What Drives Iranian Conduct?

Reports of an increase in clandestine Iranian operations against persons abroad—including, but not limited to, exiled Iranian dissidents—will naturally feed the most disparaging images of Iran. Such images commonly feature not only the despicable nature of the operations themselves but the notion that such behavior is somehow inherent to the Iranian regime. Familiar rhetoric embodies an apparent assumption that the conduct is hard-wired into Iranian genes.

A ritually repeated example of such rhetoric is a reference to Iran as the “number one state sponsor of terrorism.” A Google search that links “Iran” to that phrase or to “leading state sponsor of terrorism” yields more than 50,000 hits. But users of such formulations almost never address the larger conflicts that are the context for the terrorism in question, nor the international terrorism that other states in the region practice at least as unashamedly as Iran, and sometimes against Iran.

The assumption about hard wiring is mistaken on multiple counts, which can be seen by recognizing that Iran, as a nation-state, exhibits several of the attributes that almost all nation-states exhibit. For one thing, Iran has politics—disagreements within the country and within the regime over policy and struggles for control of policy. The disagreements and the struggles persist in Tehran despite the current domination of hardliners over moderates.

Intra-regime politics were recently manifested in the somewhat confusing indications about possible abolition of Iran’s morality police and whether the regime would or would not continue to enforce female dress codes. The confusion almost certainly reflected disagreements within the regime about how best to respond to the current protests in Iranian streets. The disagreements are partly over tactics, but also probably entail more profound differences over the regime’s priorities and values.

Read the full piece in The National Interest.

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