MORE THAN thirty years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power—and two decades after his passing—the Islamic Republic remains an outlier in international relations. Other non-Western, revolutionary regimes eventually eschewed a rigidly ideological foreign policy and accepted the fundamental legitimacy of the international system. But Iran’s leaders have remained committed to Khomeini’s worldview. The resilience of Iran’s Islamist ideology in the country’s foreign policy is striking. China’s present-day foreign policy isn’t structured according to Mao’s thought, nor is Ho Chi Minh the guiding light behind Vietnam’s efforts to integrate into the Asian community. But Iran’s leadership clings to policies derived largely from Khomeini’s ideological vision even when such policies are detrimental to the country’s other stated national interests and even when a sizable portion of the ruling elite rejects them.
Many Western observers of Iran don’t understand that its foreign policy has been fashioned largely to sustain an ideological identity. Thus, we can’t understand Iran’s foreign relations and its evident hostility by just assessing its international environment or the changing Mideast power balance. These things matter. But Iran’s revolutionary elite also seeks to buttress the regime’s ideological identity by embracing a confrontational posture.
The question then becomes why the Iranian leadership continues to maintain this ideological template so long after its revolutionary emergence. After all, other revolutionary regimes, after initially using foreign policy for ideological purposes, later moved away from that approach. Why has China become more pragmatic but not Iran? The answer is that the Islamic Republic is different from its revolutionary counterparts in that the ideology of its state is its religion. It may be a politicized and radicalized variation of Shia Islam, but religion is the official dogma. Thus, a dedicated core of supporters inevitably remained loyal to this religious ideology long after Khomeini himself disappeared from the scene. Revolutionary regimes usually change when their ardent supporters grow disillusioned and abandon the faith. It is, after all, much easier to be an ex-Marxist than an ex-Shiite. In one instance, renouncing one’s faith is political defection; in the other, apostasy. Although the Islamic Republic has become widely unpopular, for a small but fervent segment of the population it is still an important experiment in realizing God’s will on earth.
To understand this, it helps to review some pertinent Iranian history, beginning with the thought and actions of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini offered a unique challenge to the concept of the nation-state and the prevailing norms of the international system. The essence of his message was that the vitality of his Islamist vision at home was contingent on its relentless export. Moreover, because God’s vision was not to be confined to a single nation, Iran’s foreign policy would be an extension of its domestic revolutionary turmoil. For the grand ayatollah, the global order was divided between two competing entities—states whose priorities were defined by Western conventions; and Iran, whose ostensible purpose was to redeem a divine mandate. Of course, no country can persist on ideology alone. Iran had to operate its economy, deal with regional exigencies and meet the demands of its growing population. But its international relations would be characterized by revolutionary impulses continually struggling against the pull of pragmatism.
Khomeini’s internationalism had to have an antagonist, a foil against which to define itself. And a caricatured concept of the West became the central pillar of his Islamist imagination. The Western powers were rapacious imperialists determined to exploit Iran’s wealth for their own aggrandizement. Islamist themes soon followed, portraying the West as also seeking to subjugate Muslims and impose its cultural template in the name of modernity. Disunity among Muslims, the autocracies populating the region, the failure of the clerical class to assume the mantle of opposition and the young people’s attraction to alien ideologies were seen as byproducts of a Western plot to sustain its dominance over Islam’s realm. Four episodes from the 1980s underscore how foreign policy was used to buttress the ideological transformation at home: the 1979–1981 hostage crisis, the war with Iraq, the events surrounding the Salman Rushdie fatwa and a Khomeini-ordered massacre of political prisoners.
It is often forgotten that those in charge during the initial stages of the 1979 revolution were not Khomeini’s clerical militants. During a power struggle between the clerics and the provisional government’s moderates, the provisional government did not seek to break ties with the United States. Although Tehran would not be a pawn in the U.S.-Soviet conflict, it wished to maintain normal diplomatic and economic relations with Washington.
Thus, Khomeini and his clerical allies increasingly saw the provisional government as an impediment to their larger objectives. The task of redrafting the constitution along radical lines and electing a clerically dominated parliament required displacing the provisional government. In the end, this combination of concerns pressed the radicals to provoke a crisis that would galvanize the populace behind the cause of the Islamic Republic and its ideological mandates.