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How to interpret Iran's Islamic rhetoric

- July 7, 2015

In this picture released by the official Web site of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers his speech in a meeting with a group of religious performers in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 9, 2015.  (AP Photo/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)
This post is part of the “Islam and International Order” symposium.
The impending deadline for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program has focused attention on competing interpretations of the role of religion in Iranian foreign policy. The Islamic Republic of Iran is often portrayed as a uniquely ideological creature. For the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, Iran’s Islamist ideology entails an apocalyptic force that converts mutually assured destruction from a deterrent to an “inducement” for Iranian “religious fanatics.” According to such scholars, a nuclear-armed Iran would be likely to use those weapons in ways different from any other state in history because of its extreme eschatological worldview, making it impossible to trust Iran to adhere to any negotiated agreement, no matter how rational it might appear. Are they right? Does Islamic ideology overwhelm pragmatic considerations in Iranian foreign policy?
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A close reading of the role of Islam in Iranian politics suggests that it’s not so simple. Islamic ideology was constructed and institutionalized strategically by elites to deal with changing opportunities and threat perceptions. That is not to say that religion does not matter. Religious ideas and ideologies play a critical role in generating mass mobilization and elite cohesion, especially in a political system defined and legitimated by said ideology. This does not, of course, mean that religion is infinitely malleable. Religious actors have to innovatively overcome doctrinal and institutional constraints before they can deploy new religious narratives. However, political actors within such a system are not passive pawns of ideology. They are highly aware of its strategic functions and work intensely to develop and deploy religious ideologies to advance their interests.
Analysis of Islam and foreign policy often begins by tracing the ways in which religion informs identity and defines interests. This approach risks missing the extent to which religious interpretations can be the outcome of politics—whether elections, violence or the battle over state institutions—rather than its cause. In my research, I trace half a century of doctrinal changes in Iran against the background of domestic and international politics. This micro-level analysis of the empirical evidence reveals that religious narratives can change, change rapidly and change frequently in accordance with levels of elite competition to capture the state.
This instrumental use of Islamic ideas dates back to before the revolution. In the 1960s, the French-educated sociologist Ali Shariati turned a quietist Shiite theology into a revolutionary ideology by reinventing Islamic history in terms of the popular ideology of the day, Marxism. With this deft move, Shariati turned an anomaly in Shiism, namely the revolt of only one Imam out of 12, into a rule, and proposed what he called the “Red Islam.”
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Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini similarly appalled the entire clerical establishment in Qom and Najaf by proposing a Shiite theory of state. Instead of waiting for the return of the Hidden Imam, as the vast majority of Shiite scholars did, he vigorously made a case for an “Islamic Government” and then led it a decade later. Thus, it was not Shariati’s revolutionary Islam or Khomeini’s Velayat-e Faqih (Rule of the Jurist) that propelled the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but rather it was the desire for a revolution that led both figures to reconstruct the history of Islam accordingly. In other words, revolution came first and “Islam” followed. Simply studying Shiite theology would never have predicted or even explained the subsequent revolutionary uses to which it was put.
This perspective forces us to rethink many of the key moments in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy. The seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was not driven by the Islamist’s inherent anti-Americanism, as I have argued elsewhere, but by the Islamists’ internal competition to outbid the Marxists and the nationalists. The Iranian government did not sustain the devastating Iran-Iraq War for eight years because of an essential culture of martyrdom in Shiite Islam, but because the Islamic government ingeniously employed a variety of religious narratives and doctrines to prolong the war in order to achieve its internal and regional political objectives. The Salman Rushdie fatwa was not the result of Khomeini’s fixed fanaticism, but of a rhetorical gambit to restore his credibility in the aftermath of a demoralizing war with Iraq, the embarrassment of the Iran-Contra affair and growing reactions to “The Satanic Verses” in the Muslim world.
Iran’s most recent “pragmatic turn” and the resulting nuclear negotiations did not take place because of the return to the fore of moderate views or Ayatollah Khamenei’s purported nuclear fatwa. Rather, both appeared precisely to gain regime cohesion and help the subsequent nuclear negotiations or what Khamenei called “heroic leniency.” As Khamenei himself acknowledged in a recent speech, these negotiations began before the June 2013 presidential election only to gain momentum with Hassan Rouhani’s victory. The fact that the conservative leadership did not meddle in the election to the extent that it did during the Green Movement in 2009 signaled its resignation to a slight pragmatic shift in the face of popular pressure.
Similarly, Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa (regardless of its sincerity) is a deliberate confidence building measure issued to manage perceived threats. The conservatives’ frustration with the P5+1 for not paying enough attention to the fatwa signifies it was crafted precisely to be paid attention to. This religious decree does not automatically deprive Iran’s military doctrine of the nuclear option, as Iranian officials argue. Nor does it conceal the Iranian government’s “true” apocalyptic goals, as some U.S. conservatives claim. It does not make Tehran any less or more rational than other players. Iran’s development and deployment of religious ideology is meticulously tailored around regime security and factional interests. “Sharia” is a means to control the state not the goal of the state.
Those who see religious ideology as directly causing political behavior therefore get the connection perilously backward. As the Iranian case shows, the closer we examine the evolution of religious narratives, the more we detect a strategic logic behind it. The arguments over religion are a form of political competition, which allow observation of how competing groups ridicule and undermine each other’s ideological integrity. These rivals often expose each other’s hypocrisy and claim that everyone else is a user of God’s message for worldly goals. If carefully examined, such arguments will demonstrate the actors’ threat perceptions, open a window into their strategic thinking and point to the balance of power between the competing sides. Close reading of religious rhetoric can offer strategic insights into Islamist behavior, but only if analysts understand when apocalyptic language is a power move within the religious politics game rather than a genuine invocation of the apocalypse.
The instrumental use of Islamism allows actors to signal commitment to their stated goals. It is this very intention to project an additional level of credibility that should be the focus of observers, not any theological “essence” that might be contained in the religious language.
Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is an assistant professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University and a current fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He is also a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.