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.