Critical Analysis of Iran’s Foreign Policy
The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most influential and strategically important state in international stage currently. With its clear anti-Israel stance, sour relations with the U.S. and insistence on building its infamous nuclear programme, not only is the world’s attention on it constantly, but facing crippling economic sanctions and as part of Middle East, being a region embroiled in never-ending conflict that threatens security of entire world, it will play a critical role in the direction the world will take in future.
Besides its pursuance of a nuclear programme that has it under scrutiny by other states, Iran, due to being a major regional power, is perceived as a threat by its bitter archrival, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Coupled with the extremely fragile situation in Mideast, this rivalry jeopardises the entire region into an all-out war, which will get outsiders – especially the United States – involved in the conflict. Moreover, its open stance against Israel, a nuclear-armed state that enjoys unbending support of the sole superpower, the U.S., also endangers the region into a deadly confrontation.
While a lot of literature on Iran exists, mostly by Western scholars, it is often biased or does not even attempt to understand what angle Iran is coming from. Its foreign policy is also highly misunderstood, even by other Muslim states. Currently, it has proper diplomatic relations with only 97 states. So let’s try to examine Iranian foreign policy.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy can briefly be summed up in the words of its own Supreme Leader:
“…We’ve repeatedly proclaimed this fact and truth in our Islamic foreign and international policy that we’ve been seeking and will seek to expand Islam in the world and remove the domination of hegemonic powers.” Sahifeye Noor, Vol. 25
Iran’s foreign policy, as understood from its constitution, millennia-old history, and from works of Imam Khomeini – the person who started and led the Islamic Revolution – seeks to spread Islamic revolutions in other parts of world, as article 11 of Iranian constitution justifies, claiming that “…all Muslims form a single nation, and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has the duty of formulating its general policies towards cultivating the friendship and unity of all Muslim peoples in order to bring about the political, economic and cultural unity of the Islamic world”.
Besides aiming to spread revolutionary spirits infused with Islamic ideals, Iran seeks ‘emancipation’ of whom it perceives as ‘oppressed’ by imperialistic powers. As such, it has, rather unsurprisingly, an anti-imperialist outlook; Iran accuses the United States of being an oppressive imperialist and so, defiance and resistance to be dominated or dictated forms a focal piece of its foreign policy. This is evident even from its rich history, something Iranians take huge pride in.
Despite its heavy emphasis on liberation of Muslims, a key point in Iranian foreign policy seems to stress upon a general help and support for what it sees as victims of persecution and enslavements world over, regardless of faith. Article 154 of Iranian constitution talks about how Iran “…supports the just struggles of the freedom fighters against the oppressors in every corner of the world”. As such, it aims to not just cultivate good relations with rest of Islamic world, but the Third World as well. Iran subsequently enjoys good relations with Venezuela and Bolivia, two other states in same position as Iran with respect to how it interacts with the U.S,, and who have similar views on the superpower as Iran does. Due to Venezuela suffering crippling economic sanctions similar to ones imposed upon Iran, the two have signed a $2 billion joint-fund investment, and Bolivia is one of few that openly and wholly supports Iran’s nuclear programme.
While this forms the ‘ideas’ behind Iran’s foreign policy, what does it aim to achieve in the international sphere, how does Iran go about this, and how successful is it really?
First, who sets Iran’s foreign policy, and what are the – if any – sub-state actors that exist who can possibly influence the theocratic state’s decision-makers.
Iran’s Foreign Policy’s Decision-making
The Supreme National Security Council is the main decision-making body, comprised of officials from ministries of foreign affairs, interior, and intelligence; military heads and members of the elite Revolutionary Guards are also part of the council. The council, however, is still answerable to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khomeini, who gives the main verdict.
Studying the various government institutes within Iran, there are a few possible parties that can exert an influence, regardless of how nominal or impactful. There’s the Iranian parliament that possesses the power to approve any international treaty, agreement or even a contract.
However, there are more: the Guardian Council, composed of twelve, highly powerful clerics and jurists, handpicked by Khomeini himself, who can veto any decision of the parliament.
To keep a check on the Guardian Council, there’s the Expediency Council, which acts as an intermediary between the parliament and the Guardian Council. The council’s head has always been a close aide of the Supreme Leader.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, mainly suspected by the U.S., can play a significant role in the upper most politics of Iran as well. This branch of Iranian armed forces is an elite, highly trained force that was created by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 to protect the state’s ‘Islamic Republic system’. According to Michael Slackman, as he wrote in New York Times, the corps apparently has an “assertive role in virtually every aspect of Iranian society”. This, if his analysis is correct, means that this military branch may be exerting more power and influence than the clergy itself.
Another point to note is how these corps have been accused repeatedly by Israel to be financing, training and arming Iraqi Shi’ite militias. The United States under Donald Trump, along with Bahrain and KSA, recently declared the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation, a move first of its kind.
While the Iranian president is the one directly elected by the public and the one who chooses the cabinet and appoints the head of Supreme National Security Council, he does not seem to influence the foreign policy much. Despite many Western outlets speculating a more ‘moderate’ Iran under Hassan Rouhani, the fact remains that the Supreme Leader still has all the authority. He has control of almost all important state apparatus, as he is head of the judiciary, the ministry in charge of radio and television, has officials present in all governing bodies of the government that directly report to him, and most importantly, commander-in-chief of police and armed forces. The Supreme Leader is akin to a monarch, wielding immense power.
So, while there are possible actors that can affect the foreign policy of Iran, with the mechanisms in place, realistically, only the Supreme Leader has the say. It is quite apparent Iran has calmed down since 1980s in how it pursues its objectives. From even resorting to violent means to get what they wanted, the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 a classic example (then U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, secretly sold arms to Iran in exchange for release of the American hostages), the Shi’ite-majority state has mellowed in recent years, partly from economic sanctions that has stagnated Iranian economy, to current international system when a weakened-Iran cannot take on KSA, Israel and the U.S. all at once. It doesn’t help that almost all of Mideast countries have decided to join the KSA side, leaving only Syria, Lebanon and Algeria as Iranian allies. Most Mideastern states that sided with KSA also severed ties with Iran, even Sudan.
It is an open secret Israel is nuclear-armed, despite its denial, and open U.S. hostility is all too well-known, with Trump withdrawing from the landmark nuclear deal between western states and Iran under Barack Obama that saw lifting of sanctions from Iran, and imposing again all sanctions on Iran in November 2018. Since then, Iranian riyal has gone to a whopping 42 105 against 1 USD.
While Iran has signaled a peaceful solution to dispute with the United States, and is willfully silent on every provocation by KSA, such as claiming two of its oil tankers were attacked by Iranian navy in Strait of Hormuz (May 2019), why hasn’t Iran as yet changed its core foreign policy despite very real threats lurking if it continues on the same path?
It still supports Hezbollah in one form or another, has been accused of – though denies – supporting the Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen, and supports Bashar Al Assad of Syria, despite mounting pressure by West against him. With new sanctions threatened by US, Iran has, in turn, threatened it will start its uranium-enrichment programme again.
To understand Iran’s unbending resolve despite the precarious situation it is in, one explanation can be derived from the history and psychology of the people who dwell in this land.
Iranians are known to possessing a deep pride in their rich, millennia-old history. Despite such deep entrenchment of Islam at every level, they acknowledge and even value the influence of Zoroastrianism on the Abrahamic religions that came after.
The fact their culture and language survived and lived on for thousands of years till present day, their contribution to the world from arts to science to theology even (Islamic world), their influence on all great and powerful civilisations of their time: Mongols, Greeks, Turks, even India, their role in liberating Jews from the oppressive Babylon, and creation of a ‘world empire’ in Antiquity where hundreds of ethnicities, religions, and other groups flourished, all have contributed to modern Iranians taking great pride in who they are and, in spite of being part of Mideast, maintaining a distinct identity separate in every way from Arabs who culturally dominate the entire region; even religiously, while KSA follows Wahabist Islam, Iran follows Shi’ite Islam. Iran is also one of few non-Arabs in the region with state of their own, something other ethnicities in the region are still fighting for, such as the Kurds and native Africans.
However, Iran does have a rather paradoxical approach to this, while where they are proud of having conquered, and what they have given to world, they begrudge anyone that ruled over them or even exploited them, from Mongols to Turks, British, Russian and Arabs in past, to in current times, Iraq under Saddam Hussein attacking Iran and using chemical weapons against them, to the U.K. overthrowing their democratic government in 1953.
The reinstating of Shah and ruling Iran effectively through him deeply incensed the generation of Iranians that lived under him especially, and still has a big impact on how the existing leadership of Iran view and thus respond to U.S.. The mistrust and anger is deeply ingrained particularly in psyche of the leadership and the foreign policy choices that are formed echo that clearly.
The rather odd mixture of anger and wounded pride resulted in what was effectively an inflexible resistance against accepting even any diction from the U.S., much less being dominated again.
Despite the rigidity shown to a superpower, Iranian leadership isn’t headstrong. The state remained quiet when it had no other choice, is seeking peaceful reconciliation with U.S. since it knows it cannot bear sanctions for long, supports peace in Afghanistan, and while maybe secretly funds Shi’ite rebellions in Mideast, maintains neutrality officially.
Israel seems to be the exception, with Iran not recognizing the Jewish state, instead calling it a Zionist regime and upholding its aggressive stance against the nuclear-powered state.
With fourth largest known oil-reserves, and growing support by Russia who is also coming back on international scene, Iran, it seems, thinks it can still sustain itself against powerful adversaries enough that it won’t give in to pressures from US, is struggling to stay above the drowning sea of economic ruin, forging alliances and seeking oil markets despite sanctions (such as with India), and holding on to its foreign policy, which it seems, won’t change any time soon.
The issue here is though, with an unpredictable and unstable U.S. under Trump, and an equally adamant Iran, there appears to be a deadlock. The victims here are Iranian people, whom U.S. claims to be fighting for. Iran cannot sustain itself with sanctions in place for long, so what is the leadership thinking? And how will the foreign policy of Iran change then, when it might come to that point? Or rather, while the foreign policy of Iran seems to be understood, what does the leadership really want or expect?
This is the biggest obstacle that, beyond not understanding, is something most of the world doesn’t even seem to realise! While scores of literature is written on Iran’s nuclear programme or what danger it poses, no one seems interested in getting to know Iran and its stance, besides anti-Israel rhetoric.
From having analysed its history, people and statecraft, it is evident Iran does not take kindly to threats or orders. Quarter of a century is all they tolerated of indirect American rule before the revolution happened and they showed that even aggressive economic embargos could not deter them. During a meeting in Geneva in 2008 between western powers and Iran over its nuclear programme, when told the European states and U.S. expected a response from Iran within a set timeframe, Iran considered it an ultimatum [threat] and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected the deadline, remarking how Iran, though always eager to end any crisis, will solve the dispute through negotiations only, sending a veiled-though-clear message that Iran would not be coerced in any way, and they would come to the table on their own terms.
This event lays bare two things: that Iran, unlike what mainstream media would like to believe, is not irrational; rather, its officials are experts in negotiating. They can maneuver any way to test the waters: feign and bluff, provoke through delays or stalling, counteract a threat with a threat, and even improvise on the spot. This shows their diplomats are trained well, know their trade and get the best-possible result despite being on losing side; and second, whatever politicking and scheming, Iran expects dignity, that is, to be treated with respect. This echoes its core stance of being anti-imperialist and standing against hegemonic states.
It seems Iran ultimately expects US to recognise and accept the Islamic Revolution and its greater presence within the ME region, and how, since sanctions have not worked for decades, won’t do so in the future either. The landmark nuclear deal between Iran and western countries led by Barack Obama was a major foreign policy gain for Iran, though Trump backing out seems to have undone everything.
To summarise, while it may look like Iran has failed as it seems to have lost more than gained, and regressed instead of progressing, between the domestic achievements in developing an effective healthcare system, reducing poverty, incorporating participation of women in all fields even with hijab imposition, and staying true to their defined foreign policy, and achieving their objectives against a powerful adversary with little to no cards to play, while not bending the knee whatever was thrown at it, this, in terms of foreign policy objectives met, has to be one of most successful examples.
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