MESA 2022: Iran’s Place in the World: Visions and Ambitions in the Last Century

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On Saturday, December 3, 2022, the Iran1400 Project sponsored a panel at the Middle East Studies Association’s 56th annual meeting. Five panelists, Dr. Annie Tracy Samuel, Dr. Robert Steele, Dr. Shabnam Holliday, Dr. Aram Hessami, and Mr. Mehdi Rezania, each provided valuable insights about Iran’s place in the world.

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.

Israel-Palestine and Iran’s Place in the World

Dr. Annie Tracy Samuel, associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, examined the contentious but misunderstood relationship between Iran and Israel-Palestine. She explored the elements that shaped the view of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on Israel-Palestine in the context of Iran’s modern history. She argued that, 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. She contended that Iran’s position on Israel-Palestine 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. She asserted that while Iran’s opposition to Israel is, in fact, a significant component of its foreign policy, it can only be understood in terms of other, more important aspects of its strategic outlook.

Two Regimes and Four Grand Projects: Iran in the Last Century

Dr. Aram Hessami, professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Montgomery College, argued that Iran’s last century could be divided into two distinct periods: The Pahlavi era and the era of the Islamic Republic. He argued that 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’s grand project of congealing Islamic governance and civilizational claims capture Iran’s visions, ambitions, and her place in the world from 1921 to 2021. Focusing on the historical context under which each of these grand projects was defined, and eventually adopted, by these leaders, Dr. Hessami provided an assessment of their achievements and legacies, as well as their shortcomings, which may have certain ramifications for this new century in Iran. He argued that these four leaders are the key to understanding not only Iran’s visions and ambitions, but also its international interactions on the world stage.

Iran’s Relations with Southern Africa in the 1970s: Oil, Race and the Cold War

Dr. Robert Steele, visiting research fellow in the department of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, examined the place of Southern Africa in late Pahlavi foreign policy. He explored 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. Dr. Steele pondered what could be learned from Iran’s interactions with southern Africa as it related to the Shah’s Africa policy and, furthermore, what that illustrated about the Shah’s broader aspirations in the Global South. He emphasized three major factors in his conclusion.

  1. Oil — Iran’s oil allowed the Shah to expand his influence in Southern Africa. Southern Africa was a small market to Iran, but many of the countries there were heavily reliant on Iran as a source of oil.
  2. Race — The Shah’s foreign policy was pragmatic. Although he kept South Africa at arm’s length by keeping relations at the consular level due to his critical stance against South African apartheid, he identified South Africa as the most powerful country in the region economically and militarily and, therefore, pursued these relations quite boldly.
  3. The Cold War — The Shah was not merely a pliant tool of US diplomacy in the ongoing Cold War. He also feared Soviet encroachment in the region, had ambassadors in many countries in the region, and was himself well aware of what was going on. The Shah was also convinced to support US-UK led initiatives to bring about a peaceful resolution simply because the insurgency in Rhodesia was widely supported across Africa. He could either take an active role in trying to bring about a resolution to the crisis or else risk a backlash across black Africa, where he had carefully cultivated ties for the past decade, for his support of South Africa.

Sori tā Sorayyā: A Hundred Years of Development of Iranian Art

Mr. Rezania, an ethnomusicology expert and a professional Santur player, investigated the development of three disciplines of Iranian art within the last century: cinema, music, and visual art. Recounting historiography based on the monumental conception of history identified by Nietzsche that employs the past to inspire contemporary creation, Mr. Rezania chronicled the evolution of Iranian art. He recalled the government initiatives implemented during the Pahlavi era, the advent of radio and television, the implementation of Iranian cinema, the establishment of music conservatories, and more, in order to properly highlight Iran’s fascinating past. Resolutely, he argued that Iran’s development of art has been so enormous that it brings to 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.

‘Liberal world order’, ‘rogue state’ status, and legitimacy: Iran- US relations and world order

Dr. Shabnam Holliday, associate professor in international relations at the University of Plymouth, argued that Iran-US relations and how they relate to the idea of a “western liberal world order” is essential for a better understanding of global politics. By addressing Iran-US relations from the perspective of Rouhani alongside the historical, regional, and domestic contexts, she highlighted the contradictions of both the USA and the Islamic Republic. Arguing that integral to the discourse of a “western liberal world order” is an “enemy other,” namely the “rogue state,” she explained that the norms and values associated with these are used to legitimize and/or delegitimize an actor in the international system. She asserted that it is argued in the case of Iran-USA relations, the dichotomization 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 associated with a “rogue state.” Consequently, Iran is legitimized and the USA is delegitimized.

Iran’s Past Century

Thus, the panel analyzed Iran’s place in the world as it relates to its visions and ambitions during the last 100 years. In a general sense, it examined one grand aspect of the past century: the ambitions of four heads of state over two different regimes of power, encapsulated by modernization and Islamization. Yet it also explored more specific aspects. The discourse of rogue states and traditional states vis-à-vis the West’s relationship with Iran shed light on Iran’s place in global politics, while a look at the politics of oil and race at the height of the cold war illuminated, in a sense, Iran’s coming of age and desire to become a world player. At the same time, two different aspects of Iran’s relationship with Palestine, Israel, and the IRGC also showed its regional ambitions. Returning to a more general analysis, the influence of music and art in general over the past century shows western, ethnic, and indigenous art’s influence on social existence and culture. Altogether, the panel gave a 100-year perspective of Iran through cultural and artistic aspects, regional aspects, the politics of oil and race, and a bird’s eye view of two grand projects in the country.

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