Hot and cold: Understanding Iran’s response to the spat with Saudi Arabia

The recent escalation of hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia has confirmed the bitter animosity between the two states and brought the region closer to the brink of an overt intra-regional war. Equally importantly, the episode has also exposed the fragility—perhaps even futility—of Tehran’s attempt to chart a more moderate course without discarding the fundamental tenets of the regime’s revolutionary ideology.

Last week’s arson attack on the Saudi embassy was an entirely predictable response to the Saudi execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr a day earlier. Having invested three years in vitriolic rhetoric around his case, Iranian authorities set the stage for an outburst after the Saudis implemented his death sentence. And having committed almost 37 years to a system that sanctifies its antipathies, Iran’s leaders couldn’t quash the impulse to lash out. In the process, Tehran committed an “own goal,” as aptly described by The Guardian: shifting the focus of the world’s outrage away from Riyadh’s barbaric treatment of a Shiite dissident and squarely back to the long, sordid history of Iranian malfeasance.

Interestingly, Tehran’s initial reaction seemed to favor restraint; early condemnations from senior clerics, parliamentarians, and the Foreign Ministry were fairly tame by Iran’s typically incendiary standards. Even the almost instantaneous assault on the Saudi consulate in Mashhad seemed to offer a lower-cost opportunity to sate domestic pressure for reprisals. 

But Iran has made an art form of provoking street thuggery as a means of power projection, and after so many years, the furies operate on autopilot. Or, more accurately, they erupt with the active collaboration of Iran’s security forces and other elements of the establishment, as confirmed by the proliferation of “ransacker selfies” posed amidst the looted Saudi embassy with indifferent police officers as their backdrop.

Iran has made an art form of provoking street thuggery as a means of power projection.

Moderation, ex post facto

With the revolution’s passions vented, Tehran swiftly launched a damage control effort led by President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani’s 2013 election ushered in the latest chapter in Iran’s intermittent effort to reform its approach to the world. An escalation of regional tensions might jeopardize that project’s one seminal success—the July 2015 nuclear deal, intended to end Iran’s isolation and the multilateral sanctions regime that had ravaged its economy. 

As a result, Rouhani has scrambled since the attack to change the tone from Tehran. He quickly condemned the burning of the Saudi embassy in strenuous terms and ordered an investigation that has already produced 50 arrests as well as the removal of a powerful deputy governor and senior police official. The Iranian Foreign Minister penned an op-ed in The New York Times pleading his case and has sought to undo the renaming of the street in front of the Saudi embassy in Nimr’s honor.

These moves are reassuring, and they underscore the role reversal that is subtly underway in the Gulf. Throughout the history of tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, both sides have engaged in epic provocations. However, most of the restraint on the propensity for escalation has been exercised by Saudi Arabia, with overtures (including reparations offers) during the Iran-Iraq war and the subsequent failure to prosecute Tehran’s role in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. Today, however, the mercurial monarchs of the Arabian peninsula are indulging their own imprudence at home and across the region, and Iran’s belated attempt at de-escalation is an important check on a dangerous regional spiral.

The Iranian efforts at de-escalation also speak to the salience of Rouhani and the strength of his mandate. He has again demonstrated his remarkably effective navigation of Iran’s complex and treacherous factional maze. Those who saw Rouhani as—at most—a one-trick pony, with only limited leverage beyond the nuclear deal, inevitably underestimate him. He benefits from extensive ties to the security bureaucracy thanks to his role as a commander in the Iraq war and as secretary of Iran’s national security committee; he has achieved a more constructive relationship with Iran’s parliament thanks to his five terms as a member of the body. Iran’s president is a man of the system who knows how to work the institutions of the Islamic Republic to his best advantage.

Iran’s belated attempt at de-escalation is an important check on a dangerous regional spiral.

Still, this latest spat with the Saudis has exposed the precariousness of his project. Rouhani’s self-proclaimed intention of leading Iran in a more moderate direction suffers from the same paradox that has undermined each of the preceding attempts to rebalance the revolutionary state. Ultimately, the requirements of any kind of resilient reentry to the global economy and achieving the stature that Iranians crave are simply incompatible with aspects of Iran’s official ideology. 

A state that refuses to rein in—or, more accurately, still relies on—semi-official vandalism will inevitably find its ambitions curbed instead. Investors’ eagerness often wanes in the shadow of sacked embassies, and diplomatic sway tends to weaken where a government cannot even defend its capital. Moderation isn’t as effective when it’s a clean-up exercise. Iran’s imminent release from sanctions means the country will no longer be officially sidelined—but to fully come in from the cold, Tehran will have to disavow the revolution’s ideological imperatives.

Ultimately, the requirements of any kind of resilient reentry to the global economy and achieving the stature that Iranians crave are simply incompatible with aspects of Iran’s official ideology.

And at home, the indulgence of revolutionary radicalism only advantages those who oppose Rouhani and the path of moderation. So long as Iranian leaders feel compelled to stoke the revolution with the occasional flag-burning, they will find themselves at the mercy of the men with the torches.

Circling back to pragmatism?

Iranians have already learned this lesson. Each prior endeavor to reform the Islamic Republic found its prospects undermined by the unwillingness or inability of senior leaders to curtail the system’s ideological excesses. Just imagine where Iran would be today if its post-war reconstruction program had not been derailed by leftist backlash at home and banks made skittish by Iran’s continued terror campaign abroad? Or consider how the country might have flourished if the Khatami-era reform movement had not been kneecapped at every turn. These opportunities lost urge a wiser and more courageous approach today. Tehran’s quick release today of 10 American sailors detained in the Gulf is a good start, but it must be followed by clear efforts to adopt more responsible policies at home and across the region.

The irony is that pragmatism has long been a central feature of Iranian policy-making, practiced since the earliest moments of the revolutionary state and enshrined by a ruling from its charismatic founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who declared in 1988 that national interests trump both the country’s constitution and Islam.

And as I argue in a recent book, the ideological aspect of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy has increasingly been eroded by both rhetoric and policy; instead, Iran’s leaders’ reliance on populism has inadvertently cultivated public expectations for government performance and accountability. Iranian leaders don’t need the weekly “death to America” chants to mobilize their population; they need to satisfy their population’s aspirations for a better life.

Rouhani appears to understand this. A year ago, he stood before an assembly of government technocrats and appealed for prioritizing Iran’s economy over its revolutionary ideology. He decried that, for decades, Iran’s wealth was used to bankroll its foreign policy and domestic politics. “Let us try the other way around for a decade,” Iran’s president inveighed, “and see how people’s lives and incomes and the employment of youth will be.” The nuclear deal represented a big step forward for Rouhani’s vision of Iran. But the ashes around the Saudi embassy serve as a reminder of how easily the path of moderation can be diverted.