Today’s most prominent Iranian dissidents reflect this paranoia. Such dissidents as Akbar Ganji, upon whom the Cato Institute last year bestowed its Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, may condemn the Islamic Revolution’s excesses, for example, but they reserve their true vitriol for the United States, which they view at best through the writings of Noam Chomsky, and at worst through the same conspiratorial lens as Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian regime cheered when, in 2006 and 2007, Ganji thumbed his nose at White House invitations and American efforts to help Iranian civil society.
Ahmadinejad, for his part, reflects the thinking of the Revolutionary Guards when he repackages the Westoxification obsession into dire warnings about a “Cultural NATO.” The deep-rooted belief that Western culture reflects a deliberate military strategy targeting Muslim youth may sound bizarre, but it has theological consequences. Within the Sunni world, it was this same notion that Palestinian theologian Abdullah Azzam, mentor to Osama bin Laden, embraced. Scholars may assure us that jihad is defensive in nature, but Azzam preached to bin Laden that the Islamic world had suffered a preemptive attack. Bin Laden, therefore, saw 9/11 as an outgrowth of legitimate, defensive jihad.
Unlike such revolutionaries as Gamal Abdel Nasser, however, Khomeini would not allow Iran to be a Cold War battlefield. “We are at war with international Communism no less than we are struggling against the global plunderers of the West, headed by America, Zionism, and Israel,” Khomeini explained. “Neither East nor West — Islamic republic!” became Iran’s defining slogan.
Never did Khomeini envision a revolution contained within Iran’s borders. Addressing pilgrims in Qom just 40 days before the seizure of the American embassy, he thundered, “Dear sisters and brothers, in whatever country you may live, defend your Islamic and national honor! Defend fearlessly and unhesitatingly the peoples and countries of Islam against their enemies — America, international Zionism, and all the superpowers of East and West.” Shortly after, Khomeini inaugurated a constitution that required Iran to support and protect “the just struggles of the oppressed and deprived in every corner of the globe.” Indeed, the constitution cites the Koranic call to “prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and horses ready for battle, striking fear into God’s enemy and your enemy, and others beyond them unknown to you but known to God.”
In effect, Iranian leaders interpret the call to export revolution as an endorsement of violence. When, in 2008, Khatami suggested that Khomeini had sought only to transform Iran into a soft-power Mecca, and that Iran should therefore refrain from the more violent aspects of revolutionary export, 77 members of parliament demanded that the intelligence ministry prosecute him. Ayatollah Mahmoud Heshemi Shahroudi, the head of Iran’s judiciary and a close associate of the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, quashed any further debate when, against the backdrop of the controversy, he emphasized that the export of Iran’s revolution was a military strategy, telling the Revolutionary Guards, “You are the hope of Islamic national and Islamic liberation movements.”
To understand the Islamic Republic’s mentality, it is important to understand Iran’s sense of its place in the world. Iranians have internalized the notion that, as their kings once declared, they are the pivot of the universe. In a region replete with 20th-century nation-states that rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, the Great Game, or European colonial endeavors, Iran has a near-continuous history going back millennia. Perhaps only China can compare with Iran in its self-perception as the inheritor of a great empire. Yet the 19th century did not treat it kindly, and today Iran is only half the size it was at its 17th-century apex.
While perhaps only a quarter of Iranians still believe in the clerical system that Khomeini inaugurated, most are fiercely nationalistic. Iranians look at their lost territory as a “near abroad,” in much the same way Russian nationalists see Ukraine, Georgia, and perhaps even Poland. Iran’s clerical leaders often try to rally Iranians around the flag by playing to their nationalist heartstrings.