The World’s Iran Problem

Review: Ilan Berman, ‘Iran’s Deadly Ambition’

Iranian demonstrators burn a representation of the U.S. flag in an annual pro-Palestinian rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day
Iranian demonstrators burn a representation of the U.S. flag in an annual pro-Palestinian rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day / AP
September 6, 2015

Ilan Berman’s new book refutes the claim that Iran is entertaining an enlightened rapprochement with the rest of the world. His central argument is simple: Iran’s nature—a revolutionary theocracy with a global mission—precludes peaceful democratic coexistence.


Berman believes that, for all the talk now of rolling back sanctions, economic restrictions on Iran have long been ineffective. The West, in Berman’s view, has given Iran just enough relief over the years to allow it to avoid major economic hardship, thus defeating the purpose of the exercise. (This may be true, though he underestimates the effect of sanctions in fostering pressure on the regime from Iran’s middle class.) Berman also provides a useful overview of the economic activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The author’s quantitative research makes clear how far the Guards have wormed their way into the heart of Iran’s economy. This is a fact worth remembering in the context of Iran’s looming sanctions relief. We’re left with the clear impression that European, Chinese, and Russian trade with Iran will lead to many billions in new capital for this 125,00-strong band.


Berman notes that Iran has three main guiding agendas: expanding the ideological frontiers of its Shia guardianship ideology; rivaling Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies for pan-Islamist leadership; and presenting itself as the regional guarantor of the oppressed—a kind of political Robin Hood. On this last point, the ‘presentation’ is far more important than the reality. Iran’s assistance to Bashar al-Assad in his enforced starvation and barrel bombing of hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunnis is hardly defending the weak. From supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen to mobilizing Shia protest movements in Bahrain, we see Iran’s penchant for allies of all stripes. Though Iran is on an ideological mission, it will work with a wide range of ideologically disparate groups if it believes that doing so will help its ultimate agenda.


Uniting Iran’s disparate strategic goals is its desire to weaken America and the West in the Middle East. As Berman notes in relation to Iran’s military support for the Taliban, "The goal of these efforts wasn’t success for the Sunni Taliban, which Shiite Iran saw as both a regional rival and strategic competitor. Rather, Iran sought to blunt the coalition’s political impact and lessen its chances for strategic success." Even with various Shia political leaders in the Middle East, serious tensions exist with Iran. Noting the role of Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Berman decries the West’s neglect of more-moderate Shia leaders who, with new diplomatic avenues, might serve as a counterweight to Iran.


From its relationship with the nations of Central Asia to its military and nuclear deals with Russia, Iran, as Berman shows us, is flexible in its attitude toward the nature of its partners. Berman is particularly interesting when discussing the shameful nature of the EU’s dealings with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s evolving relationship with China. Berman explains that "China provides Iran with a necessary energy lifeline in Asia—one that has withstood, and even expanded in the face of, Western sanctions." Even more concerning, we see how Iran has cultivated military ties with North Korea, including on issues such as ballistic missile technology. We also learn about Iranian aggressive alliances with various anti-American regimes in Latin America and its coveting of African energy supplies—most notably, uranium—and its support for war criminals such President al-Bashir of Sudan.


All this, and terrorism too! Berman outlines the various terrorist plots in which Iran has been involved in recent years, concluding that "the Islamic Republic’s founding principles, and its strategic culture, preclude a real rapprochement with the West in any meaningful long-term fashion."


It is its detailed, thorough argument that sets this book apart. There is research here, not a rant. While the author would have done well to spend more time on Iranian political strategy in Lebanon beyond Hezbollah, as well as the youth bulge in Iranian society, this book is a welcome and worthwhile survey of Iran’s dark vision of the future.

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