Interpreting the Islamic Republic of Iran
The Iranian-born political scientist Arshin Adib-Moghaddam describes the various interpretations and representations of the Islamic Republic of Iran in his book – from the Islamic utopianism of the early revolution via the first Gulf War to the current confrontation with American neo-conservatives and domestic reform debates. By André Bank
Iran is perhaps the greatest challenge currently facing western foreign and security policy. Paradoxically, it is the American and European wars in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan that have helped strengthen the Islamic Republic's status in its third decade. And although US President Bush, whose presidency saw a loser focus on Iran, is nearing the end of his term in office, the importance of Iran for global and regional policy does not look set to wane in the near future.
Against Iranian pop studies
The issue of the Islamic Republic – the various different ways in which Iran is interpreted and represented – thus remains politically relevant and influential. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam's study addresses these differing readings of the Islamic Republic.
The author, who studied in Hamburg, gained his PhD in Cambridge and now lectures at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, takes a cultural-genealogical approach. He uses four case studies, on foreign policy culture in Iran, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Iranian-American relations, and domestic debates about reform, to develop and contrast different interpretations of Iranian politics.
Throughout the book, Adib-Moghaddam clearly rejects the "market for Iranian pop studies" and the positivist idea on which they are based, that "Iran is simply there". Instead, the study's fundamental objective is to give us a more pluralistic understanding of post-revolutionary Iran and thereby work towards establishing "critical Iran Studies" as a academic field. He cites a long series of mainly western social theorists from various schools of thought, such as Dilthey, Foucault, Gadamer and Habermas, to justify his analytical focus on the diversity of interpretations and meanings of Iran.
Islamic, Persian or pragmatic?
In the chapter on Iranian foreign policy, Adib-Moghaddam emphasises the after-effects of fundamental Islamic revolutionary ideas, a "utopian-romantic meta-narrative" dating from the 1960s and 1970s but which still influence the strategic thinking of key decision-makers. He thus opposes the view that Iran's foreign policy – current examples being the nuclear issue or policy on Iraq and Afghanistan – is primarily of a pragmatic nature and guided by national interests. In this context, it is surprising to find no references to the current President Ahmadinejad, whose speeches certainly contain elements of this Islamic utopianism.
This omission may be partly due to the fact that the separate case studies were previously published as articles in journals
such as Critique and Third World Quarterly. The subsequent chapter on the first Gulf War of 1980-88 focuses on Iraqi attempts to construct Persian-Arab hostility and the resulting almost natural conclusion of alliances with the Arab states of the Near and Middle East, based on identity politics.
Adib-Moghaddam's third case study describes a third reading of the Islamic Republic- a reading which has been widely discussed: the emergence of the American neoconservative idea of a fundamentally uncompromising, aggressive Mullah regime in Iran, with diverse alleged parallels to the Nazis. The fourth case study takes a look at domestic policy in Iran, tracing the successive decline of the internal reform movement under President Khatami up to 2003. The author particularly focuses on the pluralist dynamic and the question of a possible democratic future in Iran.
Critical Iran Studies?
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam's study of Iran attempts to sketch the diverse interpretations of the Islamic Republic – from outside as well as inside the country – on a broad social theory basis. One very positive aspect is the attempt to take Iran out of its isolated position as a political and cultural special case, by throwing a light on how ideological positions on Iran were constructed, and thus putting them in a historical context.
However, the question arises as to the benefit of the author's strong social theory pluralism, particularly in comparison to other studies of Iran, such as that of Charles Kurzman on various interpretations of the 1979 revolution or Trita Parsi's study on the relations between Iran, Israel and the USA.
Like every perspective, Adib-Moghaddam's continuous emphasis on pluralism of readings of Iran also produces its own blind spots. Certain techniques of power, such as non-discursive forms of repression, and the political economy and strategic dimension of Iranian and Middle Eastern policy thus remain essentially untouched. The book's ambitious goal of working towards "critical Iran Studies", as the author again emphasises in the closing chapter, has thus not been fully achieved.
© Qantara.de 2008
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (2007): Iran in World Politics. The Question of the Islamic Republic, London: Hurst, 272 pp.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire