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.
On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students breached the walls of the U.S. embassy and captured sixty-six Americans. They remained hostage for 444 days. The embassy takeover provided Khomeini with his opportunity to inflame popular sentiment and claim that external enemies, aided by domestic accomplices, were plotting against the revolution. To a frenzied populace, it seemed plausible that the United States, which had used its embassy to restore the Pahlavi dynasty to power in 1953, was now up to similar mischief. The Iranian public rushed to the defense of the revolution, and Mehdi Bazargan’s provisional-government premiership soon faded.
On December 2, 1979, a draft constitution favored by Khomeini, which granted essential power to the unelected branches of government, was submitted to the public. Khomeini warned that its rejection at such a critical juncture would demonstrate signs of disunity and provoke an attack by the United States. The regime’s propaganda machine insisted that only secular intellectuals tied to U.S. imperialism were averse to the governing document. It worked: fully 99 percent of the population voted for the constitution.
Out of this emerged two other factors—namely, the clerics’ quest to usher in a militant foreign policy and their desire to strike a psychological blow against the United States. The provisional government’s approach to international relations was strict nonalignment with a willingness to pursue normal relations with the United States. This formulation was rejected by the newly empowered militants, who provoked the hostage crisis to foster a different international orientation. Under this orientation, Iran’s foreign policy would become not merely an exemption from the superpower conflict but an assertion of radical Islamism as a foreign-policy foundation. Through a symbolic attack on the U.S. embassy, the new revolutionaries not only consolidated their domestic power through their antagonism toward the United States but also demonstrated their contempt for prevailing international norms. Iran now would inveigh against the United States, assist belligerent actors throughout the Middle East and plot against the state of Israel.
IRAN’S WAR with Iraq was the next big event in this saga of the Iranian elite’s resolve to meld domestic and foreign policy. The triumph of Iran’s revolution, with its denial of the legitimacy of the prevailing order and its calls for the reformulation of the state structure along religious precepts, portended conflict. Revolutions are frequently followed by war, as newly empowered elites often look abroad for the redemption of their cause. In Iran, the new elite mixed aggressive propaganda, subversion and terrorism to advance its cause in Iraq, where minority Sunnis dominated the majority Shia population. Perhaps nowhere was Iran’s message of Shia empowerment received with greater acclaim than among Iraqi Shiites. This provocative behavior contributed to Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in 1980, which ignited one of the region’s most devastating conflicts.
The Iranian clerical state didn’t measure progress in the Iran-Iraq war in territory lost or gained, boundary demarcations or reparation offers. Rather, it saw the war as an opportunity to merge its religious pedigree with its nationalist claims. The war was viewed as a struggle against an assault on Islam and the Prophet’s legacy by profane forces of disbelief. The clerical estate genuinely identified itself with the Prophet’s mission and saw Saddam’s secular reign as yet another manifestation of inauthenticity and corruption. Iran had not been attacked because of its provocations or lingering territorial disputes but because it embodied Islam and sought to achieve the Prophet’s injunctions. Thus, it was the moral obligation of the citizenry to defend Iran as if it were safeguarding religion itself.
By June 1982, Iran essentially had evicted Iraq from its territory, and the question emerged whether to continue the war by going into Iraq. Given the war’s economic costs and human toll, the decision to attack Iraq remains one of the most contentious in Iran’s modern history. Khomeini resolutely dismissed various offers of cease-fire and generous reparations. Instead, Iran embraced a disastrous extension of the conflict based on a combination of ideological conviction, the misperception that the war would be quick and a fear that Saddam would not remain contained.
The rationales underlying Iran’s decision to prolong the war still are debated widely. The conventional view discounts the notion that prolonging the war was seen as a means of consolidating the revolution at home. But Khomeini soon celebrated the decision as the “third revolution,” whose purpose was not just to repel the invaders but also to cleanse Iran of all secular tendencies. In order to exploit the war politically, the state had to present the conflict in distinctly religious terms. A revolutionary order seeking to usher in a new era could not wage a limited war designed to achieve carefully calibrated objectives. The war had to be a crusade—indeed, a rebellion against the forces of iniquity and impiety. Through collective sacrifice and spiritual attainment, the theocratic regime would fend off the invaders, change Iran and project power throughout the region.
The war finally ended for the same reason it was prolonged: the need to sustain the revolution at home. By 1988, Iran was exhausted and weary from having waged an eight-year war without any measurable international support. Iraqi counterattacks and the war of cities, whereby Iraq threatened Iranian urban centers with chemical weapons, undermined the arguments for war. The difficulties of the war were compounded by a smaller pool of volunteers, which undercut Iran’s strategy of utilizing manpower to overcome Iraq’s technological superiority. The inability of Iran to muster sufficient volunteers meant it had to embark on a more rigorous conscription effort that further estranged the population. Continuation of the war threatened the revolution and perhaps even the regime.
The war left a significant imprint on Iran’s international orientation. The quest for self-sufficiency and self-reliance is a hallmark of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, as the guardians of the revolution recognized that the survival of their regime depended entirely on their own efforts. International organizations, global opinion and prevailing conventions did not protect Iran from Iraq’s chemical-weapons assaults. Saddam’s aggression, his targeting of civilians, persistent interference with Persian Gulf commerce and use of weapons of mass destruction were all condoned by the great powers. The idea that Iran should forgo its national prerogatives for the sake of treaty obligations or Western sensibilities didn’t resonate with the aggrieved clerics. Thus, the war went a long way toward imposing the clerical template on Iran’s ruling system.
As Khomeini approached the end of his life, he grew apprehensive about the vitality of his revolution. Suddenly there was a risk that the vanguard Islamic Republic would become a tempered and cautious state. At this point, he undertook two specific acts to ensure that his disciples would sustain his revolutionary radicalism and resist moderation. In 1988, shortly after the cease-fire with Iraq, he ordered one of his last acts of bloodletting—the execution of thousands of political prisoners then languishing in Iran’s jails. The mass executions, carried out in less than a month, were designed to test Khomeini’s supporters and make certain that they were sufficiently committed to his revolution. Those who showed hesitancy would be seen as halfhearted and dismissed from power. And this indeed did happen to Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who objected. Khomeini was confident that the government he would leave behind had the courage to inflict massive and arbitrary terror to maintain power. However, he still worried about possible backsliding on the issue of relations with the West.
Thus did Khomeini manufacture another external crisis to stoke the revolutionary fires. The publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which depicted the Prophet Muhammad in an unflattering light, offered a perfect opportunity. In February 1989, Khomeini issued his famous fatwa, designed to radicalize the masses in support of the regime’s ideology. While the international community saw his egregious act as an indication of his intolerance and militancy, Khomeini considered domestic political calculations to be paramount. Iran was once more ostracized, a development entirely acceptable to Khomeini.
WITH THE end of the prolonged war with Iraq and Khomeini’s death, Iran’s focus shifted from external perils to its own domestic quandaries, and the 1990s became one of the most important periods of transition for the Islamic Republic. It was a period of intense factionalism. On the one hand, the new president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and his allies sensed that for the Islamic Republic to survive, it had to craft a new national compact and reestablish its legitimacy. Iran had to restructure its economy and provide for the practical needs of its people. It also had to adjust to new international realities fostered by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1991 Gulf War. To realize his vision of economic renovation and foreign-policy adjustment, Rafsanjani sought to mend fences with the neighboring Gulf states and reach out to the European community and Russia. But the United States remained too unpopular in Iran for any such outreach.
Standing against Rafsanjani and his cohort was a conservative faction that gradually would be led by the new supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. This faction appreciated that, in the aftermath of the war and due to economic demands, a relaxation of tensions was necessary. But its international outlook continued to be influenced by the need to sustain Iran’s Islamic culture. This became all the more pressing as many Iranians began to move beyond the revolutionary legacy and seek a new future. Given this popular challenge, the conservatives became even more invested in rejecting normalization with the West for fear that such a move could provoke a cultural subversion that would further erode the foundations of the state. The dual themes of the “Great Satan” and the “clash of civilizations” laced their pronouncements and defined their political identity. The West remained a sinister source of cultural pollution whose influence and temptations had to be resisted even more strenuously after Khomeini’s passing and the emergence in Iran of popular interest in Western ways and vogues. The fact that Iran’s youth no longer paid attention to its ponderous theological musings was immaterial to a political class that perceived its legitimacy as deriving from God’s will. Foreign policy was seen paradoxically as a way of isolating Iran from the international integration that this class feared. Iran would now move in opposing directions, confounding both its critics and supporters.
This contradictory nature of Iran’s foreign policy was most evident in the Persian Gulf. Iran behaved moderately and judiciously during the American campaign to evict Iraq from Kuwait. In the aftermath of the war, Iran began discussing a regional-security arrangement whereby the stability of the Persian Gulf would be ensured by indigenous actors in a cooperative framework. Instead of seeking to instigate Shia uprisings and exhorting the masses to embrace Iran’s revolutionary template, Rafsanjani called for greater economic and security cooperation. To be sure, this served Iran’s interests, as it naturally would emerge as the leading power in such a Gulf order. Still, this new policy accepted the legitimacy of the monarchical regimes that Khomeini long had maligned.
In a manner that bewildered the international community, Iran started speaking with multiple voices. Rafsanjani called for better relations, but hard-liners denounced what they considered his betrayal of the revolution. Moreover, Iran continued to pursue subversive activities and terrorism, including the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which housed American military personnel. Nineteen U.S. servicemen were killed in the attack. While one arm of the state emphasized diplomacy and cooperation, the other engaged in incendiary propaganda and acts of terror. In the end, Rafsanjani couldn’t convince the Gulf community that Iran had turned a new page, and relations with the sheikhdoms remained tense.
A similar pattern was seen in Rafsanjani’s desire to improve relations with Europe. Iran’s need for foreign technologies and investments, as well as its desire to escape its isolation, propelled it toward this new outlook. The European states initially embraced the new Iranian president and responded to his call for reconciliation. The Europeans labeled this diplomatic exchange a “critical dialogue,” which suggested that Iran could be persuaded to modify its behavior through diplomatic discussions and economic incentives. But the death sentence on the British author Salman Rushdie and the assassination of Iranian dissidents on European soil soon militated against better relations.
Rafsanjani sought to tone down the Rushdie affair by suggesting that, although Khomeini’s decree could not be countermanded, Iran would not necessarily carry out the order. These statements were soon contradicted by Iranian politicians who insisted that the fatwa was irreversible. In the meantime, powerful religious foundations maintained bounties on Rushdie’s head. Britain actually expelled a number of Iranian diplomats on the suspicion that they were plotting Rushdie’s murder. Whatever the validity of those allegations, Iran’s inability to separate itself from Khomeini’s decree obstructed its attempt to mend fences with Europe.
And terror remained an instrument of Iran’s policy in Europe, as reflected in Iran’s assassination of Kurdish dissidents in the Berlin restaurant of Mykonos. The German judiciary blamed Iran for the attack, particularly its Ministry of Intelligence and Security. As a result, the European states all withdrew their envoys from Iran. Ultimately, Iran’s failure to craft a different relationship with the accommodating Europeans reflected its inability to balance competing mandates.
The one policy area where Rafsanjani’s pragmatism prevailed unmolested concerned the Russian Federation. Like many Third World countries struggling for autonomy within the international order, Iran found the collapse of the Soviet Union initially disturbing. That turned to alarm for the clerical elite with the massive deployment of U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf and the expressed American commitment to contain “outlaw” regimes. As a price for strategic support and arms trade, the Islamic Republic made its own adjustments to the emergence of Central Asia. In a rare display of judiciousness, Iran largely tempered its ideology, stressing the importance of trade and stability rather than propagation of its Islamist message. The full scope of Iranian pragmatism became evident during the Chechnya conflict. At a time when Russian soldiers were massacring Muslim rebels indiscriminately, Iran merely declared the issue to be an internal Russian matter.
Several factors propelled Iran toward such realism. First, many within the clerical elite perceived that Central Asia was not really susceptible to Iran’s Islamist message. But Iran’s aversion to isolation also played a part. The fact that Iran could not craft better relations with the United States and was largely isolated from both Europe and the Gulf sheikhdoms made ties with Moscow an imperative. For the conservatives, one way of fending off American pressure and European displeasure was cultivating close economic and security ties with Russia. Thus, the Russian Federation became the beneficiary of Iran’s failure to craft a more coherent policy toward other global actors.
It seems clear that during this period, Iran moved cautiously beyond the rigid, revolutionary parameters of the 1980s. Pragmatism and calibration of national interest became important considerations in Iran’s foreign-policy decision making. Yet ideology never was eclipsed completely by pragmatic calculations. For many conservatives, their charge remained redemption of Khomeini’s Islamist vision at home. They therefore desired Iran’s estrangement from the West while avoiding any crisis that would threaten the regime. It was a difficult balancing act in which terrorism served a useful purpose by provoking Western sanctions and opprobrium but not much more. Thus did the conservatives use a threat atmosphere to sustain their power and preserve the essential identity of their state.
THE MOST momentous change in Iran’s foreign policy came with the 1997 election of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, whose ambitions were nothing less than extraordinary. His aim was not merely to make the theocracy more accountable to its citizenry but also to end the Islamic Republic’s pariah status and integrate it into the global society. Thus, he embraced much of the reformist agenda. And, given his popular mandate and determination, he presented a certain authority to the supreme leader and the conservatives. While the reformist forces wanted reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, normalized relations with the European Union and even an outreach to the United States, Khamenei accepted only the first two of these measures. He understood that Iran’s national interest required a different relationship with its neighbors and its European commercial partners. Moreover, the conservatives, initially shell-shocked by Khatami’s unexpected triumph, eventually yielded warily to his early measures.
Khatami’s “good neighbor” diplomacy rehabilitated Iran’s ties with the Gulf regimes. Numerous trade, diplomatic and security agreements were signed between the Islamic Republic and the Gulf sheikhdoms. Iran ceased its support for opposition forces operating in those countries. Thus, Khatami managed—at least momentarily—to transcend Khomeini’s divisive legacy and replace ideological antagonisms with policies rooted in pragmatism and self-interest.
Khatami’s cautious domestic liberalization similarly expedited détente with the European states. He ended the long-standing practice of assassinating Iranian dissidents in Europe. Also, the issue of the Rushdie fatwa was finally settled. After decades of living underground, the beleaguered author was allowed to pursue a more normal life and resume his literary pursuits. European envoys returned to Iran, and Iran’s president was welcomed in European capitals.
Khatami even attempted to adjust Iran’s stridency toward Israel. The Iranian government now said it would assent to an agreement if it were acceptable to the Palestinians. The clerical state’s calls for the eradication of Israel and its periodic conferences pledging to reclaim Jerusalem through holy war were at odds with the reformist perspective, not to mention the sentiments of the Arab states. The critical question was: Who was the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people? Was it Hamas, as the hard-liners insisted, or the Palestinian Authority, as the reformers maintained? The reformers pressed the state to recognize that Iran’s stance was popular only with radical Islamists, rejectionists and terrorists. In his inaugural address, Khatami stressed that Iran was prepared to advance an agreement predicated on UN resolutions. Given the fact that those resolutions had conceded a two-state solution, Iran’s reformist leader subtly stipulated the authority of the land-for-peace formula. It was during Khatami’s tenure that the Islamic Republic accepted the results of the 2002 Arab summit, with its recognition that in exchange for return to pre-1967 lines the Arab states would recognize Israel. Critics certainly could scoff at this concession on the ground that it did not eliminate Iran’s support for Hezbollah or Hamas, but it was an important breakthrough for a country known for its unrelenting hostility toward the Jewish state. Indeed, the reformists’ rhetoric and stance would not survive the rise of their more hawkish successors.
Khatami’s approach to America was more gingerly and carefully crafted. Conscious of the conservatives’ deep-seated reservations, Khatami sought to ease mutual suspicion through a gradual exchange of scholars, activists and athletes. He hoped U.S. economic concessions might provide him with sufficient leverage to influence the conservatives at home, particularly the wary supreme leader. But Khatami underestimated the extent of the hard-liners’ hostility to any thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as the rigidity of America’s unimaginative containment policy. In essence, Khatami fell victim to both Iranian hard-liners and post-9/11 politics in the United States.
Soon, a conservative counterstrategy began to crystallize. The conservatives employed their governmental leverage to negate parliamentary legislation designed to liberalize Iran’s polity. The judiciary imprisoned prominent reformers and closed down their newspapers. Vigilante and terror groups harassed student gatherings and assassinated prominent intellectuals. And foreign policy once again came into play. Conservatives dismissed the reform movement’s ability to deliver on its promises as a means of undermining international confidence in Khatami’s government. Terrorism reemerged as a means of advancing the conservative agenda and subverting reformist plans. And then Iran’s conservatives received a helping hand from an unexpected corner—George W. Bush.
Khatami and the reformers viewed 9/11 as an ideal opportunity to mend fences with America. Khatami quickly realized the advantage in cooperating with the United States on the intersecting objectives of the two countries following 9/11. A religious intellectual who saw Islam and democracy as compatible, Khatami viewed the Taliban as a particular affront to his sensibilities. He also believed the demise of the radical Sunni group would enhance Iran’s security while providing an avenue for reconciliation with the United States.
Then, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush uttered his famous line castigating Iran as part of an “axis of evil” (along with North Korea and Iraq). Bush rebuked Iran as a major sponsor of terrorism and condemned its unelected leaders for oppressing their citizens. The president declared that in the post-9/11 environment, the United States would “not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” Though perhaps designed to prepare the American public for the administration’s plan to invade Iraq, the inclusion of Iran dealt a fearsome blow to Tehran’s reformers. Thus did Khatami’s interlude in leadership prove to be short-lived, despite his impressive accomplishments. The conservatives, fearful that the reform movement could end up undermining the pillars of the Islamist state, soon rebounded.
THE 2005 Iranian presidential election signified a change, as the elders of the revolution receded from the scene and a new international orientation gradually surfaced. The 1990s often are seen as a time when clerical reformers sought to reconcile democracy with religion, and a younger generation increasingly resisted a political culture that celebrated martyrdom and spiritual devotion. But another important development also was emerging—the rise of a generation of pious young men who had served on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personified this new leadership. Often called the “New Right,” it brought to the scene a combustible mix of Islamist ideology, strident nationalism and a deep suspicion of the West. As uncompromising nationalists, they were sensitive to Iran’s prerogatives and sovereign rights. As committed Islamists, they saw the Middle East as a battleground between forces of secularism and Islamic authenticity. As emerging national leaders, they perceived Western conspiracies where none existed.
The rise of Iran’s New Right coincided with important changes elsewhere in the Middle East. As the Iraq and Afghan wars drained America’s power and confidence, and as Islamist parties claimed leadership in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Iran emerged as an important regional player. Recently, the Arab Awakening unleashed a surge of Islamist parties that may not become clients of Iran but are likely to evince greater sympathy for the Islamic Republic than the likes of Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, Tehran finds it can assert its regional influence through its determination to sustain its nuclear program, its quest to emerge as a power broker in Iraq and its holding aloft the banner of resistance against Israel. The old balance between ideology and pragmatism is yielding to one defined by power politics and religious fervor. In the early twenty-first century, Iran has a government that consciously seeks guidance from the revolutionary outlook of the long-dead Ayatollah Khomeini.
Although many in Iran’s younger generation of conservatives may have been in their twenties when Khomeini died, his shadow looms large over their deliberations. They often romanticize the 1980s as a pristine decade of ideological solidarity and national cohesion. They see it as an era when the entire nation was united behind the cause of the Islamic Republic and determined to assert its independence against Western hostility. Khomeini and his disciples were dedicated public servants free of corruption and crass competition for power, traits that would not characterize their successors. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency were the cherished values of a nation seeking to mold a new Middle East. Thus, the common refrain of the New Right became essentially: “Back to the future.”
In light of all this, the 2009 election posed a stark choice for Iran. It could opt for a return to reformist policies and an effort to become part of the community of nations by accepting the norms of the international community, or it could embark on the New Right path of self-assertion and defiance. The public chose the former path, but the governing elite chose the latter. The result is that the gap between state and society has never been wider. A broad mass of the Iranian public doesn’t share the ideological fervor of the ruling elite.
In the meantime, the hard-line outlook of the Iranian government has contributed to a situation that is both destabilizing and dangerous—the emergence of the nuclear issue. These days, all of Iran’s relationships are defined and distorted by that dispute. Iran is at odds with its Gulf neighbors not because it is seeking to export its revolution but rather because of its nuclear aspirations. For the first time in three decades of animosity and antagonism, there is a real possibility of a military clash between Iran and Israel. Washington and Tehran seem locked in a confrontation they cannot escape. The European states have abandoned constructive dialogue in favor of sanctions and hostility due to the nuclear dispute. Even the Russian Federation seems increasingly uncomfortable in its relations with Iran as its conflict with the international community deepens. Only time can answer the question of how this issue will be sorted out—whether there will be a negotiated compromise; whether one side will ultimately back down; or whether a catastrophic clash will ensue that will further destabilize an unsteady region.
But we do know that Iran isn’t likely to go the way of other revolutionary states and relinquish its ideological patrimony for more mundane considerations. Khomeini was too powerful an innovator in the institutions he created and the elite he molded to see the passing of his vision in any routine way. That’s why Iran has sustained its animus toward the United States and Israel long after such hostility proved self-defeating. That’s why the theocratic regime remains a state divided against itself, struggling to define coherent objectives, with revolutionary pretensions pitted against national interests. The Islamic Republic might alter its course, limit its horizons and make unsavory compromises along the way. Yet it will not completely temper its raging fires. In the end, Khomeini couldn’t impose the totality of his vision on Iran, much less the Islamic world. But he was not the kind of figure to become another faded revolutionary commemorated on occasion and disregarded most of the time.
In many ways, China’s experience encapsulates the paradigm of the life cycle of a non-Western revolutionary state. Initially, the new regime rejects the existing state system and norms of international behavior, especially respect for sovereignty. Foreign-policy decision making is dominated by ideological considerations, even if there are concessions made to pragmatic concerns. But, over time, a clear trajectory emerges. As new leaders come to power, the ideology is modified and later abandoned in favor of “normal” relations with other countries, usually to promote economic development and modernization.
Thus, Western policy makers continue to be puzzled over why Iran has not yet become a postrevolutionary country. What makes this case more peculiar is that by the late 1990s, Iran did appear to be following in the footsteps of states such as China and Vietnam, at least in terms of its foreign policy. Yet this evolution was stymied by the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Paradoxically, it is today’s younger generation of Iranian leaders that has rejected the more pragmatic, nonrevolutionary approach of their elders—Rafsanjani and Khatami, for example—in favor of the legacy of Khomeini in foreign affairs. It is a legacy rooted in an austere Islamist vision dedicated to overturning the regional order and finding ways to challenge the existing international system.
What’s remarkable is that the Islamic Republic has managed to maintain its revolutionary identity in the face of substantial countervailing pressures, elite defections and mass disaffection throughout the country. The institutional juggernaut of the revolution has contributed to this success, as has the elite molded in Khomeini’s austere image. But Iran’s foreign policy also has played a crucial role in sustaining this domestic ideological identity. A narrow segment of the conservative clerical elite, commanding key institutions of the state, has fashioned a foreign policy designed to maintain the ideological character of the regime. And that remains a key ingredient in determining how the Islamic Republic thinks of itself and its role in the Middle East.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.