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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

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.

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