests entrenched in Iran, especially in its petroleum and arms industries.
- Iran’s pivotal position in Israel’s “alliance of the periphery”, firmly coupled with US protective concerns for both countries.
- The non-Arab cultural, linguistic, and historic Judeo and Persian national identities distinct in an otherwise predominantly Sunni-Arab region.
- Common energy interests as Iran became the near-exclusive oil provider of Israel, as well as those in commerce, the military, and intelligence.
In an ideal future world, one might imagine Iran and Israel moving towards a new balance in their regional relationships given these common geographic, demographic, and economic interests, as well as certain civilizational considerations, that had brought them together in the past.
For the forseeable future, however, the Periphery Doctrine is no more and will never be the same as it once was. The reasons are several. The greatest, of course, was the paradigm shift of 1979 and the resulting challenge Khomeini made to the rival Riyadh, one that could not advance without taking the Arab side in the Palestinian Question, thus fundamentally putting it at odds with Israel. In stark contrast to decades of a cooperative relationship in military and economic spheres, Turkish-Israeli relations under Recip Tayyip Erdogan have sunk to new lows and will unlikely rebound without either a change of government in Ankara or a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran’s younger generations have shown a greater degree of concern and sympathy for Israel’s Arab citizens. Israel’s relations with Ethiopia during the era of the periphery alliance fluctuated, and although now improved, it may shift again. Finally, taking into account the post-Cold War Central Asia and the Caucasus (as well as what may be history’s first independent Kurdish state), a new group of states or nations that may constitute reliable peripheral allies have has expanded (e.g. Israeli-Azerbaijani security and trade relations).
This is not to advocate for the resumption of Iran’s pre-Revolutionary status quo ante under an authoritarian ruler, who was quite far from being a liberal democrat. Indeed, his regime and the current are untenable due to the extraordinary amount of authority resting in the hands of a single individual, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader. If a system of governance is to be defined as the tangible and intangible relations of interdependent, rational elements whose raison d’être is the sustainability of the whole, the durability of a structure based predominantly in the power of one is limited. The lesson here is that whether the Pahlavism of yesteryear or the current U.S. administration’s tacit acceptance of Iranian hegemony in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, placing long-term bets on oppressive Iranian regimes has borne and will continue to bear out poorly.
As noted, Khomeini’s victory in the wake of Iran’s revolution presaged an unforeseen era of strife reverberating throughout the Middle East over three decades later. Recognizing their limits, some counterfactuals are worth considering: Would the Red Army have invaded Iran’s neighboring Afghanistan had the strong military and intelligence Iran-Israel-US ties persisted? Would Saddam’s Baathist Iraq have dared to attack Iran, had the command structure of the Iranian armed forces not been devastated by Khomeini and his “religious intellectuals”? Would Saddam Hussein have sent his armies to Kuwait, had Iran remained strong and influential? Could a non-revolutionary Iran have played a potentially constructive role as a bridge between Jews and Arabs?
The tragic reverberations from the ‘79 Revolution actually represent an anomaly, a disruption of aligned interests. Before 1979 the convergence of interests between these states went deeper than Cold War politics. At one point in history, by reason of geopolitics, economy, security, culture, and energy, Iranian and Israeli concerns were in line and enjoyed attendant US engagement. Is it possible for such an arrangement to be realized once again? Not in the near future, but if it is to become an eventual possibility it could only be done through the establishment of a democratic and secular government in Tehran. In the weeks and months ahead, many variables could radically change the entire Iranian equation: from the radicalizing internal antagonisms in the run up to the next Majlis elections in June 2016, to the medical condition of the Supreme Leader and the foreseeable major crisis that his succession would inevitably unleash. Free and fair elections represent the most viable political strategy over this period and beyond: The Islamic Republic is a signatory of the Paris 1994 inter-parliamentary declaration that defines the criteria for such elections. Wouldn’t a freely elected law-making assembly in Tehran be the West’s best Iranian partner in trust-building measures so badly needed to solve the nuclear and regional crises?
 Fuller, Graham. The Center of the Universe – The Geopolitics of Iran. Westview Press, 1991, p. 105.
 Radio Farda, March 13, 2015, http://www.radiofarda.com/content/f14_marginalization_17-times_more_in_33years_iran/26887197.html
 Bill, James. The Eagle and the Lion – The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. Yale Press, 1988, pp. 374-378.