False Iran analogies

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks at a Harvard symposium on “Iran: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?” convened by Middle East Strategy at Harvard, April 30, 2009. Posted retroactively.

Let me begin by taking you thirty years back in time, to March 1979, just after the triumph of Khomeini. A report in the Washington Post opened with these words:

In the lobby of the Intercontinental the main tea-time occupation is comparative revolutions. Those who covered the Portuguese or Cuban revolutions argue over whether Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan is more a Soares or a Castro. Those with a historical turn of mind seek parallels in the Russian revolution, wondering if the Fedayeen will fill the role of the Bolsheviks. For those who fancy the French revolution there’s the fun of identifying a future Napoleon from the ranks of obscure Iranian colonels.

Now as that suggests, initially no one was sure which analogy to follow as the revolution in Iran unfolded. But eventually, and with the help of the academy, one analogy prevailed over the others: the Iranian revolution would come to be described as a “great revolution” on the scale of the Russian Revolution.

I say with the help of the academy, because it was academic students of comparative revolution who singled out the Iranian revolution from the jumble of Third World turmoil, as something different, of world-historical significance. This may have had to do with high expectations of the revolution on the international left, for its dethroning America’s puppet, the Shah of Iran. And it was a politically correct thing to do, to add at least some Muslims to the “great revolution” pantheon. Theda Skocpol, student of comparative revolution here at Harvard, set the tone: “The Iranian revolution… surely fits more closely the pattern of the great historical social revolutions than it does the rubric of simply a political revolution, where only governmental institutions are transformed.”

But it wasn’t just the academic left. Iran and Middle East specialists loved to put Iran in the big leagues. Iran expert Marvin Zonis told a State Department session in 1984: “The message from Iran is in my opinion the single most impressive political ideology proposed in the twentieth century—since the Bolshevik Revolution. And if we accept that Bolshevism is a remnant of the nineteenth century, then I argue that we’ve had only one good one in the twentieth—and it’s this one.” And here, for variety, is Bernard Lewis: “The Iranian Revolution was a real revolution, in the sense that the French and Russian revolutions were real revolutions.” (Note that both Zonis and Lewis don’t even include China as a referent.)

This categorization of Iran’s revolution among the “greats,” so close to its occurrence, seems hasty in retrospect. Compare France, Russia, and even China, with Iran thirty years after their “great revolutions.” They became military or economic superpowers; Iran clearly hasn’t. It’s more reminiscent of Nasser’s revolutionary Egypt in its ability to mobilize and project power. But first impressions matter, and from a very early stage, Iran’s revolution was deemed analogous to Russia’s.

America’s foreign policy community, combining long Soviet experience with patent ignorance of Iran, then deliberately or unconsciously imposed a Cold War template on Iran. As a result, U.S. policy discourse on Iran has become suffused with Cold War analogies and referents. It began in earnest after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, and its collapse became the model of how America could win without war, with lots of bows to George Kennan and “containment.” In 1993, both Iran and Iraq became subject to the policy of “dual containment.” Over time, Iraq would be separated in U.S. thinking from Iran. But Iran remains quite firmly embedded in America’s Cold War template, despite Ahmadinejad’s personal efforts to evoke Hitler. And this isn’t the preference of only one side in the Iran debate. Cold War referents are used by analysts and journalists who want the United States to take Iran as a serious challenge that needs to be confronted. And they are used by those who think the United States should take Iran as a serious challenge and engage it.

We don’t know what’s in the secret policy briefs, but the same kind of message has come across in public statements by U.S. officials. Example: in beefing up the U.S. presence in Dubai to monitor the situation in Iran, Nick Burns, who’s now here at Harvard, invoked Riga Station:

We sent a young kid from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926 out to Riga station: George Kennan. We said, go and learn Russian. Sit in Riga. You be our window into the Soviet Union. That is what we are saying to these young kids today. You go to Dubai. We can’t be in Iran. You interview every Iranian you can find… all the Iranians who… do their banking… and weekends there—and you tell us how we should understand Iran.

Had I more time, I could regale you with similar snippets, which I would label under the category of Sovietological displacement.

But there’s a problem with the Cold War analogy. It hides Iran’s weakness. It presumes Iran has the kind of superpower clout that the Soviet Union had—even though Iran can’t invade countries, sell top-of-the-line weapons systems, or rattle a nuclear saber. In doing so, it tilts the U.S. approach to Iran away from prevention and preemption, and toward containment and deterrence. It thus works, paradoxically, as a self-fulfilling analogy. Thanks to its hold on our imaginations, the United States is already in the process of resigning itself to the continued growth of Iranian power, until it does more closely resemble a major power in its capabilities.

Many of those who do favor “containment” cite George Kennan as their hero. But for Kennan, Iran was no Soviet Union. We know that, because Kennan testified on Iran in 1980, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the time, Iran was holding U.S. hostages. Kennan said that in face of what he called “unprecedented insults” by Iran, the Carter administration should go to Congress for a declaration of war. It should then seize Iranian assets, and intern Iranian officials in the United States. He then added this: “We should hold in readiness means of unilateral pressure on the Iranian regime, not excluding the military ones.” Kennan would have found preposterous the notion that the United States might ever be locked in a Cold War with the likes of Iran—a state with about one percent of the U.S. GDP and one percent of U.S. military expenditure.

And there are people who have watched Iran up close and reached the same conclusion. A year ago, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker was asked this question in an interview: “So is there a New Cold War, comparable to that with the former Soviet Union, between the U.S. and Iran?” He gave this answer: “The Soviet Union was a formidable force at its height, with a massive nuclear arsenal. It had half of Europe locked up in its grasp. Iran simply does not carry anything remotely like that weight, not internationally, not even regionally.”

If this is so, why do we demoralize ourselves and feed Iran’s ambitions with flattering and misleading analogies? Which is why it’s time to stop thinking analogically about Iran. The alternative is simple: think logically.