World View: Does Iran's 'Heroic Flexibility' Signal a Real Policy Change?

World View: Does Iran's 'Heroic Flexibility' Signal a Real Policy Change?

This morning’s key headlines from

  • Iran’s policies move in the direction of ‘Heroic Flexibility’
  • Iran’s changing strategy defined by younger generations
  • The op-ed by Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani

Iran’s policies move in the direction of ‘Heroic Flexibility’

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani, will visit the United Nations next week
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, will visit the United Nations next week

Iran’s extremely hardline Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Seyed AliKhamenei, surprised Iranian officials this week by using the phraseissues with America and the West. 

According to Khamenei: 

“Though the world has changed, that cannot be ajustification for the change of ideals, goals, or the correctpath. … The nuclear matter must be evaluated within thisoutlook. 

We do not accept nuclear weapons, neither due to nor not due toAmerica, but because of our beliefs. When we say that no one musthave nuclear weapons, we certainly do not pursue them, but thetrue goal of Iran’s opposition in this field is another matter. 

Of course, these few countries do not want their monopoly to bebroken in the nuclear energy field… Therefore, the turmoil andtension created by America, the West and their related currents inthe nuclear discussion must be understood and analyzed within theframework of the deep tension between the Dominant System and theIslamic Revolution. 

I do not oppose correct diplomatic movements. I believe in whatwas called ‘heroic flexibility’ years ago because this movement isvery good and necessary in situations but it must be binding tofundamental conditions. 

A good wrestler sometimes shows flexibility due to technicalreasons but does not forget his opponent or his main goal. 

All of these achievements were accomplished in the oven of theenemies’ pressure and conspiracies, and this valuable experiencedemonstrates that no obstacle can stop a faithful, coherent anddetermined people that know their way.”

The phrase “Heroic Flexibility” refers to the act of a Muslim hero,following the death of the prophet Mohamed in the 7th century, tofinally reverse his clan’s opposition to the message of Mohamed. Hisreversal is referred to as “History’s Most Glorious HeroicFlexibility.” It led to major victories of Islam in Arabia, but italso led to the major split in Islam between the Sunni and Shiabranches and a bitter civil war that has been repeated throughout thecenturies. 

So the deep historic significance of this phrase by thehardline Khamenei was startling to other Iranian leaders, becauseit was felt that Khamenei would not have used that particularphrase unless he actually intended a major change of policy rather than simply some West-baiting statement. 

Another Iranian leader, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, reacted tothe “heroic flexibility” phrase as follows: 

“Just as the Supreme Leader pointed out during the[IRGC] commanders meeting, our country’s officials and policymakers must pay attention to America’s true personality, behaviorand nature. 

Negotiations must take place in the framework of a complete andtotal understanding of the opposing side, and we must not forgetAmerica’s tricks and deception. We must not forget how theysupported this current in the [2009] sedition matter [GreenMovement] and were determined to confront the great Iranian nationin their velvet reserves [referring to Velvet Revolution] withtheir cast iron and steel claws.”

American Enterprise Institute (Sept 17) and American Enterprise Institute (Sept 18)

Iran’s changing strategy defined by younger generations

Assuming that a change in Iran’s policies is actually about tooccur, many analysts are attributing it to the American sanctions.This comes from the standard silly view that almost everythingin the world occurs because of something that happens inWashington, when in fact very little that happens in the worldis caused by Washington policies. 

If a policy change occurs, it would be part of a much larger change inIran’s government that Generational Dynamics has been predicting foryears. (See for example, “China ‘betrays’ Iran, as internal problems in both countries mount”from 2008.) 

Iran is in a generational Awakening era. That’s because its lastgenerational Crisis war began in 1979, with the Great IslamicRevolution, and continued until 1988 with the Iran/Iraq war, duringwhich Iran was the target of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) –poison gas from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq army. The survivors of thatwar, currently led by Khamenei, have devoted their lives to make sureno such horrific war happens again. From the point of view of thesurvivors, the way to do this is, first, to keep the country unitedbehind a hardline Islamic state and, second, to have a strategicdefense to the WMDs held by Iran’s neighbors, including Pakistan andIsrael. 

What characterizes a generational Awakening era is that, very simply,the crisis war survivors die off and are replaced by youngergenerations of people who grew up after the crisis war.They have nopersonal memories of the horrors of the crisis war and rebelagainst the survivors, creating a “generation gap.” This happened inAmerica in the 1960s, when the presidencies of war survivors JohnF. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon were all facedwith massive student protests, demanding such things as sexualfreedoms, the end of the Vietnam War, and racial equality. Thestudent protests triggered police violence that reached a peak in the1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago, though the protestscontinued fairly freely after that. 

In Iran, student protests began in the early 2000s, and policeviolence reached a peak during the 2009 re-election of presidentMahmoud Ahmadinejad. The police violence was so bloody and brutalthat open protests have all but ended since then. But the underlyinggenerational changes cannot be stopped by police action. TheIran/Iraq crisis war survivors are retiring and dying off, and theyounger generations of people with no personal memory of the crisiswar are reaching positions of power and influence. That’s going tohappen no matter what the police do. 

So in order to predict changes in Iran’s policies, one needsto look at the opinion of young people, as I’ve been doingfor years, and these are the conclusions that I’ve reached: 

  • Young people do not like the oppressive hardline Islamic policies that restrict such things as sexual and political freedoms.
  • Young people do not have anything against Israel. They did not like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s constant inflammatory statements about Israel and the Holocaust, and they do not have any particular desire to see Israel pushed into the sea.
  • Young people like America and the West, while opposing some specific Western policies, particularly Western sanctions, though some of them blame Iran’s inflammatory policies for the sanctions.
  • In particular, young people dislike Western restrictions on Iran’s development of nuclear power, including nuclear weapons, because they believe, especially after Iraq’s use of poison gas on Iran, that such weapons are necessary for Iran’s defense.

I would add that it’s been my opinion for years, in contradictionto almost every American opinion on the left and the right,that even if Iran has nuclear weapons, it has absolutely nointention of using them on Israel. 

Furthermore, Iran’s leaders know that Israel is not their enemy, andnever has been. Their enemies are the Sunni nations, including theSaudis and the Pakistanis. 

So as I’ve been saying for years, I expect Iran’s policies to move inthe directions dictated by the opinions of young people, as outlinedabove. Thus, I would expect the hardline social behaviors to beweakened, I would expect the inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric to besoftened, but I would expect nuclear weapons development to continue. 

In his ‘Heroic Flexibility’ speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei said thatIran does not want nuclear weapons. I expect Iran to continuedevelopment of nuclear weapons, but despite the concerns of Israel’sprime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s my opinion that Iran has nointention of using them on Israel. 

The op-ed by Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani is traveling to the UnitedStates this week to speak at the United Nations and possiblyto meet with president Barack Obama. 

During the last couple of weeks, we’ve reported on an op-ed by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin in the NY Times and an op-ed by Senator John McCain in 

So it’s only right that on Friday, the Washington Post published anop-ed by Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani has only recentlybeen elected president as a “reformer,” which in Iran could meansomebody only slightly less hardline than his predecessors. But myguess is that “reformer” means that he’s moving policy away from thehardline policies of the war survivors toward the increasingly popularpolicies of the young postwar generations. 

“Three months ago, my platform of “prudence and hope”gained a broad, popular mandate. Iranians embraced my approach todomestic and international affairs because they saw it as longoverdue. I’m committed to fulfilling my promises to my people,including my pledge to engage in constructive interaction with theworld. … 

We must pay attention to the complexities of the issues at hand tosolve them. Enter my definition of constructive engagement. In aworld where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is –or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests withoutconsidering the interests of others. A constructive approach todiplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It meansengaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footingand mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve sharedobjectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not justfavorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentalityleads to everyone’s loss. 

Sadly, unilateralism often continues to overshadow constructiveapproaches. Security is pursued at the expense of the insecurityof others, with disastrous consequences. More than a decade andtwo wars after 9/11, al-Qaeda and other militant extremistscontinue to wreak havoc. Syria, a jewel of civilization, hasbecome the scene of heartbreaking violence, including chemicalweapons attacks, which we strongly condemn. In Iraq, 10 yearsafter the American-led invasion, dozens still lose their lives toviolence every day. Afghanistan endures similar, endemicbloodshed. 

The unilateral approach, which glorifies brute force and breedsviolence, is clearly incapable of solving issues we all face, suchas terrorism and extremism. I say all because nobody is immune toextremist-fueled violence, even though it might rage thousands ofmiles away. Americans woke up to this reality 12 years ago. … 

My approach to foreign policy seeks to resolve these issues byaddressing their underlying causes. We must work together to endthe unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence anddrive us apart. We must also pay attention to the issue ofidentity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the MiddleEast. 

At their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syriaare over the nature of those countries’ identities and theirconsequent roles in our region and the world. The centrality ofidentity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energyprogram. To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generatingnuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resourcesas it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand fordignity and respect and our consequent place in the world. Withoutcomprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face willremain unresolved. … 

After 10 years of back-and-forth, what all sides don’t want inrelation to our nuclear file is clear. The same dynamic is evidentin the rival approaches to Syria. 

This approach can be useful for efforts to prevent cold conflictsfrom turning hot. But to move beyond impasses, whether in relationto Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with theUnited States, we need to aim higher. Rather than focusing on howto prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk– about how to make things better. To do that, we all need tomuster the courage to start conveying what we want — clearly,concisely and sincerely — and to back it up with the politicalwill to take necessary action. This is the essence of my approachto constructive interaction. 

As I depart for New York for the opening of the U.N. GeneralAssembly, I urge my counterparts to seize the opportunitypresented by Iran’s recent election. I urge them to make the mostof the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given meand to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage inconstructive dialogue. Most of all, I urge them to look beyond thepines and be brave enough to tell me what they see — if not fortheir national interests, then for the sake of their legacies, andour children and future generations.”

This is a pretty good article, fitting well into the “soaringrhetoric” pattern that we’ve seen in some politicians’ speeches,though none recently. However, it contains little actual content. 

What’s most noticeable about it is that it contains none of the venomof the op-eds by Putin and McCain or of the speeches of Obama andAssad. There are no inflammatory remarks about America or Israel, aswould certainly have been the case in an article by MahmoudAhmadinejad. In the next week, Rouhani will begin to fill out hisrhetoric with actual policy positions, and then we’ll see whether

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Iran, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei,Heroic Flexibility, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani,Hassan Rouhani, Israel, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,Great Islamic Revolution, Iran/Iraq war 

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