The Iranian Hedgehog vs. the American Fox

The escalation between the two countries is being driven by the clashing temperaments of their leaders.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting in Tehran in 2017.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting in Tehran in 2017. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Though few citizens of the United States or Iran seek conflict, the two countries are on a dangerous trajectory that has less and less to do with the diverging interest of two nation-states. More and more, the escalation is being driven by the clashing temperaments of two cynical elderly men. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 80-year-old Iranian supreme leader, has been steadfast, even monomaniacal, in opposing the United States. In contrast, the 73-year-old Donald Trump has employed a flurry of strategies—from flattering Iran to coming within minutes of military strikes—to bring Tehran to heel.

The Oxford University philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s seminal 1953 essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” offers a simple dichotomy to explain recent dynamics between the United States and Iran—or, rather, between Trump and Khamenei.

Borrowing a line from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin divided human beings into two different categories: “The fox knows many things,” he wrote, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Hedgehogs have a grand theory of the world, while foxes employ a different cunning for every circumstance. He cites Shakespeare and Aristotle as examples of foxes, while “Karl Marx was the most implacable hedgehog of them all.”

Among world leaders today, few hedgehogs are more implacable than Ayatollah Khamenei. Hedgehogs, Berlin argued, “relate everything to a single central vision … a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” In this spirit, Khamenei’s organizing principle throughout his 30-year rule as supreme leader has been “resistance” against America.

Rather than calming Iranian national anxieties about the prospect of war with the United States, Khamenei used the word resistance more than 65 times in a recent speech—sometimes more than once in a sentence. “Today in our region,” he said, “the common word among nations is resistance. Everyone agrees with resistance … The recent defeats that the Americans suffered in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and other such countries were an outcome of the resistance of Resistance groups.”

For Khamenei, “resistance” against “global arrogance”—his moniker for American imperialism— is both an ideology and a strategic doctrine. “Resistance,” he said, “unlike surrender, leads to the retreat of the enemy. When the enemy bullies you, if you take a step back, he will undoubtedly advance. The way to stop him from advancing is to resist.” Consistent with Khamenei’s philosophy, Iran has not responded to Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign with concessions, but rather by sowing chaos in the region and threatening to restart its nuclear program.

Berlin contrasted the dogmatism of hedgehogs with foxes, who, he wrote, “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” Even sympathetic observers of Donald Trump’s presidency would likely concur that he pursues contradictory ends motivated by an unknown psychological cause for no clear moral principle. But while Khamenei is the quintessential hedgehog, Trump is a variation on the prototypical fox; he does not know many things as much as he says many things.

Unlike Khamenei’s sole strategic doctrine, Trump’s Iran strategy—sometimes to the left of Glenn Greenwald, and sometimes to the right of Sean Hannity—has had the coherence of a Jackson Pollock painting. Days after angrily tweeting that “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” Trump proclaimed that Iran “has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership.” After Iran shot down a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf this week, Trump ominously tweeted “big mistake.” Moments later, he assessed it may have just been a big misunderstanding. Hours later, he claimed to call off military strikes against Iran 10 minutes before they were to happen.

Trump’s erratic approach—provoking an escalation cycle while simultaneously making clear his aversion to conflict—only increased Tehran’s appetite for risk. As Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institution has pointed out, Trump is learning the same hard lesson as six U.S. presidents before him. If Tehran is willing to subject its population to economic hardship and use the entirety of its energy wealth to promulgate an antiquated ideology that advocates “Death to America” rather than “Prosperity for Iranians,” the United States has limited ability—using either engagement or coercion—to dissuade it.

Indeed, despite the imbalance of power between Tehran and Washington, Khamenei has been the one to consistently refuse Trump’s offer of dialogue, not vice versa. While many have declared this a failure of Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign, the reality is that Iran is in a much greater bind. A U.S. military strike on Iran might have been averted for now, but Iran’s deteriorating economic circumstances cannot likely be reversed absent an accommodation of the United States.

In this context, for Trump the best option is not to respond militarily to Iranian acts of aggression and sabotage, but to use them to build more robust international support, all while keeping the door of diplomacy open. While the deteriorating Iranian economy probably won’t make the regime implode, Iranian popular pressure will grow on Khamenei to justify his opposition to negotiations, and will increasingly expose him as the obstacle that stands between Iranians and a better future. Tehran already shows signs of frustration with Khamenei’s intransigence, including President Hassan Rouhani’s recent admission that he has no authority over Iran’s foreign affairs.

When and if Tehran is ready to talk, the differences between Trump and Khamenei present further obstacles. Trump prefers public pageants about broad topics; Khamenei prefers private discussions about narrow topics. Reaching a deal—or at least averting a conflict—will require Khamenei to acquire the flexibility of a fox, and Trump to adopt the strategic patience and resolve of a hedgehog. While two men with a combined age of 153 surely lack the psychological and ideological agility to change who they are, the possibility of a devastating war will encourage a little more deftness.