Of Ayatollahs and Jacobins
Re-balancing after the rise of revolutionary powers—a historical lesson for transatlantic policy toward Iran

David Ignatius Associate Editor and Columnist The Washington Post

© 2008 The German Marshall Fund of the United States. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Please direct inquiries to: The German Marshall Fund of the United States 1744 R Street, NW Washington, DC 20009 T 1 202 745 3950 F 1 202 265 1662 E This publication can be downloaded for free at Limited print copies are also available. To request a copy, send an e-mail to GMF Paper Series The GMF Paper Series presents research on a variety of transatlantic topics by staff, fellows, and partners of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of GMF. Comments from readers are welcome; reply to the mailing address above or by e-mail to

About GMF The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-partisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between the United States and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

About Brussels Forum Brussels Forum is an annual high-level meeting of the most influential American and European political, corporate, and intellectual leaders to address pressing challenges currently facing both sides of the Atlantic. Participants include heads of state, senior officials from the European Union institutions and the member states, U.S. Cabinet officials, Congressional representatives, Parliamentarians, academics, and media. For more information, please visit

Of Ayatollahs and Jacobins
Re-balancing after the rise of revolutionary powers— a historical lesson for transatlantic policy toward Iran

Brussels Forum Paper Series March 2008

David Ignatius Associate Editor and Columnist The Washington Post

When former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger submitted his doctoral dissertation to Harvard University in May 1954, he pondered a problem that has an unlikely resonance more than 50 years later: How can a stable and legitimate security system be established following the rise of a revolutionary state that has disrupted the previous balance of power? In this dissertation—published later under the title: A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problem of Peace, 1812–1822 — Kissinger examined the construction of a new security order in Europe after violent disruptions of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars. The hero of Kissinger’s tale was the Austrian chancellor, Count Clemens von Metternich, who skillfully (and sometimes deviously) engineered the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that created a new European security architecture that kept the peace, more or less without interruption, for nearly a century. Kissinger quotes Metternich’s own assessment of this transition from the tumult of revolutionary Europe to an orderly continent where stable relations between states were once more the norm: “We have relapsed again into an epoch where a thousand small calculations and petty opinions form the history of the day. The sea is still tumultuous at times, but only from passing storms.” At the time of Kissinger’s writing, the analogy he had in mind for this 19th century diplomatic history was the confrontation between the United States and an expansionist, Napoleonic Soviet Union—in what he called “an age faced with the threat of thermonuclear extinction.” But we can apply a similar analysis to the great security challenge of the first decade of the 21st century— the instability in the Middle East posed by a state born in revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran. I will argue in this paper that the Iranian revolution of 1979 can be compared to the French revolution

of 1789 in its destabilizing effects—and in the need it created for a new balance of power. Each event set loose powerful shock waves that undermined the stability of neighboring states, and indeed, challenged their very legitimacy. Each inaugurated an era in which mobilization of the masses, through emotional, ideological, or religious appeals, had a transforming effect on their regions. Each introduced a revolutionary challenge to the prevailing balance in regional security. Each launched other revolutionary movements that, though they appeared to be competitors, were really aftershocks—the rise of Prussia was arguably such an event in Europe and the rise of Al-Qaeda was certainly such an event in the Islamic Middle East. And each prompted what might be called “wars of containment”—attempts by the neighboring status quo powers to contain the revolutions’ disruptive impact outside their home borders. These comparisons are obviously not precise—the growth of the Prussian state and the emergence of Al-Qaeda terrorism are radically different events. But each phenomenon was linked to the disruption of the status quo by a revolutionary power. In A World Restored, Kissinger offered a description of a revolutionary power that is hauntingly appropriate for contemporary Iran. “Whenever there exists a power which considers the international order or the manner of legitimizing it oppressive, relations between it and other powers will be revolutionary,” Kissinger wrote. He warned that status quo powers make the mistake of assuming the revolutionary power can be easily contained or bought off: “Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework. The defenders of the status quo therefore tend to begin by treating the revolutionary power as if its protestations were merely fanciful; as if it really accepted the existing

Of Ayatollahs and Jacobins


legitimacy but overstated its case for bargaining purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be assuaged by limited concessions.” The requirement for successful statesmanship in dealing with a revolutionary power, Kissinger argued, was realism about the danger it poses to stability: “It is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion.” Certainly, that description applies to Iran. It has sought to project its revolution through radical organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas that seek to overturn the status quo. And according to the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the country has embarked on a program to build nuclear weapons—a program the NIE posits was shelved, perhaps temporarily, in 2003. Once we have stripped away any remaining illusions or wishful thinking about the nature of the Iranian regime, what are the lessons of Kissinger’s analytical approach for establishing a new security system in the Persian Gulf that accommodates the reality of post-revolutionary Iran without allowing that nation to further destabilize the region? As we think about revolutionary powers, it’s useful to recall the force of the bomb that exploded in Europe’s midst in 1789. Kissinger notes the comment of Talleyrand that “nobody who lived after the French Revolution would ever know how sweet and gentle life could be.” The established order of the world was overturned, to the point that French revolutionaries insisted that history had begun anew, with a post-revolutionary Year I. In a Europe still ruled by monarchs and noblemen, the bloody attacks on the aristocracy by Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety confirmed the worst fears of what this revolution might bring. Simon Schama describes in his history of the revolution, Citizens, the ruthlessness of this

The requirement for successful statesmanship in dealing with a revolutionary power, Kissinger argued, was realism about the danger it poses to stability.

organized vengeance: “The Terror went into action with impressive bureaucratic efficiency. House searches, usually made at night, were extensive and unsparing. All citizens were required to attach to their front doors a notice identifying all residents who lived inside. Entertaining anyone not on that list, even for a single night, was a serious crime.” Schama notes that one of the standard crimes of the Year II was writing or saying “merde a la republique,” or “shit on the republic.” By 1794, there was an organized revolutionary underground of 6,800 Jacobin clubs with about 550,000 members. The bloodymindedness of this new France is summed up in a quotation Schama draws from Madame Roland: “Il faut du sang pour cimenter la revolution,” or “blood is necessary to cement the revolution.” The destabilizing impact of the revolution was acute, for France’s neighbors and even for a faraway nation with its own recent revolutionary history. Historian Jay Winik, in his recent study The Great Upheaval, quotes a frantic warning from Gouverneur Morris to George Washington: “The French disease of Revolt is spreading.” So appreciative was Washington of the ancient regime that he displayed a portrait of Louis XVI in his office, Winik notes. The fear and loathing that revolutionary France inspired across Europe is vividly described by Alexis de Toqueville in a passage from The Old Order and the French Revolution: “The attitude of the outside world toward it gradually changed, as it revealed its aspect as a grim, terrific force of nature, a newfangled monster, red of tooth and claw; when, after abolished political institutions, it tampered with civil order; when after changing laws, it tampered with age-old customs and even the French language; when not content with wrecking the whole structure of the government of France, it proceeded to undermine the social order and even aimed at dethroning God himself;


The German Marshall Fund of the United States

when, worse, still, it began operating beyond the borders of its place of origin employing methods hitherto unknown, new tactics, murderous slogans—‘opinions in arms,’ as Pitt described them. Not only were the barriers of kingdoms swept away and thrones laid low, but the masses were trampled underfoot—and yet, amazingly enough, these masses rallied to the cause of the new order.” Observers of the Iranian revolution might make similar statements about its dire consequences. During its first year, the revolutionary momentum in Tehran engulfed and swept away many of its more moderate supporters—a dynamic very similar to what happened in France in the early 1790s. This process of a revolution feeding upon itself produced a reckless challenge to international norms of behavior in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the seizure of its employees as hostages. This act threatened the most basic rules of diplomacy, but the Iranians got away with it. It was this powerlessness of the established order that was probably the abiding lesson for the Iranian revolutionaries. Iran’s late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini expressed the wonderment and empowerment of his nation in a phrase that is repeated in Tehran to this day: “America can’t do a damned thing.” Across the Persian Gulf, and indeed, throughout the Muslim world, ordinary people were roused by the success of the Iranian revolutionaries in defying the United States and its CIA-installed Shah—and ruling elites were frightened. Within 18 months after the revolution, Iran was at war. In this case, it was not an Iranian attempt to export revolution but an Arab attempt to contain it—with Iraq acting as the proxy for frightened Sunni Muslim states. (A similar pattern occurred in Europe, where the first attempt to contain the French Revolution—the Pillnitz Declaration of 1791—predated Napoleon’s rise. Status quo Europe understood that it was

the revolution itself that posed the threat.) I traveled with Iraq’s army into Iran in the early weeks of the war, and I know the Iraqis believed that they would score a quick victory against the ayatollahs’ shaky new regime. What saved the Iranians was their ability to mobilize a mass army of believers—much like the mass army of revolutionaroused Frenchmen that Napoleon had sent rampaging across Europe in his early conquests. As it pushed back the Iraqi army, the Islamic Republic and its supporters counter-attacked along other fronts. Iranian-backed radical Islamic movements began to gain support among Shia Muslim communities in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Among Sunni Muslims, extremist religious movements also took courage from the Islamic revolution in Iran. Fanatics seized the Mecca mosque in late 1979, a few weeks after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized. The extremists were only dislodged with help from the French military. The American Embassy in Islamabad was stormed, too, by copycat Sunni “students.” The Egyptian group Takfir w’al Hijra, a precursor to Al-Qaeda, penetrated the Egyptian army so deeply that it was able to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during a military parade in 1981. By 1983, the Iranian secret services had burrowed deep within the Shia community of Lebanon. Through cut-outs, Iranian operatives organized the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Iranian intelligence also helped create the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which continues to project Iranian power in Lebanon to this day. By 1984, Hezbollah kidnappings of Americans and other westerners had made West Beirut a no-go zone. Adding to the climate of revolutionary defiance was the fatwa sanctioning the murder of Indian Muslim novelist Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, a supposedly anti-Muslim book.

Of Ayatollahs and Jacobins


Though we live today in what is sometimes described as a “unipolar” world of one superpower, America’s misadventure in Iraq has demonstrated that the sole superpower is not easily able to impose its will…that the modern United States has a need for traditional “balance of power” relations.

The Iranians also pushed ahead to acquire the ultimate token of power in the modern world, a nuclear weapon. They acquired fuel-enrichment technology from the Pakistani network of A.Q. Khan during the 1990s. And according to the recent NIE, they began an actual bomb-making program to produce a deliverable nuclear weapon. The political arc of the Iranian revolution finally seemed to be bending downward by the late 1990s, with the election of a reformist president, Mohammed Khatami. He wasn’t strong enough to re-establish open diplomatic relations with the United States, but the two countries did begin a period of quiet cooperation—first against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, and then in Iraq in 2003. The United States was destroying the two potent adversaries on Iran’s border. Whether because it was afraid of American power or because it felt less threatened by Iraq, Iran decided in the fall of 2003 to halt its nuclear weapons program, as the NIE posits. This period of de facto U.S.–Iranian cooperation was probably the greatest opportunity to date to achieve the kind of broad strategic rapprochement that Kissinger describes in A World Restored. Indeed, the Iranians in 2003 circulated to the United States a document summarizing the basis on which such a dialogue would be conducted. Diplomacy was opportune at this time in part because both the United States and Iran were feeling relatively strong. The zero-sum game that often applies to U.S.–Iranian relations was absent. What made the diplomatic failure here so unfortunate was that it stemmed from what was an American fantasy—that Iran was on the verge of a counter-revolution that would topple the Islamic Republic. This failure to engage Iran at an opportune moment may have lasting effects. Though we live today in what is sometimes described as a “unipolar” world of one superpower,

America’s misadventure in Iraq has demonstrated that the sole superpower is not easily able to impose its will—even on a much weaker Iran—and that the modern United States has a need for traditional “balance of power” relations. The Iraq war began as an assertion of U.S. power in the region and, to the extent one can understand what was going through the minds of U.S. policymakers, as a prelude to a subsequent move to alter or replace the hostile clerical regime in Iran. By 2008, it seems clear, however, that even with the most optimistic reading, a principal strategic consequence of the war will be the ehancement of Iranian power in the region. This reality—that the Iraq war empowered Iran— raises the stakes for a regional re-balancing of power. It’s all the more necessary to find a regional architecture that recognizes the fact of Iranian power. But if Iran holds to its revolutionary goals of challenging the other powers of the region and, indeed, the legitimacy of the established order, then diplomatic concessions will be very dangerous. An accommodation that is forged on Iranian terms would be harmful to the United States and its allies, from Egypt and Israel all the way to Pakistan. So how should the United States and Europe think about a new balance of power in the Middle East—one that is faithful to the model Kissinger described in A World Restored? The first requirement for a Metternichian solution, unfortunately, is a defeat of the revolutionary power on the battlefield. It was Napoleon’s defeat in Russia in 1812 that set the stage for all the diplomatic maneuvering that followed. Had Napoleon succeeded in Russia, any rebalancing of Europe would have been on terms all but dictated by post-revolutionary France. By analogy, one can argue that a defeat for the Iranian revolution is the requirement for a workable


The German Marshall Fund of the United States

balance of power in the Gulf. That opportunity arose after the Iraq–Iran war, which if not a disaster on the level of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, certainly was not an Iranian victory. Since the war ended without a formal peace treaty, it was an opportunity ripe for a modern Metternich. If U.S. diplomats had been more creative and skillful, they might have moved to transform the ceasefire that ended the Iraq–Iran war to a broader regional agreement that could be analogized to the 1814 Treaty of Paris and the Congress of Vienna a year later. But that opportunity was lost. A second attribute of a diplomatic “concert” is that it must address the range of security interests of the key parties. No nation achieves all of its desired outcomes, but each makes sufficient gains that the deal as a whole is acceptable. It is a matter, as economists might say, of “satisficing,” rather than maximizing. As Kissinger explains, the diplomatic bargaining that preceded the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Britain and Austria were essentially status quo powers; they wanted to restore a measure of the old, pre-revolutionary order. Russia and Prussia were “acquisitive” powers that wanted to digest the gains they had achieved from Napoleon’s defeat. The essential element in the new equilibrium was that France renounced influence outside its own borders. Russia’s ambitions in Poland were satisfied by an arrangement that created a Kingdom of Poland under the hegemony of the Tsar of Russia. As for Prussia, its hope of annexing Saxony was partially met; it obtained two-thirds of Saxony, plus Pomerania, plus the Duchy of Westphalia. In other words, each of the players got some of what they wanted, but nobody got all of what they wanted. Kissinger applied this bargaining approach most effectively in his famous opening to China. One can now study the once-secret memoranda of conversation from his 1971 and 1972 meetings

with Zhou Enlai, in which the two men discussed the national interests of their two nations and how they might overlap and indeed converge. Their discussions were an extraordinary application of the precepts that Kissinger had drawn from his study of Metternich. In the case of contemporary Iran, the challenge of a similar diplomatic opening would be to identify the interests of the key parties—and then to explore where they converge and diverge. Iraq would be an especially fruitful area for such discussion between the United States and Iran. Both would seem to share an interest in the success of the Shia-led government that will rule the country under any likely democratic regime in the future. If either side presses for unilateral advantage, it risks a chaotic outcome in which both sides would be worse off. This is obviously the basis for a rational diplomatic bargain—if reason can prevail. A similar identity of interests would seem to exist in the larger arena of strategic relations in the Persian Gulf. Any stable system will have to accommodate the reality of Iranian power—for a rising Iran is simply a fact of life in that part of the world. But if the United States and its allies must accept an Iranian role in the regional balance so, too, must Iran accept a continuing American security role there. Even after setbacks in Iraq, the United States retains immense power in the Gulf. The Iranians will not achieve their strategic goals until they accept and accommodate this fact. A final lesson of this study in Metternich-Kissinger realism is that if the conditions do not exist for a genuine peace that recognizes and accommodates the mutual interests of both the revolutionary and status quo powers, then the only sound alternative is containment of the revolutionary power until times are more propitious for settlement. To quote Kissinger again, “whenever peace—conceived as

Iriuscidunt verci tinciduisi. Lis ad elessi. Um alis dolor si. Ing eum dolorem nullaor tionseq uipsum ipsusto dolore feum quiscil iscilis er si et vent amcor ad dio eum vel

Of Ayatollahs and Jacobins


History tells us that if Iran continues to act as a revolutionary power that seeks to project and expand its power, then a future war of containment may be inevitable.

the avoidance of war—has been the primary object of a power or group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member.” The goal of diplomacy, after all, is not some abstract notion of “peace,” but stability and security. Certainly, Kissinger adopted the approach of armed containment toward the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s. But it’s noteworthy that when the opportunity arose for this supreme realist to explore “détente” with Moscow during the Nixon years, Kissinger seized it. A statesman’s prescription for the United States and Iran, then, would begin with the need for dialogue. The goal should be to explore whether the conditions exist for a balancing of mutual interests. In pursuing this approach, the United States would be hoping that the first Metternichian condition does not apply—that the eventual American war of containment against Iran, which many analysts in the Gulf assume is inevitable, can be obviated by aggressive diplomacy. In such a dialogue, each side would have to recognize the need to forgo some of its maximalist objectives. Iran would have to give up its revolutionary challenge to the legitimacy and sovereignty of its neighbors; it would have to embrace a role as a co-guarantor of regional stability, rather than as a threat to that stability.

Iran would also have to accept limits on its nuclear program that effectively checked it from producing nuclear weapons. The United States, in turn, would have to accept limits on its ability to steer events in the region unilaterally. In Iraq, for example, it would accept the inevitability of a strong Iranian role as America withdraws its troops. In this concert of nations, the interests of other key powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, would also have to be accommodated. It may be that dialogue would reveal the impossibility of achieving such a regional “concert of nations,” and that there could be no Middle East version of the Congress of Vienna for the foreseeable future. In that case, the various powers will inevitably and appropriately pursue their national interests. History tells us that if Iran continues to act as a revolutionary power that seeks to project and expand its power, then a future war of containment may be inevitable. But that course would be folly on Iran’s part—as unwise as Napoleon’s march into Russia.


The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Washington • Berlin • Bratislava • Paris Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara • Bucharest

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.