07/01/2014 10:07 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2014

Brutish and Short: How Iran Learned to Thrive on Conflict

Behrou Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

As talks between Iran and the P5+1 move toward a conclusion, those opposed to detente, on both sides, grow ever more agitated and active. A new report in Foreign Policy outlines a hawks' "playbook" circulating in the U.S. Congress that advocates maintaining key sanctions even after a potential nuclear deal, until Iran ceases to be a "sponsor of terror." In May the White House scrambled to scuttle the proposed Corker Amendment to the Israel-U.S. Strategic Partnership Act, whereby Congress would have had to directly approve any nuclear deal with Iran.

For those opposed to a final deal, not least in the U.S., the Iranian polity is simply not sophisticated enough to be reasoned with, so only vivid demonstration will suffice to show what is and isn't acceptable. Nuance, negotiation, and reciprocity are out.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, has even taken to the pages of the Washington Post to call for a "sober appreciation of realities ... and a serious calculation of alternatives." And he does not hesitate to point out that the aggressive posturing of the past has driven the nuclear program from 200 to 20,000 centrifuges, nor to imply that this only strengthens the hand of those elements in Iran that are most opposed to detente and most radical.

In fact, these elements in Iran thrive not just on opposition to the current negotiations but on conflict itself.

The hawk position in the U.S. Congress is the corollary of an argument that has dogged the Islamic Republic since its inception, the argument that, as a relatively young polity, Iran is simply too lacking in political history, tradition and heritage, or, in psychological terms, the coping mechanisms, to survive too much political convulsion. This alleged inherent weakness could be used equally to explain the state's frequent turns to violence, most recently in 2009, and its potential instability going forward.

One response to this argument is Said Arjomand's thesis, according to which the Islamic Revolution goes further than other "political religions" (e.g., the French Revolution, fascism, communism, and so on) by not just referencing a mythologized past but incorporating it wholesale, laying claim to and internalizing the heritage, traditions and legitimacy of centuries of Islam, in particular Shiism. The net effect has been a unique and powerful resilience. Both arguments operate on similar intellectual terrain but arrive at quite different conclusions.

An alternative paradigm, however, might be to extend this personification and developmental perspective a bit further to try to understand not just the viability but the actual behavior of the regime.

In this view, the coping mechanisms -- the habits and basic adaptability of the polity -- are shaped in early experience. The more traumatic the early experience, the more extreme and entrenched are likely to be the coping mechanisms. And just as an individual may carry such coping mechanisms into later life and different contexts, sometimes with disastrous effects, so may a polity.

The traumatic youth of the Islamic Republic in Iran would be the brutal international isolation of the Iran-Iraq War, instigated by Saddam's invasion not 18 months after the Republic was founded.

Through the war, Iran endured ceasefire resolutions that did not call for a return to pre-hostilities borders until Iran had crossed into Iraq. It endured global material and diplomatic support for the enemy, including components for chemical weaponry and gas attacks that went unrecognized and unquestioned by the international community. And it had a civilian airliner shot out of the sky by a U.S. warship, which then simply denied culpability. (The U.S. government eventually paid blood money in 1996, some nine years later.)

The coping mechanism became a political program that is still heavily premised on the identification and confrontation of an external threat, building on themes that predated and informed the revolution, but with a whole new relevance.

This occurred to the detriment of other social, political and economic objectives, taking their place, to some extent, at least, as a source of legitimacy. The existential nature, duration and totality of the war lent validity to such a program: Those who could most successfully resist would save the nation.

Some could argue that this posturing has little to do with war and descends rather from Shia Islam, a mode of thought burned into the national psyche. Certainly veneration of the Imam Hussein and the glorification of resistance and self-sacrifice have high cultural purchase in Iran. But it is not easy to define yourself through a culture of resistance if others do not oppose you, or, at the very least, are prepared to extend to you the basic norms of international relations and warfare. These were brutally absent in the world's relations with Iran during the war with Iraq.

In short, the life of the Islamic Republic until, say, 1990, had been brutish and short.

And this is how the head of the nascent body-politic became so heavily invested in an adversarial identity, so dependent on international tension and the perception of a state under siege. It is in the casually xenophobic political chants ("Death to America!") that are still officially promoted, in the constant political idiom of "enemies," in the readiness to provoke international censure and undermine international economic linkages, as necessary.

The rest of the body-politic is better able to adapt beyond past circumstances. It responds to its changing needs. The head, conversely, bears the burden of authority. It must justify itself, to a greater or lesser extent, in its exercise. And so it clings to the role and identity that gave it its greatest legitimacy and greatest triumph, even though, in doing so, it may wreak havoc on its own people.

The lesson learned by the Islamic Republic during eight years of war was that confrontation with an external enemy could be dramatically exploited to consolidate and justify power. They had learned, like Thomas Hobbes, that it was the condition of war that justified and fed the Leviathan.

The trick from the outside, then, may be in finding out how best to starve the beast rather than the people. Contrary to the arguments against the current round of talks, it is exactly nuance, negotiation and reciprocity that pose the greatest challenges to this adversarial identity.

In fact, they pose a threat to all those who have sought to derive authority from the current tension and conflict, which may go some way toward explaining much of the criticism.