There is a common assumption that the Islamic Republic of Iran's strategic thinking and foreign policy are fundamentally different from those of the pre-revolution era. The theocratic government's worldview and its enmity towards the US and Israel are certainly noteworthy points of departure from the Imperial State of Iran before it. However, it has been argued that the underlying national security concerns of the Islamic Republic are ultimately the same as those under the monarchy. Indeed, books by scholars and academics about these similarities are nothing new.
Ariane Tabatabai's No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran's National Security Strategy is the latest addition to the list. The book explores the way that Iran's past has shaped its approach to statesmanship and national security, and goes a step further by starting in the eighteenth century with the Qajar period, the genesis of the modern Iranian state.
This legacy and the nation's collective memory, the author contends, consists of deeply entrenched distrust of foreign powers and international laws and institutions, as well as negotiations and treaties. Hence, to help us to understand the decisions made by Iran today, we "must examine Iran's historical experiences and its perceptions thereof." Tabatabai makes it clear that whilst her focus here is on Iran's strategy and security policy, it is less concerned with analysing the what and how, and instead examines the why when it comes to a plethora of seemingly contradictory actions on the international stage.
The dominant theme in No Conquest, No Defeat… is one of continuity. We read that the two defining military defeats of the Qajar state by imperial Russia led to humiliating treaties and significant loss of territory. Against the backdrop of "betrayal" by both France and Britain in terms of honouring agreements, "Persia's defeats were also tied to its leaders' inability to successfully balance the powers." This "balancing" policy, although flawed and detrimental to Iran's interests, was practical in the absence of self-sufficiency and the ability to stand on its own two feet.
These weaknesses would form the basis for subsequent statesmen to prioritise the need for a strong military to deter and stand up to foreign powers, a doctrine which remains to the present-day. Domestically, the Qajars also sought to strengthen the centralisation of power; Tehran was made the country's capital in 1796 by the dynasty's founder Agha Mohammad Khan. However, it was only with the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) which supplanted the Qajars that the Iranian military (the Artesh) would become the largest force in the Middle East, along with a developed internal security apparatus, namely the notorious SAVAK intelligence service and secret police.
Despite never being colonised, Iran under the Qajars faced frequent violations of its sovereignty by the competing powers of Britain and Russia engaged in the so-called "Great Game", and the granting of numerous concessions. "The concessions fed into the country's distrust of foreign powers," writes Tabatabai, "and contributed to its drive to become self-reliant."
Domestically, these concessions also helped to forge the growing alliance between the merchant class, or bazaaris, and the Shia clergy who were becoming increasingly active politically, in ways which would later become self-evident. Moreover, foreign intervention in the form of neutral Iran being forced into World War One and the ensuing Great Persian Famine "remains engraved in the Iranian psyche"; Iran's neutrality was also disregarded in the Second World War. Crucially, for Tabatabai Iran's suspicions of the West stem from neither the Islamic Revolution in 1979 nor the CIA-backed coup in 1953, but "the country's defining experiences during the nineteenth century."
Following on from the Qajars, the book turns to the relatively short-lived but influential Pahlavi dynasty founded by Reza Khan, an "upstart officer" in the Cossack Brigade. Just like Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Khan believed in modernisation by way of Westernisation and tried to continue his predecessors' ambitions to reduce foreign interference by developing self-sufficiency, paying special attention to modernising the military and laying the foundations for Iran's defence industry. Yet again, though, we see the unreliable policy of balancing international powers during his rule — this time the British and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) — while gravitating increasingly towards Nazi Germany. The more authoritarian approach would also bring together what Tabatabai describes as a "trinity of forces" composed of the bazaaris, the clerics and intellectuals, which would ultimately bring down the dynasty.
Despite his efforts, Reza Khan is said to have failed to deter foreign interference, and was eventually forced to abdicate in favour of his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, known to posterity simply as "the Shah". As with his father, he was also committed to rapid modernisation and wanted to regain, as he saw it, Iran's "rightful place in regional affairs". This was propelled by increased oil revenues and closer alignment with the US during the Cold War. Critics of the contemporary Islamic Republic's support of non-state actors may be surprised to learn that this was a policy of the Shah. "[He] largely relied on covert operations to expand his country's influence in the region," explains the author, cultivating ties with Iraqi Kurds and Lebanese Shia, despite possessing one of the largest militaries in the world. Tehran's controversial nuclear programme, as with its missile and drone development, are also policies revived from the Shah's era and reminiscent of his drive towards greater self-reliance.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is a quote ascribed to the head of SAVAK's Middle East branch regarding such covert operations: "We should combat and arrest the danger [of Nasserism] on the beaches of the Mediterranean so we do not have to shed blood on Iranian soil." As Tabatabai points out, there is a striking resemblance to the language used to justify the Islamic Republic's interventions, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explaining Iranian presence in Iraq or Syria as a means of confronting a perceived "takfiri" threat overseas rather than on the streets of Tehran. "The reality of the situation is this: It is the defence of Iran," the Supreme Leader is quoted as saying.
The remainder of the book covers the Islamic Revolution up to the present day, including a comprehensive, yet concise, chapter on the Iran-Iraq War which has left an enduring imprint on the Iranian psyche, especially one of an isolated, largely one-sided and devastating war reinforcing the notion that Iran cannot rely on outsiders for its security or defence. After a period of focusing inwards and turning back on the prospects of exporting the revolution in the 1990s, we find that the early 21st century enabled Tehran to project its power and influence in the region following the post-9/11 conflicts and the Arab Spring. "These events would afford Tehran the opportunity to assert itself regionally in a manner that the Shah could only have dreamt of," writes Tabatabai.
Despite a few editorial oversights (in more than one place there are duplicated sentences), I found that No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran's National Security Strategy argues convincingly that rather than being divorced from pre-revolutionary Iran, the Islamic Republic is no different fundamentally in terms of its strategic thinking; it presents thought-provoking reasons as to why this is so. This helps to explain Iran's diplomatic posturing and foreign policies for those who hold preconceived notions that it is an irrational and non-pragmatic state.
The book also contextualises the inherent distrust and scepticism towards international institutions which permeates Iran today with the ongoing negotiations over its nuclear programme and sanctions. It is also interesting to note that despite the overtures about self-sufficiency and military expansion, Tehran has still not managed to relinquish its policy of trying to balance foreign relations — today its Russia and China, for example — which we saw the Qajars doing a century before the Islamic Revolution.