While many in the West are quick to attribute it to Iran interventions Throughout the Middle East, right down to its complex history with the United States, things are not nearly as simple. A confluence of military, religious, economic and historical factors – often completely ignored by many Western governments, which assume that Iran’s policy of intervention and nuclear goals are purely ideologically motivated anti-western mood– drives Iranian interventionism across the region, spanning from its ancient history to the present. These interventionist impulses are a quest for regional hegemony; efforts to spread Shia Islam; efforts to take advantage of regional trade; and a resurgence of Persian nationalism. For the West to truly understand Iran’s actions, let alone properly respond to them, it must first analyze Iran from a non-Western perspective.
The most obvious impulse driving Iran’s interventionist practices is its desire for regional hegemony. Just like ancient Persia, today’s Iran is centrally located in the Middle East and surrounded by rival and weakened failed states. Especially two nations Israel and Saudi Arabia—in connection with the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey— have long engaged Iran in a series of proxy wars to advance their regional agendas and expand their power. These conflicts often occur in the surrounding failed states as the governments are not strong enough to suppress and assert control. Some recent examples include the Syrian civil war, in which Iran supports the Syrian government and like-minded non-state actors such as Hezbollah; the Yemeni civil war, in which Iran supports the Houthi rebels who oppose the internationally recognized government; and war-torn Iraq, where Shia militias loyal to Tehran bid their bidding in exchange for funding and arms. In any case, Iran has clashed with Israel and Saudi Arabia to cement its status as a powerful player in the Middle East.
Iran’s conflict with its neighbors is not a new phenomenon. In its early days, the Persian Empire clashed with Rome across its western border in Syria, often using native guerrilla raiders on the borders to incite conflict. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Iran found itself in conflict on all sides, from Mughal India to the east, the Ottoman Empire to the west, the Russian Empire to the north, and even the Portuguese and British empires in the Strait of Hormuz. Throughout its history, Iran has feuded with its neighbors and rivals to gain regional hegemonic status, with varying degrees of success.
Alongside its hegemonic aspirations, another driving force behind Iran’s meddling in the Middle East is spreading its unique brand of Shia Islam. After the Islamic schism in 632 AD, after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, Iran became one of the last bastions for Shia Muslims. It is estimated that Iran is about included 80 percent of the Shia population of the world. Iran engaged in several sectarian conflicts with its Sunni Muslim neighbors, the Ottoman Empire and Mughal India, in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as countless skirmishes with Sunni tribesmen before them.
Religion became far more important as a motivating force for Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. During the revolution, radical Islamic theocrats led by Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the US-backed Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. Khomeini promptly used the religious fervor ignited by this coup to spread anti-American sentiment across the nation, contributing to the Iran hostage crisis. Seeing itself as the protector of Shi’a Muslims, this newfound emphasis on Shi’ism brought Iran directly into conflict with Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of Sunni Muslims and self-proclaimed “Defender of the Holy Cities”. Both direct and indirect conflagrations between the two Islamic powers frequently occur in the failed states that surround them, showing how closely intertwined Iran’s interventionist impulses really are. The desire to spread Shi’ism has led to Iran’s growing influence in post-Saddam Iraq and the Syrian civil war, much to the dismay of Saudi Arabia.
Another factor driving Iran’s interventionism is its propensity to reap the rewards of regional trade, something it has been denied for most of its existence. The Persian Empire, of course, contained a great abundancee of economic resources and also benefits from its location along the Silk Road. For a time, Persia enjoyed tremendous economic prosperity. However, as the Ottoman Empire expanded economically and territorially, Persia began to lose its regional economic dominance. Eventually, as the Portuguese and British empires began to conquer the Indian subcontinent, clashes with Europeans became more frequent. Predictably, these confrontations resulted in Persia being encircled between them and the Ottomans. Caught between their rivals, this meant that Persia’s economic situation gradually deteriorated to the point where it was competing with the Ottomans and the imperialist Europeans for trading resources on the world market.
Iran today faces a similar economic dilemma, albeit in a different context. After the 1979 revolution, Iran’s interventionist activities (both religious and hegemonic) increasingly came into conflict with the region’s main trading partners, Saudi Arabia and the GCC. These actions have also drawn the ire of the United States, which has imposed tough economic sanctions on Iran to end its interventionist practices. These sanctions, combined with its inability to trade extensively with the GCC, have left Iran with an abundance of sought-after economic resources but an inability to export them. Many experts believe that Iran wants to use its interventionist practices, such as supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and other proxies negotiation chips to reduce that imposed sanctions.
The fourth element of Iranian interventionism in the Middle East is the sense of Persian nationalism felt by the Iranian government and ordinary Iranians. Iran sees itself as the heir to the once-great Persian Empire and hopes to regain what it sees as its lost glory. Tehran leaders believe that Iran’s historical importance and cultural superiority automatically allow it to more significant role in regional affairs. Unlike regional hegemony, this impulse is not directly about territory or political influence. Instead, it is a state of mind to justify and unite Iran’s diverse desires under a single idea. This form of nationalism, adopted by the Iranian government, also draws on Persian ancestry and the country’s prestige to influence the Iranian people to support their interventions abroad.
Persian nationalism, particularly for the current regime, is a way of defining Iran’s national independence in light of its cultural past. It is reminiscent of the many earlier examples of the exploitation and abuse of the ancient Persian Empire by foreign powers. So it dictates why Iran needs to come to its senses and pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. In other instances, however, it celebrates earlier moments of Persian greatness, particularly his cultural superiority about his neighbors. Before the revolution, Shah Reza Pahlavi drew heavily on Persian culture, retaining the term ‘Shah’ and using his royal bloodline to associate with the Shahs of old. The religious regime that replaced him also used Persian nationalism to its advantage, recently reviving Persian nationalism pre-Islamic New Year.
Contrary to the prevailing view in Washington and other Western nations, it is not Iran’s innate hatred of the West but rather a variety of factors that are driving its interventionism in the Middle East. The central impulses driving Iranian interventionism – regional hegemony, Shi’ism, trade and Persian nationalism – need to be examined more fully by Western scholars and policymakers if they really hope to understand why Iran is carrying out its actions. A better understanding of these issues can also help politicians know how to appropriately engage Iran and how they are likely to respond to these offers.
Rising regional tensions and the seemingly inevitable dissolution of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action go a long way towards showing that the West’s current “maximum pressure” approach is not working, largely because its aim is to contain dissatisfied Iranian actions without addressing the genesis of their implementation. The West could reach a more mutually beneficial deal with Iran if it took a more lenient stance on its foreign policy concerns, or at least analyzed them properly. Washington’s repeated labeling of Iran’s interventions as purely anti-US and anti-US interests, as opposed to merely reactionary in relation to Iran’s own economic, political, and historical environment, has so far only added fuel to the fire, rather than providing a viable solution create.
Jake McAloon is an American historian and political analyst based in the Chicagoland area. His main areas of interest are the formulation and implementation of foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa, and American interventionism.