The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not irrational—the current regime needs conflict with the United States to perpetuate itself in power, said Professor Mansour Farhang. He advised the United States to reach an implicit understanding with the regime that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.
Iran's enmity toward the United States is really a cultural—not a political—enmity, argued Farhang. “Death to the United States,” he explained, really means the rejection of liberal values such as the rule of law, workers' rights and gender equity.
International Institute, UCLA, April 1, 2013—It serves the interests of Iran’s ruling elite to be developing nuclear arms, said Mansour Farhang at a lecture organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies as part of the Bilingual Lecture Series on Iran.
Farhang claimed the Islamic Republic government’s position on nuclear arms was identical to that of Saddam Hussein prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There is no evidence that the country is close to actually making a nuclear bomb, he explained, but it cultivates an intentional ambiguity about whether or not this is true.
According to the speaker, the Iranian regime would be open to reaching an implicit understanding with the United States that it will not develop nuclear weapons. Such an understanding, he said, would enable Iran to calm the fears of the United States and Israel without abandoning its anti-Western rhetoric. He added, however, that Iran was unlikely to agree to intrusive inspections.
Farhang accordingly advised the United States to make a deal with Iran without calling it a deal. The arrangement, he explained, must allow the leaders of the Islamic Republic to return to Teheran and say, “We won.”
War is in the interest of neither side in this conflict, said the speaker, claiming that the bombing of Iran would only delay, not destroy, its ability to make a nuclear bomb. More importantly, he argued that war or a military intervention by the West in Iran would be disastrous, devastating democratic forces within the country and likely strengthening the current regime. Democratically motivated reform of the regime must come from within, not without, he insisted.
While many Americans, including some foreign policy specialists, increasingly view Iran’s behavior as irrational, Farhang disagreed. The ruling elite of Iran, he pointed out, is compelled to continue its conflict with the United States in order to perpetuate itself in power.
The speaker claimed that the regime’s need to divide the Iranian citizenry into “insiders” and “outsiders” was ideologically and politically linked to its militant, anti-Western (and particularly, anti-American) foreign policy. Thus intolerance of modern social norms at home, which is now causing young Iranians to leave the country, goes hand-in-hand with its anti-Western position in foreign policy.
Iran’s enmity toward the United States is really a cultural—not a political—enmity, one rooted in anti-liberal sentiment, argued Farhang. “Death to the United States,” he explained, really means the rejection of liberal values such as the rule of law, workers’ rights and gender equity.
He pointed out that religious fundamentalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran has become the ideology of state, and is thus flexible because it serves the interests of the state. As a result, he cautioned analysts to observe what the regime does, rather than what it says.
Reflecting on the history of his generation, Farhang said there was one extremely important question that activists failed to ask after the CIA-supported 1953 coup against the popular and democratically elected government of Mossadegh: Why did it succeed so easily and so cheaply? His answer: leftists and moderates did not form an effective coalition in support of democracy and Mossadegh. Similarly in 1979 in the immediate post-revolutionary period, leftists and moderates failed to unite and commit themselves to institutionalizing the protection of civil liberties.
“Many brilliant, good-hearted people saw the clerical system from the perspective of Marxism-Leninism—that the real enemy was the national bourgeoisie and religion was on the way out, so let’s help the religious people get rid of the liberals and we’ll take care of the rest,” he recounted.
According to Farhang, Iran's theocrats and their propagandists use the term independence as if it is a value in and of itself. They claim that independent decision making justifies whatever they do at home and abroad. Independence is a precondition for a political order committed to serving the national interests of its people, said the speaker, but it is not in itself an ethical, moral or legal justification for individual or governmental action. The regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were independent, but they certainly did not serve the interests of their respective peoples.
Rather than focus on when and how the present regime will come to an end, Farhang said, “Progressive forces must look into the mirror and ask: Where did we go wrong in the past? How can we correct our system? Perhaps the best thing my generation can do is to leave our memories—sometimes very painful memories—for the next generation to learn from,” he said.
Recalling the words of Iranian intellectual Khalil Maleki, with whom he spoke in 1954 when Farhang was still a high school student at the age of 17, the speaker said the question was not if Iran would have another chance at openness, including freedom of the press and of discussion. “Of course, that is not the question,” he quoted Maleki as saying, “The question is, are we ready to benefit from the chance when it arises?”
Asked what Iranians abroad could do to advance civil liberties in the country, the speaker recommended that they create a dues-paying, democratically governed, and professionally managed human rights organization, complete with regularly scheduled changes in leadership. Such an organization, he noted, would cultivate leaders with a track record in democratic governance. “Even if there is democratic change in Iran, we need this organization today and we will need it 100 years from now,” he remarked.
Mansour Farhang teaches international relations and Middle Eastern politics at Bennington College in Vermont, where he is Catherine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching. He earned a Ph.D. in political science at Claremont Graduate School and taught at California State University at Sacramento in the 1970s. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, he served as an advisor to the Iranian foreign ministry and as ambassador to the United Nations. He resigned his ambassadorship in protest when his efforts to negotiate the release of the American hostages in Tehran failed.