The Iran problem has metastasized and can no longer be shunted off or ignored. Disengagement is not an option: The situation has progressed to the point that Iran, in concert with Russia and China, is on the cusp of becoming a major-power member of the Eurasian revisionist coalition. It is no longer a question of whether Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, but when it does and whether a strike on its nuclear program can be successful. The good news for Washington is that a carefully crafted policy can delay the acceleration of the threat for some time.
The Iran threat stems from the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is distinct from other authoritarian regimes in that it is not wholly modern. (Even the Hermit Kingdom, despite its insularity, embraces a modern, if mixed, ideology.) Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s ideological progenitor and first leader, was steeped in the Shia political-theological tradition and there is no denying his intellectual authenticity or the degree to which pre-modern thought influences the regime he created. The Islamic Republic is intentionally modeled after a specific medieval Islamic interpretation of Plato’s Republic, complete with a guardian council selected for intellectual talent and a philosopher-king, styled the Supreme Leader.
Like Marxism-Leninism, Khomeinism identifies the nation as a springboard for global Islamic revolution (in its universalism at least the regime is modern). At a minimum, the Khomeinist Islamic Republic seeks to remake the Middle East in its own image, as a series of Islamic republics that comprise a truly virtuous Islamic civilization. The Westphalian state system, with its restrictions on borders and sovereign equality, is nonetheless instrumentally useful to Iran, allowing it to claim rights and privileges like any other state and cry foul when it perceives those rights to be violated. But fundamentally, the Khomeinist polity puts no stock in modern political concepts. It is by nature aggressive, expansionist, and acquisitive.
This explains Iran’s rapid shift in 1980 from defense to offense. The war with Iraq, begun by Saddam Hussein, transformed into an attempted struggle of annihilation. Much as the early Soviet Union sought to topple Poland and then spread communism to Germany, so did Khomeinist Iran seek to conquer Iraq, transform it into a Shia-dominated Islamic republic, and then in time connect a string of Islamic republics from the Zagros Mountains to the Levantine Basin through Syria and Lebanon.
The basic elements of this revolutionary strategy have not changed. This is not to deny the Iranian Thermidor, the Mohammad Khatami years when the Islamic Republic seemed less feverishly expansionist and the new Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei uncertain in his political position. But that Thermidor ended with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 and the reassertion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iranian politics. Since then, the regime has become more aggressive, afflicted by the excesses of dominion, even if rationalized defensively.
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Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy.