Vladimir Putin has opened the gates of hell by invading Ukraine at the end of his 23-year journey to destroy Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and reestablish Russia’s lost imperial glory. As the civilized world confronts a threat that we should have seen coming at us from the moment, more than 20 years ago, when Putin turned Grozny into Stalingrad and got away with it, our response is constrained by the fact that Putin’s Russia has a formidable nuclear arsenal, which the Russian tyrant has proclaimed himself willing to use. The shocking and horrifying scenes we witness on our television screens—and our inability to do anything about them—should be foremost in the minds of Western leaders as they blindly embrace a new nuclear deal with Tehran.
We should know better. Like Putin’s Russia, the Islamic Republic is a non-status quo power whose actions are driven more than anything else by ideology. Sooner or later, a revolutionary power aims to export its revolution, both as an instrument of radical change and as a tool to establish its hegemonic rule. In an article titled “A Powder Keg Named Islam,” published in Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera on Feb. 13, 1979, a few days after the Islamic Revolution’s founder, the late Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, returned to Iran from his Paris exile, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that,
Maybe [its] historical significance will be found, not in its conformity to a recognized “revolutionary” model, but instead in its potential to overturn the existing political situation in the Middle East and thus the global strategic equilibrium. Its singularity, which has up to now constituted its force, consequently, threatens to give it the power to expand. Thus, it is true that as an “Islamic” movement, it can set the entire region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid ones. Islam—which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization—risks becoming a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men. Since yesterday, any Muslim state can be revolutionized from the inside, based on its time-honored traditions.
At the time, at least, Foucault was a fan of Iran’s revolution. But he was not wrong.
The ayatollahs’ Iran aspires to reassert Shiite predominance over the Sunni world, much like Putin’s Russia seeks to resuscitate the czarist empire. Iranian mullahs hope to become the beacon of Islam beyond the region, much like Putin dreams of a pan-Slavic awakening; to emerge as leader of the oppressed of the earth, much like Russia seeks to undermine Western global dominance; and to persuade the downtrodden to embrace Khomeini’s vision as a banner of resistance against the Western-dominated international order, much like Putin appeals to Christianity, anti-capitalism, and anti-wokeness in his battle against America’s “Empire of Lies.”
Yet even after Putin upended all our illusions about resetting relations with Moscow and solving disputes amicably; even after he unleashed an unprovoked war of aggression against a defenseless neighbor; even after he has green-lighted the rape of cities and the wanton destruction of an entire nation; Washington’s Iran policy debate remains focused on the misguided belief—which the Biden administration shares with its Democratic predecessors—that well-placed safeguards (which the JCPOA is lacking in any case) in exchange for economic dividends will not only constrain Iran’s nuclear quest but also potentially change Iran’s behavior. We tell ourselves that Iran is not Russia. It does not need to be, to aspire to a greatness that will upend our world.
Yet our policy is still guided by the basic cost-benefit analysis that premised every sanctions regime adopted in the past and which also guided the West’s Russia policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc: Faced with increasing isolation, costs, and damages to their economies, adversaries will barter the imagined rewards of bad behavior for economic opportunities. Even when they act irrationally—at least by the standards of Western, 21st-century rationality—we mistake their madness for a ruse, which we can defang through a calculated mixture of blandishments and punishments. We tried the same combination of carrots and sticks with Mussolini in Ethiopia and Hitler in Munich. Hollywood notwithstanding, it has never worked, because what ultimately motivates Tehran (and Moscow) is not rational calculations of national self-interest, as Barack Obama insisted back in 2015, but a burning desire to spread its revolutionary ideology and a determination to tirelessly wage a battle of ideas to undermine and destroy the Western rules-based international liberal order. The addition of nuclear power status ensures that existing constraints on those ambitions, however feeble, will wither away.
The Iranian regime as a whole may not be wedded to the kind of apocalyptic politics that the rhetoric of some of its leaders frequently suggests—but Iran remains, at heart, a revolutionary power driven by an ideology that successfully blends Persian nationalism, Shiite revivalism, Third World-ism, and revolutionary Marxist-Leninist theories. The revolution’s devastating potential always derived from the explosive combination of the subversive with the divine. The desire to push this agenda more aggressively and more successfully is what drives its quest for nuclear weapons.
The fact that Iran lacks the might of, say, the former Soviet Union in its revolutionary pursuit, does not make its efforts laughable or its position more vulnerable to pressure. It is what motivates Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, no matter what sacrifices that effort entails. A nuclear arsenal, or even the prestige derived from becoming a nuclear threshold state after prolonged and successful defiance of Western economic pressure, is a force multiplier we underestimate at our own peril. Allowing Tehran to acquire this capability, which the JCPOA is designed to allow under U.S. protection, is the diplomatic equivalent of flicking a lit cigarette into dry brush.
That contemporary Iran is a revolutionary power whose decision-makers are virtually impervious to pressure should be obvious by now. Forty-three years after the overthrow of the shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Tehran continues to invest considerable resources, even under extreme economic duress, to export its revolution to every corner of the globe. The financial and military undertakings required to save the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, enhance Hezbollah’s hegemony in Lebanon, and proliferate pro-Iran Shiite militias that fan the flames of violence from Yemen to Iraq, are only the most newsworthy, expensive, and nearby examples of how Iran prioritizes exporting its revolution abroad over public welfare at home.
Iran shares no border or personal territorial disputes with Israel, but it does nurse a pathological obsession with destroying it, which it cultivates through its support for Palestinian Islamists, worldwide terror plots against Jews, and relentless diplomatic pressure. Iran also bears considerable costs to sustain far-flung alliances (see: Venezuela) that yield little financial benefit and bring no domestic dividends. And then there’s Iran’s worldwide outreach to win acolytes through missionary work—a fool’s errand perhaps, but one Iran pursues with economic profligacy. Liberal democracies might view all this as the irresponsible squandering of precious national resources; Iran considers it a sacred duty.
That the cost-benefit analysis spurred by sanctions isn’t panning out the way it did with, say, apartheid South Africa, should also be obvious by now. Iran is not acting like an insolvent debtor trying to restore its credibility, but like an unrepentant thief who prefers to constantly improve its ability to crack ever more sophisticated security systems. With the example of Putin’s Russia before its eyes, the Biden administration needs to radically rethink America’s long game vis-à-vis Iran.
It is entirely reasonable to assume that Iran is seeking the protection that nuclear weapons clearly provide Russia to impose its will on its neighborhood—and to do so with impunity. And the new world that Iran seeks to create will be dominated by Tehran: It will be characterized by fierce competition with the United States for hegemony over the Persian Gulf and by efforts to cement alliances to confront Iran’s ideological and geopolitical antagonists in Riyadh, Ankara, Jerusalem, and Cairo. This will apply to a range of issues, including Iran’s all-consuming hostility to the existence of Israel or to any political accommodation with it.
But it will hardly stop at the Jewish state. Emboldened by its nuclear breakout, Iran’s revolutionary leadership will seek to cement partnerships and dependencies and establish its dominance far beyond the Middle East, using a new power and prestige to turn the tables on Western powers. The consequences will be severe, and the possibility for conflict far deadlier than what we are seeing in Ukraine can hardly be excluded.
Tehran makes no secret of its aspiration to become the node for all anti-Western and anti-global movements. Today’s Iran dreams of transforming itself into a Soviet Union redux, racing to the aid of anti-Western revolutionaries. Tomorrow’s nuclear Iran will be able to fulfill that dream. It will back a network of radical, violent groups that will rush to Tehran in search for a powerful patron. Tehran will then be only a small step away from becoming as potent a sponsor of subversion throughout the world as Putin’s Russia.
This scenario is not as far-fetched as it might appear. Iran already has important friends in Europe and stirs up revolutionary fantasies among hardcore Western Marxists. Links between Europe’s far left and Iran’s brand of radical Islam are well-established. Their mutual loathing for Western capitalism and democracy trumps differences they might have on issues like gender and homosexuality. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, expressions of sympathy and support for Iran are also evident among the far right, especially since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, which spurred numerous far-right organizations in Europe to idolize Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran as supposed defenders of Christian minorities and bulwarks against Sunni Salafists. Iran has since cultivated this image through foreign propaganda channels.
Nor would an emboldened, nuclear-capable Iran not stop at supporting anti-global political forces on the extremes of our political systems. It would consolidate an already existing international coalition of states that share Iran’s ideological antagonism toward the West. Iran’s alliances with Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba in Latin America have strengthened over the past decade. Whenever elections flip pro-Western governments across the developing world, Iran will have an easier time offering itself as their paladin—investing in their economies, topping up the bank accounts of compliant leaders, training and supplying their armies, and providing political support in international forums. Russia and China will be more than happy to use Iran as a hammer to strike at Western interests and security arrangements that interfere with their own ambitions.
As we watch Putin’s Russia destroy Ukraine, we should realize we are about to cross a similar threshold with Iran.
Emanuele Ottolenghi (@eottolenghi) is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, D.C.