Four dilemmas have long dominated Iranian thinking. The first is cultural. Iran was the first major empire that fell to the Islamic forces that emerged from Arabia in the 7th century. The highly sophisticated civilisation embraced the religion that the Arabs had brought with them, but adamantly refused to adopt the Arabic language and culture.
As the Arabs’ hold over the expanding Islamic empire began to relax, the Persians gradually acquired more power and prestige, especially at the height of the Islamic civilisation under the Abbasid caliphate in the 10th and 11th centuries. It was during that time that Persian thinkers contributed most to science and philosophy, often establishing the foundations upon which later European scientists and philosophers stood. But despite these contributions, Persian influence over the Abbasid and other Islamic empires faded quickly, often with humiliating repercussions to leading Persian families.
In a select number of cases, some Islamic schools of theology absorbed some pre-Islamic, Persian spiritual ideas. But almost all of those schools ended up marginal (typically within the minority Shia strand of Islam), or were utterly cut off from the religion.
This has left Iran attached to its west to the Arab world, but in a problematic way. The Persians consistently found themselves, at best, in second place to the Arabs, in the wider Islamic world, despite believing that their history, civilisation and contributions far exceed those of the Arabs.
This has led to the second dilemma. To deal with this painful position, Iran has sought to change the nature of its relationship with its west — with the Arab world. Whereas in the past the Arabs had invaded it, Iran wanted instead to go to the Arab world as a leader. And if the Arabs were not willing to concede such a role, Iran was willing to try to dominate or at least to influence, especially that in its view no matching civilisation exists in its west all the way to the Egyptian civilisation on the banks of the Nile.
The problem, however, was that Iran was never able to truly dominate or seriously influence the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean. Several factors undermined Iran’s efforts. The Eastern Mediterranean has always been religiously and culturally diverse, and populated by trading peoples who have always had fortunes that could be weaponised to thwart the efforts of invaders or expansionist powers. In addition, Levantine trading communities had connections to world powers that helped deter or provide support against Iranian expansionism.
Often when domination did not work, Iran resorted to seduction. And Iran did have what it takes, in the diverse and marvellous oeuvre of its beautiful civilisation. But attempts at domination have left a lot of suspicion among the Levantines about Iran’s intentions. Moreover, the region has also always been rich in its cultures and arts, and so the Levant was far from being a land of simpletons that was going to be easily seduced or enthralled.
Iran was left attached to its west, looking at the Arabness on its borders, continuing to take from the Arabs a lot that has to do with religion, and yet never really successful at taking what it has always thought was its due: that leading position in the Islamic world.
Geography compounded Iran’s dilemma with another factor. The north of Iran is mountainous, some of which prohibitive to passage. Those mountains have protected Iran from invasions and acted as a natural barrier against migration from tribal communities in the Caucasus, which preserved Iran’s internal cohesiveness. But that natural barrier has also contained any potential Iranian expansionism in the north.
Iran’s east was always dominated by two great civilisations, the Indian and the Chinese. And so, strategically, it never made sense for Iran to try to expand east. In addition, Iran’s cultural influence was already subtly reaching parts of that east, though largely as an extension of the reach of Islam as opposed to any form of Persian hegemony.
The south seemed to offer great potential, for it is a window in the form of the Gulf of Oman to the Indian Ocean, a route to Africa. But Iran was never a maritime power. Actually, from the early days of the Persian state, Iran was always a land empire. Interestingly, some of the most important aspects of Zoroastrianism (a quintessentially Persian-inspired view of the universe and humanity) were strongly based on some sanctification of the land. And so, even geography, that inescapable factor, has always compelled Iran to look west to the Arab world.
But in the past century, the west entailed not only anguish at Iran’s position in the Islamic world and ambition for power and influence, but also fear. Iran entered the 20th century feeling a bit confident, after one of its arch rivals, the Ottoman Empire, appeared in an irredeemable decline. But the new century brought a succession of threats. First, the British empire invaded. And then, as oil had become a strategic global commodity, America came to the Gulf. Then in the early 1980s, at a moment of immense internal upheaval after the charismatic Shia scholar Ayatollah Khomeini had overthrown the Shah and smashed his Peacock Throne, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq moved into Iranian territory.
Iran often turned threats into opportunities. Iranian strategists exploited the changes brought on by the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq to expand their country’s influence west. In the past 15 years, Iran built strongholds in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But despite that strategic success, and the occasional triumphalism in its rhetoric, Iran has always, throughout those years, felt the threat of having a serious concentration of American military power next door (in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan).
Iranian strategists know that America’s strategists will not attempt to invade, because any cost-benefit analysis dismisses that decision. But they also understand that their opponents, especially the current US administration, want the Islamic Republic regime to disintegrate from within.
And this sheds light on the fourth dilemma. The regime of the Islamic Republic in Iran stands on strong pillars of political Shiism, which has a rich tradition and a major constituency in the country. But from its early days after the 1979 Revolution and throughout the past 40 years, that regime has championed, represented and expressed only one of Iran’s many facets and identities. In a way, the regime has imposed on Iran a very narrow view of the world, and of itself, despite the country’s rich history and traditions. This has been accumulating strong grievances within large sections of the society. Add to that, there are acute governance problems that the whole of Iran sees.
Iranian strategists fully understand this problem. And yet, they can neither let go of the regime’s strict form of political Shiism, otherwise the regime would lose its meaning, nor do they know how to evolve the regime from within, as that experience, in the hands of Mohamed Khatami in the late 1990s and early 2000s, not only failed but led to a corresponding rise of some of the most reactionary forces within the regime (for example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the mid-and late 2000s).
Iran is in a difficult — and interesting — strategic position. Its record in the past 15 years has been successful. But the weight of old dilemmas that have long pained it, and the existence of colossal powers on its borders, are serious threats. Its strategists cannot afford to make mistakes.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly