- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Ariane Tabatabai: Understanding Iran’s National Security Decisions

  • Jacob Carozza
| Summer 2018

As a young child in Iran, Ariane Tabatabai grew up in an environment where everything was politicized. At school, she says, she was taught the official viewpoint of the Islamic Republic’s government.


“I would come home and get a very different perspective from my parents,” said Tabatabai, whose mother is a political sociologist and whose father is a political theorist. But the regime eventually removed her parents from their university posts, as it did with many academics, and she spent much of her upbringing away from Iran. She earned her undergraduate degree in the United States as a double major in political science and film, and almost enrolled in New York University’s film school.


But Iran remained on her mind, and she wanted to get to know the country as an adult. She lived there during the controversial 2009 election, in which the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected amid widespread voting irregularities. Tabatabai had friends who were involved in the campaigns of reformist candidates, and she soon joined them in protesting the election outcome.


She went on to earn a Ph.D. at King’s College London, becoming an expert in international security, nuclear issues and the Middle East. She is now the director of curriculum and an assistant teaching professor at the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, and she often contributes to publications like Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


Tabatabai frequently writes about the Iran nuclear deal; she was even consulted as an expert on the topic for an episode of HBO’s news-satire show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”


While the agreement has some flaws, she says, there exists no “perfect deal” — the ideal agreement for one side would be unacceptable for the other. A withdrawal would also undermine U.S. credibility in nuclear negotiations with North Korea and other nations, she says.


As a postdoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program, Tabatabai has been working on a manuscript for a book about how the Iranian regime makes national security decisions. Iran’s involvement in Syria’s civil war is motivated by a combination of factors, she says, including economic opportunity, access to Lebanon, and Syria’s role as an ally during Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s. But Iran’s actions carry risks, Tabatabai says.


“Out of all the theaters Iran is involved in, the one that worries me the most is Syria,” she said.


Tabatabai remains concerned that the conflict could balloon into a larger proxy war between Iran and Israel. “I don’t think it’s something that either party wants,” she said.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Carozza, Jacob. "Ariane Tabatabai: Understanding Iran’s Foreign Policy Decisions." Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (Spring 2018).

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