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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

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