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Expert on Iran explains foreign policy stance

Iran’s foreign policy actions come from its insecurity and desire to uphold its unique ideology, American Enterprise Institute’s resident fellow J. Matthew McInnis said at a lecture on Wednesday.


“Iran is something that can be understood. It is not a black box,” McInnis said, explaining that it is possible for the American government, and the public, to understand why Iran behaves like it does.

McInnis served as the senior expert on Iran at the U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, and worked with General David Petraeus GS ’85 ’87 and General Ray Odierno to increase the government’s awareness of Iran’s military capabilities. He worked at the U.S. Department of Defense for 15 years, working on regional security and counterterrorism in the Middle East and East Asia prior to joining AEI.

McInnis said Iran’s anti-Western stance stems from the last 200 years of its history.

“Over the last 200 years, Iran has lost a lot of territory to imperialist forces,” McInnis said.

Iran’s lack of military strength causes it to view powerful countries like the United States and China with fear, all the while projecting an image of confidence, he said.

“They don’t have the capacity to take over Iraq, Afghanistan or Turkey,” McInnis said, adding that Iran uses proxy forces, like Hezbollah, to help it spread its unique ideology throughout the Middle East.


Iran’s goal is similar to those of the Soviet Union and China during the 1970s and 1980s, but it “hasn’t gone through a ‘Deng Xiaoping’ moment yet,” McInnis noted. Additionally, Iran is currently struggling to convince its neighbors and its people to embrace its system of government, he said.

Quoting Henry Kissinger, McInnis said, “Iran can’t decide if it’s an idea or a state, and it’s struggling to determine that now.”

McInnis said Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wanted the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” nuclear deal signed by Iran, the United States and other members of the United Nations in July. The deal lifted the economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union, and allowed Iran to enrich Uranium in limited quantities. Once the deal expires, Iran would have the ability to resume developing a nuclear arsenal.

While Iran had been trying to obtain a deal since the early 2000s under the Ahmadinejad regime, the current situation in the Middle East finally made the deal a possibility.

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Iran does not currently have a reason to develop its nuclear program, since the Arab Spring, compounded with the rise of the ISIS, has already put the Iranian nuclear program on hold. Iran has resigned itself to maintaining control over Syria while fending off ISIS, rather than furthering its nuclear capacity.

According to McInnis, if Iran were to grow its nuclear stockpile, the United States and its allies would escalate, leading to a Cold War-type scenario.

“Iran realized that developing nuclear weapons would put them in a state similar to North Korea,” McInnis said.

The deal also offers Iran a relief from sanctions, which is beneficial not only from an economic standpoint, but also from a military one. By putting their nuclear weapons program on hold for 10 to 20 years, Iran stands to gain from greater export revenues.

McInnis pointed out that the United States might have given up more than what was necessary to accomplish the deal.

“Once Iran knew that the U.S. was open to giving them the right to enrich Uranium, they became much more keen on making a deal,” McInnis said.

Domestically, McInnis attributed the current instability in Iran to the classical nationalists that exert a certain amount of influence in Iranian government. These “Persian chauvinists” want to project a sense of Persian superiority and dominance, while the Supreme Leader and others in the regime want to unite the Middle East under the banner of Islam. But because Iran is the only theocracy in the region, it has no neighboring allies who support its style of governance.

Looking to the future, McInnis noted that Russia’s incursion into Syria could pose a major threat to Iranian dominance, as Iran doesn’t have a very positive view of Russia or the United States.

The lecture was organized by the American Enterprise Institute On-Campus, and took place in Oakes Lounge in Whig Hall at 6:30 p.m.