Iran Inside and Out

This in-depth look at Iran provides context and perspective for understanding the controversial nuclear deal.


In Tehran, women protest gender discrimination in 2006.
Aieman (Flickr) [CC by 2.0] / Wikimedia Commons

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs occupies the former headquarters of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.
Blondin Rikard / via Wikimedia Commons

Iran surprises. You can’t get your arms around it, and it refuses to be categorized. This is irritating; it is baffling; it is also intriguing, and keeps you coming back for more.

It is easier to define Iran as a Middle Eastern country by stating what it is not. It is not Arab, though it borrowed that alphabet. Iranians don’t speak Arabic, except for tribal clusters on the corners of the modern state. Though comprised of a multitude of tribes and peoples, the culture is Persian to the core and glues the various parts together more firmly than its enemies imagine.

Yes, it is Muslim, but just to flout its uniqueness, it is overwhelmingly Shia—the branch of the religion that so annoys the Sunni grandees in Riyadh and elsewhere. At the same time, Iranians persist in celebrating ancient Zoroastrian holidays, to the official disapproval of their ruling clerics.

Iran has its own unique cuisine, music and, above all, poetry. Who could have imagined that Rumi, a 13th-century Persian writer, would be one of the best-selling poets in the United States of the 21st century? Most Iranians can quote him for hours.

The country also has oil, but it is not a rentier state like so many of its wealthy neighbors. It has a well-developed industrial sector and produces most of its own weapons, from artillery and aircraft to mini-submarines, though it relies primarily on outsiders for high-end items. Its manufacturers also produce and export excellent drones, some of which are reverseengineered from captured American models.

Although Iran is a midlevel power, with a gross domestic product somewhat larger than Norway's and sightly smaller than Austria’s, it has a 2,500-year imperial history and perceives itself as a world power. Its self-importance may be exaggerated, but its geostrategic weight in the Persian Gulf area is not. Its population of 82 million is double that of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states combined, even including their expatriate workers. In the most recent election, the number of Iranians who voted for President Hassan Rouhani was greater than the entire citizen population of the GCC.

Iran also occupies a vital piece of real estate that is one of the anchors of the new Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative,” a re-creation of the ancient Silk Road. Specifically, it dominates the northern littoral of the Persian Gulf and the strategic Strait of Hormuz. It has a well-organized and experienced military that has limited capacity to project power outside its borders, but would be a formidable opponent for any would-be invader.

A History of Political Upheaval

One characteristic of Iran that often goes unnoticed is its rebellious citizenry. Iran has experienced at least five major political upheavals in just 100 years. In the early 20th century, the Constitutional Revolution imposed a written constitution on its monarch. In 1925, Reza Shah seized the throne, ousted the corrupt Qajar dynasty and instituted a series of fundamental reforms that attempted to emulate those of Kemal Ataturk in neighboring Turkey. And in the early 1950s, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh led a popular movement to nationalize the oil industry, a move that unnerved Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the ruling son of Reza Shah, who fled the country temporarily.

Although the shah was restored to the throne in 1953 with the assistance of the CIA and Britain’s MI-6, nationalization of the oil industry was sustained, and he was forced to introduce major reforms in the form of his own White Revolution. In 1979, he was again overthrown by a mass popular uprising—a true revolution— and replaced by a unique combination of theocratic rule and the trappings of a representative democracy. That system was challenged by a massive outpouring of popular anger at what was perceived to be a fraudulent election in 2009 (a century after the Constitutional Revolution), which shook the regime to the core but was subdued by outright force, intimidation and mass incarcerations.

Five revolts in a century, all aspiring to greater civil liberty and democratic reform—though largely thwarted in each case—give Iran a remarkable record of political activism. That same rebellious instinct has been present in virtually every election that has been conducted under the Islamic Republic, at least since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Presidential, parliamentary and municipal races are held every two years or less, on average. All Iranian citizens are free to vote, and they can cast their vote in any polling station in the country.

The 2017 Election

To see how the political system works, let’s look at the presidential election earlier this year. In Iran, anyone can register to be a presidential candidate; and for this past May’s election, 1,636 citizens, including 137 women, did. Instead of holding primaries to cull the field, the Guardian Council, an appointed and constitutionally mandated 12-member body, sorts the candidates. In a lightning-fast period of five days, it reduced the presidential slate to six men: the incumbent president himself and one of his close associates, two conservatives (the head of a major religious foundation who was said to be the favorite of the Supreme Leader, and the mayor of Tehran), plus two nonentities. A former president and many other candidates with apparently sterling qualifications were rejected, without explanation or appeal. This part of the process is opaque, blatantly political in nature and utterly undemocratic by any possible measure. No one who is perceived to be an opponent or critic of the Islamic revolutionary system is permitted to run for president, and no woman has ever been approved as a candidate for that office.

The decision by President Rouhani and one of his close associates to run against each other is an interesting feature of recent Iranian elections. Under Iranian law, the winning presidential candidate must have a clear majority, or else the election goes to a runoff. It was understood by everyone that Rouhani’s associate was there to take a hard line in the debates; to say the sorts of things that might have been difficult for the president himself to say; to promote Rouhani on the stump in the very brief campaign period of only one month; and then to withdraw his candidacy in favor of the president. That had been a winning tactic previously for the reformist candidates, and it was repeated this time.

Five revolts in a century, all aspiring to greater civil liberty and democratic reform—though largely thwarted in each case—give Iran a remarkable record of political activism.

In the past, the conservatives had competed against each other and divided the vote, to their chagrin. In this election, they played the reformist game. Ibrahim Raisi, who many regarded as the preferred candidate of the Supreme Leader, and even as a possible future candidate for supreme leader himself, was a poor campaigner with almost no political experience. Mohammad Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, was an experienced politician with an impressive résumé who had twice before run for the presidency. To the surprise of many, he withdrew from the election at the last minute, throwing his support to Raisi, thereby making it effectively a two-man race.

Iran has no political parties. However, major candidates endorse lists of candidates who tend to agree with them. These lists can overlap, and for purposes of expediency may include candidates whose support is marginal at best. So it is extremely difficult to determine who “wins” in a legislative or municipal election. But these lists are the closest one can come to an ideological definition of the political structure in Iran.

In the 2017 election, 73 percent of the 56 million eligible voters cast a ballot, and 57 percent of the voters (23 million people) voted for the incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani. His victory continued several Iranian traditions—first, granting the incumbent a second term. Every president elected since the constitution was changed to a presidential system in 1989 has also been re-elected. It also renewed another tradition, which usually goes unnoticed: Given a very limited choice of candidates, the Iranian body politic consistently votes for the man they believe is most committed to reform of the existing system. President Rouhani is a veteran of the Islamic Republic, and has been an insider from the beginning. But he has also become much more reformminded as he has campaigned and ruled.

A crowd watches one of the three live, televised debates held during the 2017 presidential election.
Tasnim News Agency [CC by 4.0] / Wikimedia Commons

A Leader Who Is Not So Supreme

A third tradition, which seems to be repeating itself in the present cycle, is the propensity of the Supreme Leader to begin undercutting the authority of the elected president almost as soon as he begins his second term. This tendency is not hard to explain. Ever since the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, presidents, who must actually appeal to the electorate directly and who are held accountable for policies that affect people in their daily lives, tend to become increasingly reformist during their campaigns and in their first term. They come into their second term with an agenda and a mandate, and that is perceived as threatening by the Supreme Leader, who is, in fact, less “supreme” than his title would suggest.

The occupant of this unique political position is chosen, essentially for life, by a group of hand-picked senior officials. As the heir of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader is responsible for preserving the revolutionary elements of the Iranian system. Moreover, although he is primus inter pares within the leadership, he is in fact mainly an arbiter among the various institutions competing for power: the president, the legislature, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the very conservative judiciary and intelligence ministries.

Typically, the Supreme Leader wants a heavy voting turnout and even a second term for the president, since that is evidence of popular support for a stable Islamic Republic. But too much popular support for a reformist president is a threat to the Supreme Leader and his institutional imperative. The military, conservative judiciary and intelligence agencies, on whom the Leader depends for his personal and institutional security, are also suspicious of too much power gravitating to the presidency and its supporters. To them, reform means an evolution away from the revolutionary Islamic nature of the system. They often wait impatiently for the election to play itself out and then reassert their own authority, as if to remind everyone that they have not gone away.

The tension between these two camps defines the structure of what some regard as a contradiction in terms: a revolutionary Islamic republic. (The origins, strategies and deficiencies of the Iranian reform movement are brilliantly portrayed in Laura Secor’s book, Children of Paradise.)

Playing the Long Game

Iran’s foreign policy is less contentious than its domestic policy. This is a nation that survived an eight-year war (1980-1988) instigated by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; opprobrium and crippling sanctions imposed by the West; and near-perpetual conflict with the United States, the unquestioned international superpower and military hegemon of the Persian Gulf. Although the country suffered as a result of these conflicts, it has emerged with its revolution and independence intact. Iranians often grumble about the price of supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, or subventions to the Assad government in Syria, or even the gratuitously obnoxious rhetoric against Israel; but for the most part, the Iranian citizenry (not unlike its counterpart in Israel) is willing to leave foreign policy in the hands of the Supreme National Security Council and the permanent structure that has grown up around the Supreme Leader’s office.

On foreign policy, Iranians are realist to the core and driven almost entirely by their perception of the longterm interests of the nation. Tehran’s relationship with Damascus, for instance, was forged during the war with Iraq, when Syria was the only Arab state that sided with Tehran, and it has continued to this day as a critical link both to Hezbollah and governments around the Mediterranean. This bond, which Tehran regards as strategic, helps explain why Iran was willing to pour significant financial and military resources into the effort to prevent a radical Salafist takeover of Damascus. Hezbollah itself gives Iran crucial strategic depth and serves as a deterrent against Israel’s military threats. It is very likely that the shah would have pursued similar policies under similar circumstances, though no doubt with a different rhetorical façade.

In terms of strategy, Iran is opportunistic and tends to play a long game. When the George W. Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran openly assisted in the first conflict but not in the second. However, it was quick to appreciate America’s “gift” of eliminating its two most serious rivals, leaving it immensely more influential in the region. Iran had virtually no contact with the Houthis in Yemen and played no role in their revolt, but when Saudi Arabia invaded the country in 2015 and claimed that it was opposing encirclement by Tehran, the Iranians gradually began to lend enough support to take some credit for themselves and ensure that the Saudis and their allies would remain bogged down in the Yemeni quagmire. And when the Saudis and Emiratis broke the Gulf Cooperation Council in two by boycotting Qatar earlier this year, Iran was quick to offer the besieged country use of its airspace and ports to help ensure that the split among the rival Sunni monarchies would not end quickly or amicably.

On foreign policy, Iranians are realist to the core and driven almost entirely by their perception of the long-term interests of the nation.

When the United States and Israel joined forces in 2009 to sabotage Iran’s centrifuge chains by inserting a digital worm (Stuxnet) that cleverly caused the centrifuges to explode for no apparent reason, Iran responded in two ways. First, it redoubled its production of centrifuges and low-enriched uranium, thereby pushing toward a potential nuclear breakout much faster than anticipated, which eventually added to the pressure for negotiations. Second, Iran launched a massive cyberattack against U.S. financial institutions and the oil operations of U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. Just to make the point clear, the attack on Aramco computers in Saudi Arabia utilized a piece of the code originally devised for the Stuxnet virus. In true spy-vs.- spy fashion, responsibility for the attacks was never publicly acknowledged by either side.

The most serious assault on Iran’s nuclear program was the assassinations of scientists. Over a three-year period at the height of the international pressure against Iran, a series of killings targeted Iranian scientists who had varying degrees of involvement in the state’s nuclear program. According to some U.S. intelligence officials, these highly professional operations were carried out by Israeli intelligence, working with the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition movement headquartered in Paris. (The details are described by Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, in his recent book, Losing an Enemy. See the review here.)

The United States strongly disassociated itself from these actions, but Iran refused to believe that Israel would act without U.S. approval and reacted by launching a string of clumsy, failed attacks against Israeli officials, culminating in the bombing of a busload of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. The extremely amateurish and botched plot by an Iranian-American to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington may have been part of this campaign, as well. The Iranian intent was clear; the sloppy execution was harder to understand.

A Fraught Relationship

The fraught American relationship with Iran is the product of an extraordinary series of historical events, policy misbehavior, virulent misunderstandings, malign neglect and external pressures. It has now been nearly 40 years since the Islamic Revolution began, leading to the overthrow of the shah, the Iranian identification of the United States as the Great Satan and, above all, the Iranian attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the holding of its personnel for 444 days (1979-1981).

All of this played out as the first major U.S. foreign policy crisis to be fully televised and piped into the living rooms of every American. Over dinner, the U.S. public was treated to nightly appearances of fanatical, bearded young men in Tehran shouting “Death to America!” It was a very bad time to be an Iranian in the United States, as well. One Iranian friend of mine complained that his neighborhood mechanic would not repair his car out of anger about what was happening in Iran, so my friend began to tell people he was from Brazil. That negative view has endured, with polls today reflecting 70 percent disapproval of Iran on the part of the American public.

This was also the first direct contact between the United States and political Islam, and it was not pretty. It was an inauspicious starting point for any relationship, setting the tone for the next three decades. Tehran’s approach was largely based on revolutionary zeal, disregard for the most basic international conventions and a confidence that God’s favor rested entirely on one side. On this side of the Atlantic, most Americans remain unaware of the string of broken U.S. promises, misunderstandings and betrayals that had helped shape Iranian hostility since the 1950s. (These are catalogued in Barbara Slavin’s masterful work, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.)

Despite this history, Barack Obama arrived in the White House in 2009 with a proclaimed interest in engaging with Iran as part of a restructuring of U.S. foreign policy to reduce the American footprint in the Middle East. He made no headway on this during his first term, but his second term coincided with the election of Hassan Rouhani, who had led a failed effort to engage the United States in the early 2000s. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, knew the landscape intimately, and President Obama was willing to give them the one thing that they absolutely needed to proceed with negotiations: acknowledgement that after years of global sanctions, Iran would be permitted to pursue its own peaceful nuclear program, enriching uranium on its own soil.

Negotiations began in earnest in 2013, with the United States taking the lead in partnership with a remarkable coalition, known as the P5+1: all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States) plus Germany and the European Union, which served as the host and facilitator. The talks were extremely intense and complex. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. team for much of the process, compared it to a Rubik’s Cube, where all the pieces had to fit together into one interlocking whole. Secretary of State John Kerry participated actively in the negotiations, particularly in the final stages.

An agreement was reached on July 14, 2015, and implementation began on Jan. 16, 2016. The huge American team finished the marathon discussions in a state of exhaustion, but with a new set of Iranian contacts and some admiration for a mid-level state that could successfully carry out a complex, two-year negotiation while facing all the major powers of the world on the opposite side of the table.

Supporters of presidential candidates running in Iran’s 12th presidential election took to the streets of the capital to campaign.
Tasnim News Agency [CC by 4.0] / Wikimedia Commons

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran nuclear deal is known, represents a true milestone in nonproliferation. It effectively removes Iran’s capability to create a nuclear weapon, and puts Tehran under a kind of nuclear house arrest for a decade, after which the extraordinary restrictions are to revert to the more normal limits of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency protocols. Critics generally focus on the JCPOA’s sunset provisions, ignoring or disregarding the fact that Iran has formally accepted—in perpetuity—the Additional Protocols of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the most rigorous levels of inspection applied to nuclear-capable nations.

In addition, Iran itself wrote into the preamble of the agreement that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” This unprecedented commitment was repeated in the United Nations Security Council document that was signed by all permanent members of the Security Council, giving force of international law to the agreement.

The agreement was vociferously opposed by Israel, its powerful friends in the United States, and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states who feared a budding relationship between the United States and Iran. The United States had accepted the role as the Persian Gulf enforcer of Iranian containment during the Bill Clinton presidency, and regional states were alarmed to see the Obama administration backing away from that commitment. Presented to Congress as an executive agreement rather than a formal treaty, the accord barely survived a Republican effort to reject it, and presidential candidate Donald Trump denounced it as the “worst deal ever negotiated.”

Yet even though he promised to tear up the agreement on his first day in office, President Trump has twice now certified (as the president is obliged to do every 90 days) that Tehran is keeping its end of the bargain. At the same time, the president and several prominent members of his administration regularly complain that Iran is not living up to the spirit of the agreement.

In terms of strategy, Iran is opportunistic and tends to play a long game.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress have written new bills imposing additional sanctions on Iran, which the president has signed, leading Iran to charge that the United States is not in compliance with the letter of the JCPOA. Prospects for the agreement’s survival are still in doubt, but the longer it continues to operate, the more likely it is to be sustained.

What has been lost for now, however, is the possibility of building on the positive momentum of the negotiating process. In the course of the prolonged, intensive negotiations, a significant group of American diplomats and officials became acquainted with their counterparts in Iran. This was a huge departure from the past, when officials of both countries were forbidden even to exchange pleasantries at official functions.

The JCPOA was never intended to solve all the problems between Iran and the United States, but it was no secret that the leaders of both countries quietly hoped that the experience of direct contact would expand the range of discussion to include other issues, such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan, where Tehran and Washington have overlapping interests. The 2016 election in the United States put an end to those hopes, at least for the time being.

Some Modest Observations

The United States and Iran have a complicated and, since the Islamic Revolution, mostly hostile history. Both countries, however, are key players in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East. Every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has found a reason to try to work with Iran in some fashion, usually with only limited or very temporary success. We are in a new era, and anyone who wishes to venture firm predictions about where the bilateral relationship goes from here is far bolder than I. But after a career of dealing with U.S.-Iran relations, there are a few modest observations that I might offer:

• Iran is a major power in the Persian Gulf region, and any U.S. strategy must deal with it. As a general rule, lack of contact makes our policy more difficult and prone to error.

• Our national interests will converge with Iran on some issues, and cooperation on those issues is not only feasible, but desirable.

• On those issues where we will never agree, we should consider carefully the nature and level of resources that we wish to devote to their pursuit. War is expensive and unpredictable.

• Opponents of the Islamic Republic have confidently been predicting its demise literally from the first weeks of its existence. Greet such arguments with skepticism.

• When Iran’s system does change, it will do so at the hands of its own people. When we try to speed or manipulate that process, the effect is often to smother or thwart it.

• Our allies in the region have their own interests in relation to Iran. Their interests are not always the same as ours, and we should know the difference.

• If the JCPOA is preserved and implemented fairly, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. Withdrawal by the United States would remove the nuclear constraints and put us at odds with our closest allies. Consider the consequences.

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the Embassy Tehran hostage crisis (1979-1981). He is currently adjunct professor of international affairs and adjunct senior research scholar at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs and executive director of its Gulf/2000 project. He is a member (emeritus) of the board of Human Rights Watch in New York City and chair of its advisory committee on the Middle East.

Mr. Sick is the author of two books on U.S.-Iran relations (All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran, Random House, 1985; and October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan, Random House, 1991). He has edited several other books and published numerous articles on U.S. Middle East policy.