Jerry Nockles' excellent post on American exceptionalism gives an insight into the way the US perceives its role in the world. And in his selection of quotes from contemporary US politicians, the degree to which they pay homage to this concept shows that it remains a real issue.
The inevitable problem with this way of thinking is that it makes little if any allowance for others who believe in their own exceptionalism. The world is not full of such states, but nor is America alone in believing that it has been endowed with what the nineteenth century American newspaper editor John O'Sullivan referred to as a 'manifest destiny'.
That term was coined for the mindset that prompted America's westward expansion 150 years ago, but its late twentieth century manifestation was much more global in outlook. When policymakers have sought to fulfil America's manifest destiny overseas, it has brought them into conflict with other states who do not agree with America's view of itself. In the case of the enduring conflict between Washington and Tehran, the situation is exacerbated by Iran's view of its own exceptionalism.
It is too simple to look at Iran's Islamic revolution and to ascribe religion as the central element of Iranian identity. But this fails to understand Iran's multi-layered nature. This article by an Iranian academic gives an insight into the way Iran considers itself exceptional in much the same way the US does, albeit within more limited geographical boundaries.
The notion of Iranian exceptionalism is not simply a product of the revolution. The Shah referred to Iran as the 'Great Civilisation', inferring that it rivaled the West as a centre of culture, thought and presumably leadership. This view was tolerated in Washington so long as the two countries' national interests coincided.
For Iran, the early '70s represented the zenith of its ability to give practical voice to its exceptionalism. The US, exhausted by Vietnam and viewing the defence of Western Europe as the main game, gave the Shah pretty much free rein to guarantee Gulf security. Iran sent a brigade of troops to help Oman fight a rebellion in its south, and it provided some of the first troops to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
The Islamic Republic would love to return to those salad days. But Iran's ethnicity and religion limit the influence it can have in the region. Its early attempts to export the revolution in the region were, with the exception of the Lebanese community and some Iraqi Shi'a groups, unsuccessful. This lack of ethnic, religious or ideological affiliation with the broader region means that it seeks proxies to extend its influence. Yet in reality, the influence Tehran wields outside its immediate borders is much less than many would have us believe.
Regardless, it is fascinating to see how two countries, one much weaker than the other but both nonetheless sharing a view that they command a special place in the world, face off in the region. Some US media outlets have also noticed that the US and Iran share a similar view of their 'rendezvous with destiny'.
The UK believed its colonial endeavours had a 'civilising' component, and the US believes its foreign policy activities are part of a broader responsibility to encourage the emergence of democratic ideals. Iran's exceptionalism is different insofar as it lacks a missionary component. Tehran demands that it be treated with the respect and have the regional influence that its size and history demands, but its governance system is attractive to few and its Islamic revolutionary ideals somewhat tired and unappealing.
Which makes one wonder what the rationale for Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability has been. Nuclear weapons are unlikely to buy Tehran any more influence, because it is a regional outrider. But if Pakistan and Israel are any examples, nuclear weapons do buy you territorial security. Those who subscribe to the theory that Iran seeks a nuclear capability as the ultimate guarantee of security (the shield) rather than as an offensive capability (the sword) argue that Tehran sees the capability as a means of ensuring the territorial integrity of the country and as evidence of Iran's claim to be a Great Civilisation.
In the region however, it appears that there is room for only one type of exceptionalism.
Photo by Flicker user hapticflapjack.