Why Israel’s attempt to engage Iran ultimately failed

The nonlinearity of Tehran’s strategy makes relations with it particularly interesting.

The most memorable impression of Iran is the paradox that accompanies almost every aspect of public life. On one hand, the state is quite strict in monitoring order on the streets and observance of religious requirements. On the other, there are no excessive security measures. In fact, one sometimes wishes that they could be strengthened. For example, at airports the arbitrary movement of people gives the impression of easy access for terrorists. The ban on all foreign messengers is combined with the universal use of VPNs. Almost half a century of conflict with the United States (Iran is one of the few countries that does not even have an American embassy) does not prevent the elite and academics from speaking excellent English and frequently publishing in foreign journals.
This paradox is fully inherent in Iranian foreign policy, as was evident when we spent a few days in the country during the lull in the exchange of drone and missile strikes with Israel. The general impression is that Tehran is perfectly happy with the results it has achieved and is not seeking an all-out war with its main regional adversary. What looks from the outside like an inadequate response to Israel is, in Iran’s paradoxical logic, exactly optimal. It allows them to solve a foreign policy problem without taking undue risks. Everyone understands that a major war in the Middle East would only benefit Israel, right? For Tehran, the main thing is not to give the Israelis what they want.
This unique approach to foreign and domestic policy is the result of the special conditions under which the country has developed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Its main consequence was the strategic confrontation with the West, which unfolded at the height of the world domination of the US and its European allies, from the 1980s to the 2000s. Initially, Tehran’s adversary was also the USSR, which supported Saddam Hussein’s government during the Iran-Iraq war. This is well remembered there. However, it doesn’t mean that the attitude towards the Soviet Union is being transferred to Russia – here Iranian strategic logic easily accepts that yesterday’s adversary can be today’s reliable friend. The conflict with the West, despite the possibility of tactical deals, has a worldview character: the Iranian state is built on the ability to make internal decisions that the US and Europe deny to everyone else.

The price of this Iranian independence is very high. First and foremost is the steady exodus of educated young people who are unhappy with the restrictions on their private lives. It also includes the large number of poor people and urban air pollution caused by the use of old cars and poor quality petrol. The response to these challenges is paradoxical, as it should be for a grand strategy: it consists of a constant increase in the number of students and large universities with their own research laboratories (mostly in the natural sciences). Iran is now probably the country with the fastest growing educational programs, including those aimed at international cooperation.
At the same time, no one is preventing the return of those who have left, provided they have not committed any crimes. Joint research with Iranians living abroad is also welcome. And the country’s consistent efforts to develop the natural sciences give us reason to believe that, in time, it will be possible to solve the economic and technological problems of development. Under the US blockade and UN sanctions, results are coming slowly, but the alternative is to give up independence, which is not part of Tehran’s plans.
In assessing Iran’s foreign policy, we must first understand that this power has been fighting for several decades against all odds, outnumbered and alone. And that is why, more than most, it can be characterized by the paradoxical logic that distinguishes the possessors of a true grand strategy. And every decision made by the Iranian authorities, whether tactical or on a larger scale, such as joining the BRICS group in January of this year, should be assessed precisely as a manifestation of this – completely devoid of linearity. It is almost impossible to predict behavior within this logic, but it is precisely this logic that makes relations with Iran interesting and instructive.