Sohrab Ahmari: The Sources of Iranian Conduct





Sohrab Ahmari is a Robert L. Bartley fellow at The Wall Street Journal and a nonresident research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

The collapse of the latest round of negotiations between the great powers and the Islamic Republic of Iran in Moscow has prompted the usual soul-searching in Washington and Brussels: Did we misread the mullahs’ psychology yet again? Could a sweeter Western proposal have overcome their natural mistrust? These are worthwhile questions to ask. But the emotional rollercoaster accompanying each cycle of failed talks—from fear and trembling to boisterous optimism, then back to anxiety—suggests that the West lacks the proper conceptual framework for answering them. Thirty-three years since Shi‘a Islamists seized power in Tehran, we are far from appreciating the sources of their conduct. We therefore stand little chance of altering it.

As George Kennan understood when he wrote "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in 1946, the behavior of every long-term adversary is rooted in a specific combination of ideology and circumstance. The mullahs are no exception. Unlocking the sources of their conduct can narrow the range of realistic options, and disclose new ways for dealing with the Iranian threat.

First, the ideology. Whether they call themselves "principlists" or "reformists," Iran’s leaders are Khomeinists before anything else. They are still burning the initial reserve of revolutionary fuel tapped by the regime’s founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Its religious trappings often lend it an exotic air, yet Khomeinism is a modern concoction. For starters, it breaks decisively with traditional Shi‘a doctrine, which held that the pious should defer to earthly rulers on matters of state. Khomeinists show no such restraint. Indeed, they have sought to radically reengineer the Persian soul—with its love of wine and erotic poetry—by regulating every sphere of Iranian life. The mullahs thus closely resemble the totalitarians of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.

This is no accident...



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