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

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.

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