In the late 1990s, I was intrigued by how patterns of political behavior in postrevolutionary Iran correlated with those of the prerevolutionary periods. I began developing frameworks to understand these different historical epochs.
Four fundamental questions shaped my research: What leads to a highly exaggerated depiction of the Iranians’ view of themselves in the international system? What processes result in flawed Iranian assessments of the realities of the international system? Why have Iranians consistently faced major obstacles in building a national political consensus? Despite over a century of exposure to the West, why haven’t Iranians been able to institutionalize aspects of modernity such as political party competition, the rotation of power, and political liberties?
In over a decade of working on these questions, I traveled around Iran and published three books in Farsi. First, a study of Iran’s political culture, published in 2004 and in its seventh edition in 2019. It was based on 900 questionnaires completed by private citizens and public officials. Second, a project on Iranian authoritarianism during the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925), first published in 2011 and in its fourteenth edition in 2020. And third, a book on Iranian authoritarianism during the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979). Currently, I’m working on a fourth project on the psychological infrastructure of Iranian authoritarianism.
What I discovered are the striking continuities in Iranian political culture. The predilections of ancient societies, among them Iran, are rarely recalibrated. They tend to be so calcified that even streaks of modernization and economic privatization cannot alter them. While in a globalized world the lifestyles of many people in these societies have been transformed, old habits and predispositions, particularly in the political realm, tend to remain the same. The presumption of modernization theories from the 1960s that social and political beliefs are altered by economic empowerment has not been borne out in many ancient countries. For instance, the conventional wisdom during the 1990s that China’s membership in the World Trade Organization and its robust entry into the global economy would result in a vibrant civil society, a competitive party system, and political accountability was shown to be delusional.
Iranian history embodies nationhood, imperial statecraft, and authoritarian rule over a span of several millennia. However, the ancient country’s transition to a socially and politically modern nation-state has been characterized by incessant struggles and a project that has yet to be completed, with no apparent horizon. At the root of Iran’s contemporary economic malaise, political disarray, and foreign policy confrontations lies a series of approaches that are powerfully historical and therefore problematic to deconstruct. Three pervasive tendencies in its political culture are scapegoating, political tribalism, and an obsolete interpretation of national sovereignty.
Critical self-assessment is generally considered humiliating and self-destructive, and the reaction has been to engage in scapegoating and place the blame elsewhere. In an Iranian culture that profoundly values mysticism, it is paradoxical that exterior appearance is so highly treasured. Ingrained authoritarianism pushes a person early in life to conceal and camouflage. Ambiguity and convolution are regarded as virtues. Through experience in both trade and politics, individuals learn to act offensively in order to be immune from calculated attacks. Self-projection, self-aggrandizement, and self-obsession are common practices. The definition of equality is shrouded in a sort of floating romanticism epitomized by the assertion that “all powers should treat this country with equal status.”
In both domestic and international conduct, a sense of proportionality is missing in terms of pronouncements and judgments. Clarity and straightforwardness are considered naïve. Almost all matters are intentionally cloaked in confusion. The confession of mistakes, let alone blunders, leads to a loss of authority.
Perhaps, the most problematic aspect of scapegoating is that it represents a facet of dissembling. Acceptance of reality must be blurred. Citizens gradually internalize that all wrongdoings occur independently of individuals, their mindsets, and their decisions—in other words people learn to avoid accepting responsibility for their actions. It is intriguing that the word “fact” has no mainstream Persian equivalent. To prepare for scapegoating, abstractions are far more convenient than facts, observations, and science. Being delusional and dissimulating far surpass acceptance of responsibility and commitment. To fathom an error, a breakdown, a catastrophe, or a collapse, one must search for external causes—human destiny, hidden hands, the government, other countries, or, of course, the imperialists and the superpowers.
In normal times, permanent complacency pervades the political and social landscape. Over decades, the near-absence of self-assessment has shaped an Iranian history of sudden U-turns and abrupt realizations of crises.
Political tribalism is a second aspect of Iran’s political culture. The broader Middle East is not characterized by nation-states in which a collective identity carves out a national purpose and direction. In an era of distrust, unreliability, and unpredictability, one learns to concentrate almost all efforts on parochial interests. Individuals gradually learn the hard way not to participate, commit, or speak up. A centuries-old proverb governs social behavior: “Obscure and stash three things in your life: your ideas, your treasure, and your religion.” The psychological implications of this are profound feelings of personal insecurity and a fragile sense of confidence.
Such levels of suspicion cannot induce collective action, competitive political parties, or a social contract. Rather, acquiescence and indifference take over and evolve into a national character. Consequently, leadership and statecraft become the act of well-protected small groups in the form of oligarchical political tribes. In the absence of consensus-building processes among contending political groups, obstructionism, revolts, and foreign intervention ensue. Moreover, diversity suffers dramatically. As a result, Iranian politics has been characterized by revolutions instead of reform, sinuous changes instead of evolutionary ones, and violent transitions instead of peaceful ones. Adapting to the will of those in authority becomes a social and political norm, which endures to this day.
A third characteristic of Iranian political culture is an obsolete interpretation of national sovereignty. It is incredible that the liberal and inclusive English word “compromise,” or sazesh in Farsi, is translated as “submission,” “bowing,” “capitulation,” “surrender” and “malleability” in Farsi dictionaries, carrying profoundly negative connotations.
The country’s authoritarian environment has produced a binary worldview in which situations either represent complete successes or total failures. Such a duality plays out in political behavior, both in internal settings and external ones. Sharing and compromising are scarce commodities. National sovereignty is interpreted in a “we versus they” fashion, which leads either to isolation or to others having to completely yield to Iranian demands.
A substantial portion of this interpretation can be associated with the standoff between religious ideology and modernity in contemporary Iranian history. The underlying presumptions of religious fundamentalism cannot incorporate modernity and modernization processes. The two are completely independent spheres. A fundamentalist interpretation of nation, state, and statecraft necessarily hedges against embracing economic interdependence, political alliances, and cultural diversity. In the Iranian unconscious, taking part in a regional or international setting equals the abandonment of sovereignty, dignity, humility, and glory. Arbitrariness is universally cherished. Concession and conciliation are perceived as character deficiency and an invitation to submission. Rules, regulations, and procedures are viewed as shackles that decidedly constrain individual discretion and majestic pleasures. The unconscious leads the individual to behave exclusively in a domineering manner. Acting inclusively is viewed as projecting fragility. The repercussions of this are maintenance of the status quo and self-destructive complacency.
At the international level, where sovereignty has been largely delegated to regional or international organizations and the state has been substantially replaced by the market, it becomes hard for Iran to adopt to a mindset that involves sharing, contributing, and collectively making decisions. Democracy, which demands sharing and consensus-building processes, is therefore an illusion, at least for the time being. True, in the long sweep of history, social and political behavioral patterns gradually change, but this will be slow and come only after accumulated crises. Qualitative change requires wealth and equity, and in turn entails interconnectedness with the world, compromise, and a consensus at home. This doesn’t appear to be available in the medium term.
Since 2003, negotiations over a nuclear deal have been central for Iranian foreign policy, the national economy, and domestic politics. These endless negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, European countries, and the United States have reflected all three of the predilections examined here. Iran has evaded a critical assessment of potential contradictions in its foreign policy orientation that have caused concern among other countries. It has shunned transparency and straightforwardness in order to lengthen the deadlock with the West. And it has avoided any long-term association with other countries.
In the absence of self-assessment, domestic consensus-building efforts, and internal or external partnerships, it is hardly imaginable to foresee prosperity and stability for an ancient society like Iran’s. In the end, Iranian life today is not about efficiency, convictions, and responsibility. Rather, it is fixated on imagery and surreptitious delights. Incremental changes and reforms are not favored since they require processes, compromise, and consensus. Changes habitually emanate from crises. A rational assessment of conditions may not shift policies, as conditions change and therefore impose new policies. Ultimately, time is of no essence.
* Mahmood Sariolghalam has a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Southern California. For more than three decades he has taught in a number of countries, including the United States and Iran. His publications and research focus on Iran’s foreign policy and political culture.