The Persian Question - Religion, Policy Making and Rational Actor Theories

By Rob Ames

This piece will be the first in a four-part series from our Suez program, reexamining the structure, dynamics and interests in the US relationship with Iran.


Religion often figures in commentaries on Iranian politics that characterize the Iranian government as a uniquely irrational global actor. Despite the prevalence of this narrative, the religiosity of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) can be overstated as a motivator for Iranian political thinking and choices.


A wide variety of religious perspectives has proliferated within the Iranian government and public sphere throughout recent history, both before and during the Islamic Republic. That being the case, the fact that the ruling elite uses religious rhetoric does not mean that its various components share the same conclusions, or that religious doctrine necessarily informs their decision making more than realpolitik.


The US should revise its standard model of Iranian politics as being wholly bound up in religious thinking, and treat Tehran as a rather more traditional regime of a power-maximizing middle-tier state, whose domestic regime legitimacy and history may be bound up in religious doctrine, but whose decisions are largely rational.



Owing to the close association between Islam and irrationality in the American imagination, US observers and policymakers often treat the Iranian government as incapable of basing its foreign policy decisions on the same kinds of calculations made by other States, a line of thinking so prevalent it has its own name: the “Iran Narrative.”   

This series will have four parts, the first of which will review this Narrative. The second will survey the major camps within the Iranian religio-political establishment, their differences, and their historical precedents. The third will present select cases in which members of  the Iranian political establishment have appealed to science when making rulings on social issues in order to demonstrate that religion in Iran is able to engage productively (even if opportunistically) with a changing intellectual environment. Though in many ways dominant over civil and public life in a way religious systems in the West have not been in centuries, State-sponsored Islam is not as closed an epistemic system as it may seem at first glance.

The fourth and final piece will examine ways in which this revised approach to Iranian policy making can be to the manifest benefit of the US and its interests in the region.


A recent article in Foreign Affairs based its recommendations for the Trump administration’s Iran policy on the assertion that “the theocratic state is ruled by clerical ideologues who claim to know the mind of God. For them, the Islamic Republic is not merely a nation-state seeking independence within the existing international system.” Similarly, a nuclear Iran has appeared to many Western observers as a particularly serious threat because they assume that a necessarily millenarian Shi‘ism has rendered Iranian leaders undeterrable--such observers claim that the Shi‘i hope for the return of the Mahdi translates into a willingness to usher in an entirely man-made nuclear apocalypse. These claims neglect the fact that there are different ways to be conservative or theocratic, and that religion can authorize a variety of political positions, even within a single religion and a single polity. More than this, though, they also reflect a persistent and troubling narrative in American discourse, which has resulted in unnecessarily hostile positioning from Washington and missed opportunities for improvements in relations, even if these would (and perhaps should) still be far short of full rapprochement or partnership.


In dealing with any counterparty in diplomacy, the state needs to formulate a dependable model of the motivations and decision-making of the partner or adversary. This basic need lay behind the impetus for the Cold War’s “Kremlinology,” for instance. In the case of US thinking on Iran, though, this model of decision-making has been dominated by “The Iran Narrative,” as coined by Professor Chris Ferrero. At heart, it is a collection of claims and assumptions from a variety of sources, dating from the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, that establish the model of Iranian decision-making as motivated by irrationality, unpredictability, or religious fanaticism. A logical political conclusion to draw from such a narrative is that attempts at rational discourse with the counterparty are foolish at best and dangerous at worst. However, it is the Narrative itself that is flawed, and which has forestalled or foreclosed a number of otherwise promising opportunities for improvement in relations in the last generation. And further, through these incidents, it is possible to identify the actual diversity of religious and political thinking inside the Iranian regime and understand the opportunities for diplomacy these open up. 

The first such opportunity arose after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died earlier this year. Although Rafsanjani aided in securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon, the US administration did not respond with much in the way of the “goodwill” that President Bush had promised; a policy review concluded that further engagement was “too politically costly” and in October of that year, President Bush named Iran one of the rogue states he had committed to containing when he signed the Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act. Ferrero terms president Rafsanjani a “pragmatist,” but he was, more precisely, a pragmatic conservative. In this, he is far from unique in Iranian politics. Pragmatic conservatism has a strong footing in Tehrani political circles, and alongside Rafsanjani, Iran’s current president, Hasan Rouhani, is one of its more prominent voices. As the “pragmatist” designation makes clear, these figures are, despite the standard assumptions about their position as Islamists, more “open for business” than the principlist hardline, as they favor more open diplomacy and looser state control over the domestic economy, both of which the true “fundamentalists” of the Iranian establishment tend to reject.

The second and third opportunities Ferrero selects both occurred during the Khatami presidency (1997-2005). Khatami is of course best known as a reformist, advocate of freedom of expression and civil rights, and coiner of the expression “Dialogue Among Civilizations.” He issued the initial call for this dialogue in January 1998, but the Clinton administration did not respond similarly. It only made a slight adjustment to its sanctions regime (lifting those on the export of food and carpets), and that over two years later, in March 2000.

A final case comes from the era in which Khatami’s presidency overlapped with that of George W. Bush. Following Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his famous “Axis of Evil” and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Khatami’s government (with the consent, if not the encouragement of Ayatollah Khamenei) proposed a “grand bargain,” according to which, Iran would, among other things end its support of Palestinian terrorist groups and back a Saudi proposal for Arab-Israel peace, encourage Hezbollah to disarm, open its nuclear program to closer international monitoring, and support civil society programs in Iraq. Much of what the Khatami government sought in return were concessions that would seem minor to a state that considered it a rational and legal actor. Tehran requested that the US recognize the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and thereby halt suggestions of regime change, and drop sanctions against it. There is no indication that the Bush administration gave the proposed bargain much consideration.

Iran Narrative aside, by focusing on Khatami’s liberal reputation, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he is also a cleric, and therefore, a representative of the scholarly, religious elite. Indeed, he is not only a mulla, but something of a scholastic, as his special focus in Islamic Aristotelianism attests. This should again suggest that religion, and a religious vocation, can inform very different conclusions about politics.

Successive American governments were so eager to allow the aforementioned windows of opportunity for engagement to close because the Narrative so dominated American coverage of Iran in the 1990-2003 period that it raised the domestic political cost rapprochement too much for both Bushes and Clinton alike. According to Ferrero’s random sampling of 854 items from mainstream news outlets in the US, the six most common themes in their coverage were: that Iran supports terrorism, that it is pursuing nuclear weapons, that it is a threat, that it is an actor with nonstandard geopolitical and economic interests, that it is fanatical, and that it is complicit in hostage-taking. It is fair to make the intuitive leap that religion is a major factor in the development of each of these themes in American coverage, though it is most readily apparent in the “fanatical actor” theme.


It would be inaccurate to claim that religious doctrine and belief are not important in Iranian decision-making. The regime calls itself “Islamic,” after all. Among other things, though, the US must also bear in mind that there is a substantial gulf between the state and the population it governs on topics of piety and the role of religion in personal life. The official religiosity of the government has, in fact, probably done more to alienate Iranians from religion than it has to foster their religious commitments. In a recent piece, Stephanie Lester, a director at the American Iranian Council points out from a recent trip to the country,  “Iran is one of the least religious countries in the Middle East” and that the attendance rate at Friday prayer is lower than two percent. Quantifying a given population’s religiosity with any accuracy is an incredibly difficult task, and more to the point, Lester’s claims seem somewhat exaggerated, but, overall, her point is well-taken and should give analysts pause before making pronouncements about the essential character of “Iranian psyche” and the role of religion in it. It is also an important reminder of this article’s limits: I am not trying to say how Iranians in general feel about religion or how religion shapes their political opinions—I am simply surveying the operation of religion within a few privileged political and intellectual classes, classes whose opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Iranians in general. Even so, the varieties of religious opinion within those classes give lie to the notion that a monolithic, revolutionary Shi’ism makes it impossible to reason with the Iranian government.


Once we realize that religion is not a singular phenomenon, we must also realize that it is not a singular explanation for other phenomena. Following the observations of people (which will follow in the later installments to this series) that religion has informed diverse policy positions in Iran and that a number of Iranian clerics have in fact shown themselves extremely willing to appeal to scientific rationality in their public remarks, US policymakers should question their own assumptions about the relationship between Shi‘ism and Iranian politics and hesitate before concluding that Iranian policy is informed by a univocal and irrational religion.