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Iran, the Unitary State

Tehran’s Foreign-Policy Makers Act as One

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meeting with military commanders in Tehran, Iran in February 2017 Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader / New York Times / Redux

The drone strikes on two major Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September left many observers puzzled. Though officials in Washington and Riyadh blamed Iran for the attacks, aggression of this kind seemed at odds with the more conciliatory positions of the government of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president. Was it really in Iran’s interest to so drastically escalate a simmering conflict with the United States and its regional partners? The Houthis, Iran’s allies in Yemen’s bloody civil war, immediately claimed responsibility for hitting the oil fields, but the sophistication of the attack pointed to a state actor and, eventually, to Iran as the culprit. Though Iranian officials denied any involvement, some commentators suggested that elements of Iran’s security apparatus participated in the attacks, even if the strikes weren’t orchestrated at the level of the state. 

Many experts, including current and former analysts and officials within the U.S. government, subscribe to the notion that factionalism drives Iran’s strategic behavior. This line of thinking (albeit not entirely embraced by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump) generally presumes that aggressive actions by Iran’s military are often guided by the imperatives of the country’s contentious internal politics. Iran’s Foreign Ministry, which serves as the main interlocutor for the United States and other Western powers, appears in this light as the “good cop” to the “bad cop” of the regime’s hard-liners. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Iranian armed forces tightly associated with the hard-liners, is thought to pursue aggressive actions as a way of undercutting the legitimacy and influence of the more pragmatic Rouhani government. Hard-liners, particularly those within the ranks of the IRGC, execute policies designed to undermine the moderates at home and abroad, making it more difficult for Rouhani to function on the international stage.  

The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it misunderstands how decision-making works in the Islamic Republic.

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