The Corner

National Security & Defense

Tehran’s Unpredictability

Iranian policemen in Tehran mourn the terrorist Qassim Suleimani, January 4, 2020. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/West Asia News Agency/Reuters)

In response to Iran Is Not Iraq

Something to think about: David Harsanyi writes that we don’t know what to expect from Iran because, as he puts it, “Religious fanatics tend to be unpredictable.” That’s certainly true enough. But I am not entirely convinced it accounts for Iran.

Consider a parallel case. On the matter of Afghanistan, one of the most knowledgeable people I know insisted that the United States long got it wrong there because Washington misunderstood the situation on the ground: The Taliban wasn’t a religious militia, in his view, but mainly a crime syndicate — a drug cartel. The ideological and religious content (so goes this argument) were not insincere, but they were cynically emphasized for marketing purposes. The United States for years kept expecting the Taliban to behave like a religious movement, but it kept behaving like a mafia.

In Iran, the pre-revolutionary reform movements were far from united in the pursuit of an Islamic republic; many elements of the revolution were much more straightforwardly socialist and nationalist in their goals and ideology, with the opposition to the shah comprising sundry Marxists, democrats, and constitutionalists as well as Islamists.

With that in mind, maybe it is not the case that Tehran acts the way it does mainly because it is run by religious fanatics but because it is run by the Jacobins who were most successful at the practice of factional politics. Similarly, perhaps it is not the case that Pyongyang acts the way it does mainly because of fanatical devotion to juche ideology on the part of its leaders. Most regimes of that character want the same thing: to survive and, if possible, to entrench and expand their power. Ideological (and religious) content very often is retconned into the revolutionary narrative.

I do not pretend to be an expert on any of this. But I do wonder if we are not to some extent unintentionally putting more stock in Tehran’s public-relations campaign than we should by implicitly assuming the authenticity of its religious character.

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