Courtesy of ayatabaar.com

On Friday morning, professor Mohammad Tabaar of Texas A&M University gave a virtual talk to about 25 students in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department entitled “The Political and Social History of Contemporary Iran.”

The central proposition of his talk was that conventional wisdom — which holds that factional, political and strategic decisions made by some groups in Iran are driven by Islamic ideology — is wrong. In fact, he argued, the reverse is true: Factional political dilemmas and problems drive ideology and its role in Iranian politics. The same, he said, was true for the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini.

“It was not his ideology that shaped his politics, it was his politics that shaped his ideology,” said Tabaar.

Tabaar is an associate professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. His research areas include the politics of ideology and domestic sources of international security.

Tabaar described how even today, internal political divisions drive ideology, both religious and otherwise. One example he drew upon is the current U.S. sanctions on Iran. 

“Because these sanctions are benefiting certain factions inside Iran such as the revolutionary guard, they are welcomed,” Tabaar said. “And although these sanctions are undermining the state, they are empowering the revolutionary guard, and that is why they are not effective. They use these sanctions to eliminate their internal rivals.”

Kahveh Zahiroleslam ’24, an attendee who is also taking an L1 Persian class, said that he was particularly struck by the “unseen internal unrest [in Iran]” that Tabaar described. 

“I was unaware as to the ways in which the regime and other political factions within Iran manipulated ideology in order to serve political ends,” he said.

In the talk, Tabaar focused on two moments in Iranian history that he described as examples of this reversed positioning of politics and ideology: the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in 1980 and the Iran-Iraq War. 

The crisis in 1980 was the product of anti-American sentiment but only occurred because the three main political groups in Iran at the time — leftists, nationalists and clerics — were all vying for power and using vitriol towards America as a way of rising to power, Tabaar said.

As a result, these groups competed with each other, leading to the seizure of the embassy. This is an example, according to Tabaar, of how ideology is secondary to political considerations, as anti-Americanism was used as a tool to gain political power. To illustrate this, Tabaar pointed out that before the hostage crisis, leading Iranians were not all strictly anti-American, with even Khomeini reportedly being sympathetic to the Americans.

The Iran-Iraq War serves as another example of how ideology is secondary to political considerations, according to Tabaar.

“It was the competition between the nationalists and the Islamists and between the revolutionary guard and the military that shaped the war,” Tabaar said. “At every stage Khomeini used religion to compete with his rivals.”

“It was a pleasure to attend Professor Tabaar’s talk,” attendee Alexander Williams GRD ’26 wrote in an email to the News. “I am not a political scientist, and not particularly familiar with the literature on the 1979 Revolution, but his reframing of religion and politics in Iran as the ‘politics of Islam’ rather than ‘political Islam’ seems to be an important corrective for contemporary U.S.-based understandings of the role of religion in Iranian history and state policy.”

The Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department at Yale is the oldest in the nation at 173 years old.

Philip Mousavizadeh | philip.mousavizadeh@yale.edu