Following fellow PolicyMic writer Joe Sarkisian’s amazing piece detailing the thoughts of the Ayatollah, I thought I might contribute my thoughts on why it is so difficult to speak to Iran, and why negotiations tend to fail more than succeed.
In essence, it is not that the negotiators on either side are inept —it is a fundamental conflict of worldviews between two powers. This is not a new thing. The world has never been, nor could it ever be, molded in the image of the day’s hegemon. Basic differences in worldview are something we have to realize to understand why Teheran is behaving the way it does in relation to Syria or to Iran's nuclear program.
Examining history is important here. Iran is the successor to the Persian Empire — a global power which used to rule over the entire Mideast. Generally, empires have an important legacy. Long after they’re gone as political actors, their imperial tradition remains a prominent feature of political cultures in these countries, and their influence is still felt centuries after. There is plenty of evidence for this: Western law codex is based off that of the Roman Empire, and the Indo-Pakistani political divide comes courtesy of the British Empire.
It may be difficult to accept, but the Persians do in fact have a sophisticated political culture despite our vilifying them as mindless Islamic radicals bent on nuclear annihilation. Recognizing that forces us to ask who is really the bigger barbarian: us or them?
Now, we have to place Iranian foreign policy in its proper context. Persians have been around for several millennia, and engaged the world as a political unit in it for the majority of that time. Throughout those centuries, Persian political influence has grown and waned. Observing these changes for thousands of years gives the Persians nothing less than their own view of how the world is and what is their place in it.
Put another way, Persians think that they very well have a say on how things ought to be. That’s something American foreign policy has had to contend with for most of its short history, but not in the last 20 years. Did America get drunk off its own perceived exceptionalism in the last two decades?
If the answer is yes, then that might explain our shock and horror at the fact that Iran is developing its own nuclear program and supporting substate destabilizing movements along with regimes we don’t really like. It is doing nothing different than what the United States did in the aftermath of 1945 with its newly minted nuclear status. Granted, it is not to the same extent, but the principles are the same.
The confrontation between the West and Iran can certainly be boiled down to the interests of each party in preventing the goals of the other. For us, it is preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear program and diminishing their extra-regional influence. For Iran, it is containing Western influence in the Middle East with a nuclear program and asymmetric means that will make the cost of any hard action very high.
American empire came and went in 70 years. It is perhaps the last derivative of Western imperial tradition for the next several centuries. The question is, has it benefited the world in the net balance of its actions?
Now we live in a world that does not have a clear hegemon. The interconnected nature of world powers today don’t presuppose the emergence of one in the foreseeable future, either. The Persians have seen such a world before, and they are taking advantage of it. The Persians have been an empire, and they have seen many empires come and go; America will not be a historical exception.
Even above current political interests, all of this is a matter of Persian political culture. Americans cannot understand this, because such a culture can only be acquired by being around for a very long time.. The worldview comes with the territory and the time. Consequently, it is the foundation of the country’s interests and its approach to the world.
Maybe that’s why we Americans resort to the absurdities of anti-historical rationalism to explain the world, to make up for our lack of understanding about it and give ourselves the easy way out. As an approach, it is skewed and limited, but it nonetheless tends to determine the style of American foreign policy.