The Islamic Republic of Iran has pursued, as have other post-revolutionary states, certain principles and ideals that were revered in the movement that led to the revolution. Although Iran’s foreign policy during the past three decades has had an ideological component, this has not prevented it from translating ideology into operational policy in its foreign relations.
From the outset, the Islamic government of Iran declared an independent foreign policy, employing the axiom, “Neither East nor West.” In fact, this was not merely a declaration of independence — an attempt to be free of the hegemonic influences of the two superpowers — but it also constituted a repudiation of the bipolar international system.
That proclamation and revolutionary Iran’s ensuing policies were generally interpreted as a revolt against the existing international system, and thus were confronted by both the East and the West. Similarly, the notion of the “export of Islamic revolution” caused much anxiety, especially among Iran’s neighbors and in the region at large.
In fact, in Iran, there were two competing views about “exporting Islamic revolution.” At one end of the spectrum were those who advocated exporting the moral values of the revolution, solely in the fields of education and culture, through normal diplomatic channels. At the other end were those who viewed revolutionary Iran as the vanguard of a world revolutionary movement to liberate Muslim countries specifically, and other Third World countries generally, from imperialist subjugation.
However, it did not take long for the radical elements in the latter group to be marginalized and lose much of their clout in foreign policy decision-making. The “moderates” mostly approached the issue within the context of national interest. They considered Iran to be the ideological leader and supporter of an international brotherhood. In that capacity, they consider it a duty and obligation for Iran to fill the vacuum of failed and fading pan-nationalism.
Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that since 1979 Iran has faced numerous foreign policy challenges. Foremost among these was the eight-year war imposed upon Iran by the Ba‘thist regime of Iraq, which the West supported; this intensified Iran’s distrust of the outside world. The Western objections and pressures brought to bear on Iran regarding its nuclear program is yet another challenge, one that finally motivated the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to fervently pursue a policy of “Looking to the East.” The aim of this policy is to forge closer ties with major countries like China, Russia, and India and with other like-minded countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In conjunction with that outlook, Iranian politicians aspire to strengthen the economy and to overcome the challenges confronting Iran by Western-imposed economic sanctions.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical changes that have occurred in Iran’s immediate neighborhood since September 11, 2001 have provided a chance for Iran to recoup its position in the region as a major power. Yet, the West, and the United States in particular, seem determined to prevent Iran from attaining this status. Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, which is in its final stages of development, are widely perceived in Iran as being anchored mainly in mistrust and suspicion, focused on non-verifiable intentions, and aimed primarily at keeping Iran down. This situation returns us to the original question of the fundamental character of Iranian foreign policy, specifically the extent to which it is driven by ideology, as opposed to a rational and pragmatic approach to advancing the national interest. The following observations may help to answer this question.
First, revolutionary governments in their early days tend to have a strong inclination toward ideological approaches to foreign policy. However as these governments mature, pragmatic considerations inevitably become salient, since the state’s survival much depends on taking into account the realities of the outside world. This may explain what prompted Iran to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. Iranian leaders viewed the stability of Afghanistan and Iraq as being vital to the national interest. This consideration took precedence over the ideological preference for not talking or working with the United States. Pragmatism has prevailed over ideology in other instances, for example, when Iran adopted a policy of neutrality in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia, a Christian state, and the Republic of Azerbaijan, an Islamic state with a Shi‘a majority.
Second, objective facts, not ideological fervor validate Iran’s aspiration to be regarded as a major regional power. Iran’s size, the educational level of its 70 million people, and its natural resources make the country a natural candidate for regional preeminence and enhance its ability to play a leadership role reflective of its geopolitical weight. Iran’s regional influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Levant gives it additional weight in regional politics. So does Iran’s progress in nuclear and high technology.
Third, in contrast to general perceptions of Iran being a revolutionary country, its foreign policy is guided and influenced largely by its cultural heritage of moderation and close regional ties. The sanctity of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states has been emphasized repeatedly in Iranian foreign policy declarations. When Iran voiced its opposition to the Bush Administration’s attempt to impose its favored model of democracy and policy of regime change throughout the Middle East, this policy was accentuated.
Fourth, the animosity that has plagued Iran-US relations has overshadowed many aspects of Iranian foreign policy over the past 30 years. During that period and despite the fact that the two sides had many common interests in the region, harmful politics prevented any attempt at reconciliation. In the past, Israel — as the closest ally of the United States, citing an Iranian threat to its security — has been one of the main obstacles to an Iran-US rapprochement. Regarding the allegation by some that Iran is determined to attack Israel, President Ahmadinejad declared that the Islamic Republic has never waged war against any nation and does not intend to do so in the future.
Iranian foreign policy has undergone many upheavals during the past 30 years. In this period Iran has gained experience through hardship and endurance. The lesson to be learned is that success in a challenging and rapidly changing world requires striking a balance between ideological world views and pragmatism. Given the growing national sentiments in Iran, Iranian foreign policy is likely to be focused on pursuing the national interest, guided by ideological principles but flexible and practical approaches.