The Iranian Impasse: the Need for a New Logic of Development

Ghoncheh Tazmini

A Paper by Ghoncheh Tazmini (Portugal), Research Fellow, Institute for Strategic and International Studies, Lisbon, delivered at the 10th Rhodes Forum


My presentation is intended to offset the lopsided stress placed on punitive pressures as a strategy for bringing states into compliance with norms and standards dictated by the dominant hegemonic powers. The current logic of engagement (or absence thereof) in relation to Iran is one of coercive diplomacy, economic sanctions and isolation, and possibly the use of military force. This logic is grounded in a political climate characterised by asymmetries of power where an Atlantic-type polity sits at the zenith of politics, to use Canadian theorist, Charles Taylor’s expression. In a rapidly shrinking world, or global village, this logic is obsolete and counter-productive. The repercussions of this approach in relation to Iran are deadlock on the nuclear issue, and scenarios of a collision course to war. On the domestic level, Iran’s institutional development has come to a grinding halt – punitive pressures have created an emergency situation in which democratic development has been relegated to the margins. No state can contemplate institutional reform when it is perpetually under threat.

The Islamic Republic is a political and social construct that differs from prevailing western representations of modernity – most visibly in its rejection of secularism and opposition to unrestrained social liberalism. Western norms and institutions are not anathema to the Islamic Republic. However, Iran has consistently defended its own unique developmental trajectory. A brief survey of Iran’s history of development is useful here.

The paradox of modernisation in Iran

Throughout the 20th century, Iran demonstrated a deep-rooted ambivalence or even reluctance to modernise strictly along western lines. Under the Pahlavi shahs we saw a brand of ‘modernisation without modernity’, a hasty form of ‘catch-up’ modernisation. While the shahs aspired to converge with the west by meeting its material and technological achievements, they ended up diverging from the west by retaining the authoritarian and arbitrary foundations of the ancien régime. Still, pre-revolutionary development can be considered a tentative westernisation effort because the leadership pursued a developmental path fashioned in the west: ‘catching up with the west by becoming like the west’. On the other hand, post-revolutionary development was modeled on ‘catching up with the west by becoming unlike the west’. The Iranian-Islamic revolution in 1979 was an effort to embrace modernity, by placing emphasis on the Islamic inheritance, and by relegating the ‘western’ narrative to the margins.

Whether through convergence, divergence, or a bit of both, the diverse Iranian modernisation movements produced polities that differed from the western variety of modernity. The pathology of failed adaptation to western norms and institutions or the reluctance to engage in wholesale westernisation can be traced to a ‘cultural trap’ or a civilisational disjuncture based on traditional archetypes of national consciousness. I will not elaborate on this here, but this national consciousness has compelled Iranians to maintain a socio-cultural ‘distance’ from the west for the sake of preserving indigenous culture. Thus, western modernity represented both a model and an anti-model.

Transcending the developmental dilemma

During Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, Iran followed a non-model, a developmental trajectory that was not based on a specific blueprint. Khatami rejected the uniliear, homogenising model of modernity, however, at the same time he did not subscribe to a rigid interpretation of indigenous/authentic identity or traditions. He moved away from the developmental imagery and convictions of the past in favour of a more adaptive path to modernity. Khatami believed that Iran had to fashion its own brand of modernity, based on its national identity and its historical, revolutionary experience. Yet, drawing on western accomplishments was also important in order to respond to calls for democratic reform. Though the reform programme never bore full fruit, it energised Iran’s debates, its administration, economy and international relations.

Iranian development will remain an ongoing process of interaction between universal value patterns and specific cultural codes. As such we need a more pluralistic understanding of modernity that takes a much broader view of the modernisation process by placing it in the long-term context of cultural adaptation of civilisational complexes to the challenge of modernity. The contemporary political climate fosters a universalism that does not reflect the transformations that are taking shape across the board, nor does it support the diverse cultural traditions of the non-western world. The era of fixed, Euro-centred, and non-reflexive modernity is on the verge of reaching its end. New modernities are required so that the very concept of modernity itself may grow with the contribution of new voices and experiences. Only then can we contemplate a true ‘global village’.

Current logic of engagement

The current leadership in Iran is cognizant of the need to shift away from the stark antinomies of the past. The principles and considerations that guided Khatami are not anathema to the current leadership. It would be simplistic to assume that Iran is unaware of the need to evolve and to adapt to social, civic, economic and global realities. The question is how can Iran pave its developmental path in the context of a global campaign to ‘tame’ Tehran or rather to pressure it into succumbing to western demands? How can Iran follow the developmental path it arrived at under Khatami if it is persistently facing an existential threat from abroad? If Iran is to sustain a viable path to modernity, the dominant North Atlantic and Western European states need to acknowledge heterogeneity of the modernisation experience.

Noam Chomsky put it bluntly: ‘Iran has to be punished because it broke free from of US control in 1979.’ Iran, it seems, has been antagonised for not capitulating to western interests, and for pursuing a non-western variety of modernity. The current logic of engagement in relation to Iran has been a negative one: crippling sanctions, threats of military intervention, cyber-warfare, regime change efforts, and covert actions to destabilise the government under the guise of democracy. In order to justify the egocentric stance toward Iran, the west has simplified the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as an era of revolutionary revivalism with apocalyptic scenarios. The fact is that the west’s behaviour was no different during reformist Mohammad Khatami’s presidency – it was under his leadership that Iran was brandished as a member in the ‘axis of evil’.

The hyperbolic talk over Iran’s nuclear programme is a perilous campaign that can actually provoke an arms race by prompting regional states to develop strategic deterrence capabilities. What is needed is a new logic that allows us to venture beyond the kind of egocentrism that breeds the hostile world in which Samuel Huntington grounded his vision of a looming ‘clash of civilisations’. The logic of a global monoculture (à la Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’), and the writing of a universal history do not correspond with the reality on the ground. Although geo-political and strategic interests are clashing, civilisations are not clashing, history is not ending and there is no end point of universalism or homogenisation in sight.

The west could encourage Iran’s development by acknowledging that the Islamic Republic has no precedent in modern history – as such it remains very much a ‘work in progress’. The late Fred Halliday reminds us that the western developmental was a ‘work in progress’ for many years: ‘[Francis] Fukuyama, like many in the west, overestimated how many states had attained democracy … democracy was not a sudden, all or nothing event … but a gradual process, over decades and centuries: it took Britain and the USA three hundred years and three internal wars between them to move from tyranny to the kind of qualified democracy they have now... liberal politics is not a single act, bestowing finality on a political system. No one can be certain that a democracy is even reasonably stable unless it has been installed for at least a generation – many have appeared only to disappear.

Clearly, institutional development is not something to be achieved overnight. However, negative pressures have a tendency to radicalise even the most moderate elements of society and to create a sense of insecurity, which can actually stunt any form of democratic development. What is clear is that the ‘Iranian Impasse’ - on both a global and domestic level - is partly a function of this negative logic of engagement.

New logic of engagement

The proposed logic of engagement is a creative engagement: it engenders dialogue, confidence-building measures premised on goodwill. It is time to put the carrots and the sticks, away – Iranians are not rabbits. The new logic should be grounded in the notion of ‘unity in diversity’, by allowing countries to carve their own place in the global village based on diverse cultural characteristics.

Until the dominant North Atlantic and Western European states accept the fact that modernity has multiple trajectories, the world will remain polarised. If the west had recognised Iran in its new form as an Islamic republic in 1979, as a particular blend of a democratic theocracy, it is likely that Iran and the west would have had better relations today. It is even plausible that had Iran been left to follow its own developmental path based on its historical, revolutionary and cultural experience, and its own civic and national identity (free from outside interference or pressure or sabotage), there would have been more of a natural convergence or assimilation with the west rather than the stark polarisation we see today.

Dialogue in practice

We are living in a global village with greater interconnectedness – a global village in which there is more diversity but less uniformity. Thus we need to encourage a pluralistic modernity that encourages states to modernise according to their distinctive traditions. However, until the North Atlantic and Western European states subdue their impulse homogenise, Iranian development (and non-western development) will continue to be an uphill struggle.

The present situation imposes on us a moral obligation to pursue a politics of inter-civilisational dialogue. This dialogue needs to be based on a truly dialogical exchange, without the tendency to dominate, coerce or assimilate the ‘other’; and without pre-judgement.

Critics have labelled the idea of intra-civilisational dialogue as idealistic or abstract. It is time to articulate the potentiality of dialogue as a new logic of engagement. The Iran case is a chance to go beyond rhetorical statements and to apply ‘dialogue’ to a concrete political agenda.

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- Noam Chomsky addressing the 10th Rhodes Forum