Revolutions, though essentially domestic affairs, cause a tear in the very fabric of the prevailing international system, disrupting the balance of power and the normal flow of diplomacy. Iran’s religiously inspired revolution has been no exception. On the one hand, it undid the intricate international web that had sustained the Pahlavi monarchy, and on the other it brought forth a series of priorities more consistent with the perceptions and values of the new elite and the ideological regime that the revolution had spawned.

The revolutionaries claimed theirs to be different from all previous revolutions, inspired neither by the values of the West nor by the proletariat-driven Communist world. Yet, its small print — the constitution, power structure, governance system — shared aspects with both, adding to the unique characteristics of the Islamic Republic. However, this republic did indeed come to resemble none other, arguably evolving into an anti-imperialist Muslim version of the French republic as one thumbs through its (1979 and 1989 amended) constitution!

The Iranian revolution, which bucked the trend in 20th century revolutions in terms of its ideology, ended the reign of a pro-Western and secular regime in a large and strategically important Middle Eastern country. Inevitably, therefore, its ripples were to be felt across the region, despite the fact that this revolution had occurred in a non-Arab and Shi‘a-dominated country. Like other revolutionary regimes, Tehran was determined to encourage the growth of its ideology and “export” it wherever possible. This regime, moreover, emerged and consolidated its grip at the height of a deepening Cold War between the United States, its far away adversary, and its next-door anti-religion neighbour, the Soviet Union. It had to find a new place for itself in this starkly defined international system. Yet, within ten years of its birth, it had to put aside the very rationale of its global presence — neither East nor West — as it witnessed the end of the half-century Cold War. It had to come to terms with the demise of its superpower neighbor, an unchallenged United States, and its own strategic and geopolitical presence in a New World Order.

Therefore, Iran’s foreign policy, and indeed its international relations, reflect not only the complexities of a revolutionary state emerging in a highly dynamic and strategically important part of the world, but also perhaps the complexities and contradictory tensions of the new revolutionary republic’s own domestic politics.

This is a regime whose stated goals in the international arena, as enshrined in its constitution, are either too abstract or too prescriptive to add any value to understanding its actual conduct. So, there is little sense in trying to take stock of the past 30 years with reference to those ideals. Nevertheless, the revolution-crafted republic has shown unique features that are best captured by the words of a prominent foreign policy advisor to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi:

Iran’s foreign policies have some principles and those principles are clear. These principles have been stated in the Constitution and at the same time have been defined by Iran’s approaches during [the] 30 years since the revolution. Also macro policies on foreign issues have been specified and are clear in the remarks made by Imam Khomeini or the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i] … One of the most important issues is justice which has its own interpretations. There must be a just relationship whether in the bilateral, regional, multilateral or international relationships. Another issue is friendships, kindness and affection between human beings. [The] Islamic Republic believes relations should be based on friendships and brotherhood. The third point is the issue of spirituality and paying attention to human values. Paying attention to ethics or in one word monotheism [is another principle]. And the last issue is protecting human being’s dignity and rights … Iran would like to have relations with the whole world based on these principles.[1]

In practice, Iran’s international relations have evolved into a series of pragmatic decisions alongside ideological stand-offs. Indeed, the country’s international relations have been remarkably non-controversial, by and large. Revolutionary Iran has carried on being a fairly normal state on the international stage with few extraordinary aspirations. Iran has remained a faithful member of virtually every international organization of which the Pahlavi monarchy had been a part, and in this regard at least, it has acted as a status quo state. Indeed, until the late 1990s, Iran also had retained a similar trading pattern to that of the ancien regime (with the exception of trade with the United States). Trade with the West dominated until well into the 21st century and only began tapering off with the imposition of a series of UN sanctions from December 2006. There has been very little tangible shift towards the developing world in this regard, despite Iran’s efforts to start a D-8 forum of large developing countries going. Iran’s stance towards the Muslim world, theoretically its closest constituency, also has been uneven. The irony of the 1980s was that Iran had good relations with some secular-leaning Muslim states (Algeria, Libya, Syria) and bad relations with Islamic Saudi Arabia, but very indifferent relations with others. There was no “Muslim world first” policy, despite Tehran’s overtly Islamist tone.

Yet, Iran’s international posture and role does continue to concern, if not fascinate observers. The mix of religious-nationalism and revolutionary-populism propaganda, policy opportunism (e.g., buying arms from Israel during the Iran-Iraq War or importing weapons from the Communist states of the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea), and anti-Americanism/anti-Zionism make Iran’s policies and intentions difficult to understand. For many, its anti-Americanism is sufficient evidence of deep-seated anti-imperialism, yet this regime has not been in the business of trying to take the world towards an Iran-made utopia. Its radicalism has been limited to certain issues and manifests itself closer to home, in the Middle East. Its other main concern has been how to manage its confrontation with the “Great Satan” (the United States).

Iran is a country whose trading links with the West remain strong, though it is desperate to shift East (to include Russia in this instance) politically and economically. Iran’s own Third Way of “neither East nor West” gave way to a menu of relations with both the East (Sharq) and the West (Gharb), to paraphrase Ramazani.[2]

Analytically, then, the Islamic Republic’s international relations can usefully be divided into distinct periods: from a period of confrontation (1980-88) to a period of accommodation (1989-97), détente (1997-2005), and rejection (post-2005). But this demarcation should not disguise the many elements of continuity, even with the policies of the Pahlavi era. Nor should it disguise the erratic nature of foreign policy in Iran. As The Economist has noted,

The country’s foreign policies look erratic, too. Iran has condemned jihadist terrorism, but sheltered al-Qaeda fugitives. It has backed the government of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, yet has abetted militias opposed to him. It champions Muslim unity but creates division by vilifying pro-Western Muslim rulers, backing Shia factions and expecting Shias everywhere to bow to Mr Khamene’i’s authority.[3]

“Zigzagging” appears to be the hallmark of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. Then again, what country’s foreign policy cannot be thus described? Nonetheless, given Iran’s location and revolutionary-religious-based political regime, its erratic foreign policy has been particularly troubling to many, especially to the United States.

While the revolution itself was a geopolitical earthquake, the Islamic Republic’s international relations have been remarkable for their ordinariness. Indeed, the republic’s enduring foreign policy legacy has been its anti-Americanism. Post-revolutionary Iran succumbed to the practical geopolitical forces that were at the heart of the monarchy’s foreign policy making and its strategic thinking. In the end “Iran zamin” (i.e., the Iranian “cultural continent”) as a concept and as a geographical entity consumed the revolution and made the country’s new masters hostages to this ancient land’s needs.


[1]. Financial Times, May 30, 2008.

[2]. R.K. Ramazani, “Iran’s Foreign Policy: Both North and South,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3 (1992), pp. 393–412.

[3]. The Economist, May 24-30, 2008.