examine whether Iran’s foreign policy since 1979 has been defensive or
hegemonic we must look at the situation of its immediate neighbours such as the
Gulf States, Iraq and Syria since, as Soltani (2010) observes, its foreign
policy has tended to focus more on geopolitical circumstances and less on
ideological assumptions (p.200). A further important factor is that Iran’s
foreign policy continues to exhibit intertwining and often contradictory
ambitions. Although, as Axeworthy (2013, p 20) argues, Khomeini’s focus was for
Shi’ism to become rooted and entrenched in the cultural, political and
intellectual life of Iran, Katzman (2017) suggests that the country’s leaders
apparently sought to measure the ‘relative imperatives of their revolutionary
and religious ideology’ against the demands of its domestic interests
(p.1). This so-called Islamic revival,
however, did not mean that the people had become more religious but rather, as
Kiddie (2006) claims, that religion had become the salient factor in guiding politics
and government activities (p.3).
having emerged as Iran’s supreme leader, advanced the idea of Guardianship
known as “Wilayat al Faqih” and was credited with the establishment
of the theocratic regime. He changed the nature of the country’s foreign policy
and replaced it with his personal views of Islamic principles. Indeed, as
Soltani (2010) argues, although the principles of Iran’s constitution had
largely been adhered to by the country’s former presidents, the fact that each
had chosen to interpret them idiosyncratically had led to the creation of a
number of varying approaches in foreign policy and, unsurprisingly, rather
mixed results (p.199).
critical factor for the post 1979 Islamic government, was its selection of a
political perspective, in which the world was divided into two categories; the
oppressed and the oppressors. Juneau (2013) points out that Iran viewed itself
as the only Islamic state fit to help free the oppressed and sought to achieve
this in a number of different ways. He contends that Khomeini rejected the idea
of direct interference, by taking a more defensive approach and focused more on
the idea of power through faith (p44). This inconsistent approach, however, can
arguably be viewed as a pragmatic response to major political events, such as
its war with Iraq and, more recently, Gulf War I and II.
and Zweiri (2008) have made claims that Hegemonic undertones have guided years
of Iranian foreign policy. Khomeini called for the exportation of the Islamic
revolution to the neighbouring Gulf and Middle Eastern states. Additionally,
there is a popular belief among Iranian politicians, that moving towards the
East is less risky than building relations with the West (p 15). For instance,
they have focused on building security arrangements and had long-term
negotiations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in a failed
attempt to gain membership but they were refused entry last year despite
Iranians have been shaped by a number of military and political defeats,
throughout history, such as the one they suffered at the hands of Alexander the
Great and as such, their leaders have always had a historic defense against
their neighbours, to ensure that their land and their people are continuously
protected. They have sought to portray their nation as one that is able to
expel enemies both foreign and domestic.
the centuries, the Persians have not been known to maintain friendly relations
with their neighbours, instead, they have always made sure their neighbours
knew that they were a strong nation, capable of attacking as well as defending.
One of the most significant times in the country’s history, was its
transformation into the Islamic Republic under Khomeini. This changed Iran’s world
view and how it should portray itself to the world as Takyeh (2006) comments.
Khomeini felt that religion and politics were inseparable (p13).
geopolitical situation is amongst the most important factors to consider when
trying to examine the reason for its hegemonic goals and its interference in
the affairs of neighbouring states. They want to export the Iranian Islamic
revolution and change the shift of power in the Middle East. Although their
neighbouring states are mostly comprised of Sunni Muslims, many, such as
Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon contain sizeable Shia populations living within,
which gives Iran foothold in these countries therefore turning them into tempting
targets for Iran’s hegemonic approach.
combat this, Bahrain, for instance, that has a Sunni monarchy but a Shia
majority, has been giving passports to non-Bahraini Sunnis, to try and increase
the Sunni majority, to oppose the growing numbers of Shia citizens and reduce
the possibility of future influence.
(1993) argues that Iran’s power was exerted through it proxies in different
countries. In Lebanon, for example, its
influence and interference can be measured by its support, finance and armament
of the Hezbollah group, which is a foreign extension of the Iranian regime.
Hezbollah follows the Wilayat al Faqih and promotes the Iranian clergy’s
recently, Iran has been backing its proxy allies in Yemen, the Houthi rebels.
Yemen’s importance is highlighted by the fact that it sits on Saudi Arabia’s
borders and could be a potential gateway to increase Iran’s influence in the
Kingdom (Stephan Snyder,2017). The extent of Iran’s support of the Houthi
rebels remains unclear, but senior Iranian officials, in many press interviews,
namely with Reuters, claimed repeatedly that they have a few hundred soldiers (The
Quds force), stationed in Yemen, that have been helping train the Houthis. The Gulf states have accused Iran of
providing the Houthis with arms and financial support.
to Maleki & Afrasiabi (2008), the Middle East had become one of the most
militarized places during the 1990s, with weapons purchases increasing to 82.5
billion. This may not seem like a huge collective amount today, but in the
1990s, this equaled to, approximately, half the value of weapons purchased
worldwide (page 17). With statistics like this, it is not surprising that Iran
was increasingly keen to establish a nuclear program, to radiate the notion
that it is capable of defending itself. To date, Iran has chosen not to conceal
its ownership and development of a nuclear program, but has, instead used it to
highlight its perceived role as a major regional power. In 2015, Iran signed
an agreement with the JCPOA and agreed to two conditions: Firstly, to reduce
its Uranium enrichment activities and secondly, to be open to many inspections
(Katzman,2017, page 9).
(1989) indicates that many years of war, skirmishes and escalating tensions
between Tehran and Washington have ultimately not helped to gather an
understanding of the situation, but have rather added to the confusion, which
has led US policy makers to find Iran’s foreign relations incomprehensible (p
202). This is largely due, to the fact that Iran has had to operate in an
environment usually set by its opponents. The religious shift and the
introduction of the Islamic revolution brought about a definitive break with
the past and the end of American interference in Iranian affairs.
(2006) believes, that the termination of relations by the United States with
Iran, as a result of the seizure of the US embassy and the ensuing hostage
crisis in November 1979, have resulted in freezing the US perception of Iran,
and in halting any attempts of communication or understanding of the revolutionary
process (p 71). Iran held the Americans hostage for a period of 444 days. Even though the hostages were never really
injured, they were blindfolded and paraded in front of cameras, before they
were set free hours after President Regan’s inaugural speech. The release of
the hostages was meant as a message to the Americans and to the rest of the
world, that Iran will be the one to dictate its own future from that point on.
(Ali.M.Ansari, 2006,page 90).
relations with the US had the opportunity to improve with the election of the
reformist Khatami as he encouraged dialogue with the American people. Ehteshami (2017) claims that he took a more
defensive approach and wanted to continue what Rafsanjani had started. He
sought to take the Islamic Republic through international doors to end the
misunderstanding and help reduce the social and economic conditions that had
been brought on by years of sanctions and lack of international cooperation.
But there were many obstacles that he had to face. Firstly, were the indirect
and direct challenges that had been come with the events of 9/11 as well as
countering US intervention that this had brought to the region. Secondly was
the re-securitization of the middle east. Finally, was the fallout from Iran’s
nuclear activities that had resulted in a political standoff between Iran and
the West. But with the appointment of Ahmadinejad it brought back the essence
of isolation that revived the notion that we can do what we want and no one can
tell us what to do.
addition to these roles, Iran has also been involved, since the mid 1990s, in
crisis resolution, interstate and intra state.
Iran has been the mediator in the civil war between the Tajikistan
government and the Tajikistan Islamic movement in which it did not take sides
and sought to be a reliable broker to solve the situation. Iran also intervened with Azerbaijan and
Armenia in order to avoid increasing tensions around the region. After 9/11,
Khamenei encouraged a crusade against terrorism. In an emergency meeting of the
Organization of the Islamic Conference he called for the adoption of a hard and
global stance against terrorism. The OIC is known to comply with Iran’s foreign
policy and its quest to promote Iran’s image of helping provide multi-lateral
solutions and playing a stabilizing role in the region.(Maleki & Afrasiabi, 2008,page 40 & 29).
Iran’s leaders have
experienced many foreign shocks. Their system has withstood two Gulf wars. It
also survived the radiating effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well
as being diplomatically alienated by many countries and subjected to severe
sanctions by the United States. Despite this hardship, they were not ready for
the changes in the security atmosphere in the Gulf region, that were brought
about by the aftermath of 9/11. They had to play a defensive role, to combat
the critical threat of the American presence in Iraq and counter the US
regional policies, that were put in place, in order to minimize Iran’s influence
in the region. (Maleki,2008, page 40,48)
Iran’s foreign policy has
had two main objectives since the revolution:
Firstly, its detachment from
western influence, turning into a self-sufficient state, because the stronger
the state is from the interior, the more power it can have to exert influence
past its borders. The second, was its drive towards regional supremacy, due to
Iran’s long and impressive history and strategic geographical location.
According to Hinnebusch
(2008) Iran sees itself as a country that is qualified to decide, at the very
least, the future of the Gulf region. It believes that its old and
territorially proven civilization, that follows the notion of Iranzamin, it should have the right to influence past its