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Iran’s Place in the World: Visions and Ambitions in the Last Century

Session VIII-07, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of the Iran 1400 Project, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
A nation-state’s visions and ambitions are manifested in its endeavors in the world. In time, those exertions may describe tendencies and trends that reveal the contemporary character of the country as well as its hopes and aspirations for the future. Domestically, such visions and ambitions are reflected in social-cultural or economic policies, and internationally, they inform the nation’s foreign and security policies. During the past century, from the end of the First World War to today, Iran has experienced foreign occupations, rebellions, coups d’état, revolutions, regime changes, and wars, requiring it to struggle to uphold its sovereignty and territorial integrity and preserve its cultural identity. But in pursuit of these and other goals, Iran has been more than a victim or a pawn; it has sought to control and define its own destiny. What, then, is Iran’s place in the world? What have been Iran’s visions and ambitions since the rise of Reza Khan to the current rule of Ali Khamenei? How have these visions and ambitions been defined in response to internal and external challenges, and to what extent do they draw on deeper wellsprings of culture and values? This panel will examine Iran’s implemented policies or doctrines during the past one hundred years as a way to explore how Iran has tried to define its place in the world, and perhaps to open a window to understanding Iran’s visions and ambitions for itself. Using various analytic lenses and approaches, our panelists will focus on “Iran’s place in the world” to understand Iran’s visions and ambitions and perhaps to identify directions they may take in the near future.
International Relations/Affairs
  • Iran’s last century could be divided into two distinct periods: The Pahlavi’s Era and the Era of the Islamic Republic. I. In each of these epics, we have 2 different leaders whose visions and aspirations not only defined each leader’s mission but also the course that Iran was to pursue during their reigns. In this paper, I will argue that the four leaders who ruled Iran during the past 100 years are the key to understanding Iran’s visions and ambitions as well as their grand projects and designs for Iran. I will also demonstrate how these visions or aspirations could explain each leader’s domestic and international crucial policies. Reza Shah’s Modernization project, Mohammad Reza Shah’s ambitious project of taking Iran to the gates of a great civilization, Ayatollah Khomeini’s task of establishing a Shia Theocracy, and Ayatollah Khamenei grand project of congealing Islamic governance and civilizational claims capture Iran’s visions, ambitions, and her place in the world from 1921 to 2021. I will focus on the historical context under which each of these grand projects was created and eventually adopted by these leaders. I will also provide an assessment of their achievements and legacies as well as their shortcomings.
  • This paper examines the place of Southern Africa in late Pahlavi foreign policy, and explores how Iran’s relationships with countries in the region were shaped by its economic interests, particularly related to oil, as well as the politics of race and the Cold War. Iran’s most important relationship in Southern Africa – and arguably in the whole of Africa – was with South Africa. Iran supplied 90 percent of South Africa’s crude oil imports by the middle of the 1970s, had a 12.5 percent share in an oil refinery there, and as a result of a naval agreement, also had a close security relationship with South Africa. However, throughout this period, the shah simultaneously presented himself as a staunch supporter of anti-imperial movements across the continent, and a champion of human rights and racial equality. How then did the shah justify his country’s close ties to the apartheid regime? The paper also investigates Iran’s ties with other countries in the region, for example Mauritius, Madagascar and Seychelles. It explores questions such as: why did Iran reach out to these countries? What types of relationships did Iran have with them? And how did these relationships fit into Iran’s foreign policy objectives in Sub-Saharan Africa? By answering these questions, the paper aims to contribute to broader discussions about Iran’s interactions with the Global South in the late Pahlavi period, how Iran sought to find a position for itself in the world in the era of decolonization and the Cold War, how the shah’s Iran was perceived by these countries, and the opportunities close ties with Iran presented to them. Until recently, the vast majority of scholarship on Iran’s foreign interactions during the late Pahlavi era and early revolutionary period focused on the United States and the Soviet Union, and comparatively little was written on its relations with other countries, in particular those of the Global South. This situation is beginning to change, as an emerging body of scholarship analyses Iran’s global interactions during the Pahlavi period, introducing themes and sources that allow us better to understand Iran’s relationships with both imperial and non-imperial powers. Because the literature on Iran’s relations with Southern Africa is so sparse, the paper incorporates a wide range of primary source materials, including documents from archives in Britain, France and the United States, Iranian newspapers and memoirs.
  • This paper explores how the Islamic Republic of Iran constructs norms and values usually associated with the idea of a ‘western liberal world order’. The contention is two-fold. First, the paper shows that integral to the discourse of a ‘western liberal world order’ is an ‘enemy other’, namely the ‘rogue state’. The norms and values associated with these are used to legitimise and/or delegitimise an actor in the international system. Second, it is argued in the case of Iran-USA relations, the dichotomisation of faithful to liberal world order on the one hand and rogue state on the other hand, is reversed. This is evident in how Iran is equated with norms and values associated with a liberal world order. The USA, on the other hand is equated with practices and values associate with a ‘rogue state’. Consequently, Iran is legitimised and the USA is delegitimised. In terms of methodology, the paper draws on the discourse theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Discourse theory provides appropriate tools that simultaneously exemplifies both the constructed nature of world order, the process of creating a threatening and rogue ‘other’, and power relations in the international system. This research focuses on former President Rouhani’s texts following the election of Donald Trump (2017-20). The signifiers are Amrika (Persian for the US), Trump and Kakh-i Sefid (the White House). The data shows that Rouhani systematically equates the USA with ‘terrorism’, disregard to international laws and norms, and as a ‘threat to peace and stability’. Iran on the other hand is equated with ‘peace and stability’, multilateralism and as fighting against ‘terrorism’. This is evident in relation to three events and processes: Trump’s abrogation of the 2015 JCPOA; opening a new American embassy in Jerusalem following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; and the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani. The paper provides an original contribution to two bodies of literature. It contributes Iranian foreign policy scholarship, and specifically Iran-USA relations, by showing how Iranian foreign policy relates to the wider issue of world order in the international system. It contributes to world order scholarship by highlighting the agency of a regional power in the Global South that has often been seen as a ‘rogue state’. Extant scholarship tends to focus on Russia and China.
  • This presentation describes the development of three disciplines of Iranian art, cinema, music, and visual art in the past one hundred years. This historiography is based on the monumental conception of history identified by Nietzsche (1897) that employs the past to inspire contemporary creation. Iran entered the fourteenth century Solar Hijri calendar (1921) with the traumatic memory of two defeats in war with Russia and losing some of its richest northern lands in the Treaty of Gulistan (1813) and the Treaty of Turkemenchay (1828). The defeat was a major provocation for politicians and intellectuals to revisit the foundation of their society and culture and initiate reforms based on European models (Katouzian 2009) and later domesticize the models according to the ethos of Iraniannes. This initiative took momentum during the Pahlavi (1925-1979). Multiple institutions funded by the government facilitated art education from primary to advance level. Hight art which was primarily practiced at court or at nobilities’ houses, became accessible to the public. New institutions such as conservatories and art universities were established based on European models. The advent of radio and television further advanced the practice, education, and dissemination of art. The first Iranian sound film was released in 1933 and in less than a hundred years, Iran has a multi-million-dollar film industry and has garnered international fame and a global following after winning awards in multiple international film festivals including the Cannes Festival and Academy Awards surpassing most of the countries in the region. The music conservatoires began teaching in the 1930s and by the 1970s the musical life of Tehran “was comparable to that in many large European cities” (Farhat 1990, 5). Today hundreds of ensembles in a variety of styles from Persian classical, folk, popular to Western classical practice, publish and compete across Iran with a significant number of females albeit the restrictions. Visual art with its millenniums' history in the Iranian plateau was invigorated in the mid-twentieth century by several movements including saqqakhana. Today, Iran’s visual art has gained international acknowledgment and many galleries and exhibitions including Tehran Auction fulfill the increasing interest in contemporary Iranian art. The development of art has been so enormous that brings in mind the exaggerated poetic phrase of Sori tā Sorayā (‘earth to heaven’) positioning Iran as one of the most artistic and progressive Muslim societies in the world.
  • The proposed paper, which is based on a new book project, examines the contentious but misunderstood relationship between Iran and Israel-Palestine. It focuses on the elements that have shaped how Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC or Revolutionary Guards, the powerful military conglomerate charged with guarding the Islamic Republic) views Israel-Palestine in the context of Iran’s modern history; and is based on an analysis of Persian-language primary sources produced by the IRGC and other official Iranian outlets, as well as primary and secondary sources in Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and English. In contrast to the accepted characterization of the IRGC as steadfastly ideological, expansionist, and hostile to Israel, in their own sources and statements IRGC leaders espouse a much more nuanced and flexible position, seeking primarily security and the advancement of Iran’s own national interests rather than hegemony or direct conflict. The analysis reveals that Iran’s position on Israel is best understood not in terms of Islamic-revolutionary ideology but rather as a product of its opposition to colonialism and Western intervention in the Middle East and as part of its efforts to define its own place in the world. Particularly important is Iran’s view that the Israeli occupation of Palestine represents and should be recognized as a lasting and negative vestige of Euro-American domination of the region. Accordingly, the paper demonstrates that Iran’s opposition to Israel, while often overstated, is in fact a significant component of its foreign policy, but one that can only be understood in terms of other, more important aspects of its strategic outlook. In other words, the paper argues that Iran’s opposition to Israel is a product of the particular circumstances and conditions that have shaped Iran’s post-revolutionary history and its determination to control its role in international affairs. That crucial context tends to get lost in existing analyses and, especially and relatedly, in the dominant and persistent place the Iranian threat has assumed in Israel’s official narrative. However, and in contrast, this paper contends that Iran’s opposition to Israel is not absolute or permanent, as its national and security interests promote flexibility and forestall the formation of such sclerotic positions.