U.S. can’t ignore religion in Iran
No one can deny the importance and relevance of international relations post-9/11 to our everyday lives. Yet the predominant theories that define our perspective of the world are awkward at best when it comes to analyzing international relations. In many examples, both liberalism and realism fail. The most dangerous failure is our country’s inability to understand Iran.
For most of our history we have adopted either the liberal or the realist school of thought in our interaction with other countries. Realism was the hot theory of the century during the Cold War; it led to arms races, political muscle flexing and marathons of testosterone-driven power. We understood the world as a bipolar race – countries were pawns we labored to control in order to contain the mythical communist threat.
In this context liberalism also gained favor as a theory combative of communism. Adam Smith’s capitalist theory was diametrically opposed to the socialist perspective, hence it became a natural foreign policy cornerstone; we intervened in many countries, overthrowing their democratically elected governments and put capitalist-minded tyrants in their place.
These theories worked well for us; aren’t we the world’s sole superpower, with no existentialist threat worth mentioning? We seem to be lost though, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The great liberal Francis Fukuyama published his book The End of History, blatantly stating the war was done and democracy would now spread all across the world.
He was empirically correct; however, realism and liberalism are unable to explain how or why certain international actors behave in their particular ways. Both these theories fail because they assume a view of the state as a rational, secular entity that creates a political market with the citizen as consumer. Iran as a theocratic state does not follow this premise.
Neither liberalism nor realism understand religious premises, let alone predict Iran’s next move. Unlike realism’s argument, Iran’s objectives are not merely about security. In fact on a microscopic level, Iranian agents are more than willing to give up their physical security in exchange for irrational heavenly guarantees. If the components of a society act in this manner, how can anyone expect the collective society to act rationally as understood by a secular theory?
Liberalism fails in the sense that Iran’s economy is very much based on capitalism. The dominant political force is a faction that has labeled itself the Combative Clerics. These paragons of peace and virtue appeal to free-marketeering merchants and shop owners for their support. Capitalism is definitely not bringing about democracy or even brotherhood between the Iranian people and others in the region, let alone opening the doors to our McDonalds.
The basic premise of Iran lies in its theocratic roots. It is a religious state that acts on religious impulses, or at the very least on a rationale based on religious principles. That is, Iran acts as a modern-day nation-state with its nationalism, culture, identity and borders all working toward the realization of its religious ideals.
Iran’s opposition to Israel is hence explained. It is not a desire to dominate the Middle East that leads it to conflict. It is because of its religious objection to the premise of the Jewish state that aggravates it into action. American foreign policy experts have failed to formulate a policy that adequately deals with Iran. This is the real reason behind our inexplicable strategy with Iran: don’t touch them, just wait and see.
Wait and see what? If our theory cannot deal with the reality of a modern theocratic nation, then we have to try something else. In other words, the State Department needs to free itself from the parochial dichotomy of liberalism and realism and adopt a more functional post-modern approach to the post-modern world.
The solution lies in accepting Iran’s religious and political reality, engaging it in diplomatic relations and adopting a proactive role toward foreign relations. The containment approach will not work with Iran as it did with the U.S.S.R., since Iran is not competing with us. Let’s try engaging them, because the stalemate is of benefit to no one.