All the Ayatollah's Men

All the Ayatollah's Men

Mini Teaser: Some Westerners are puzzled that Iran’s foreign policy remains as bellicose today as it was in the time of Ayatollah Khomeini. But history shows that the regime’s foreign policy is designed to maintain its ideological identity.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

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.

Image: Pullquote: 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.Essay Types: Essay