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

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.

Image: Aktron

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