Toexamine whether Iran’s foreign policy since 1979 has been defensive orhegemonic we must look at the situation of its immediate neighbours such as theGulf States, Iraq and Syria since, as Soltani (2010) observes, its foreignpolicy has tended to focus more on geopolitical circumstances and less onideological assumptions (p.200).
A further important factor is that Iran’sforeign policy continues to exhibit intertwining and often contradictoryambitions. Although, as Axeworthy (2013, p 20) argues, Khomeini’s focus was forShi’ism to become rooted and entrenched in the cultural, political andintellectual life of Iran, Katzman (2017) suggests that the country’s leadersapparently sought to measure the ‘relative imperatives of their revolutionaryand 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, asKiddie (2006) claims, that religion had become the salient factor in guiding politicsand government activities (p.3).
Khomeini,having emerged as Iran’s supreme leader, advanced the idea of Guardianshipknown as “Wilayat al Faqih” and was credited with the establishmentof the theocratic regime. He changed the nature of the country’s foreign policyand replaced it with his personal views of Islamic principles. Indeed, asSoltani (2010) argues, although the principles of Iran’s constitution hadlargely been adhered to by the country’s former presidents, the fact that eachhad chosen to interpret them idiosyncratically had led to the creation of anumber of varying approaches in foreign policy and, unsurprisingly, rathermixed results (p.199).
Acritical factor for the post 1979 Islamic government, was its selection of apolitical perspective, in which the world was divided into two categories; theoppressed and the oppressors. Juneau (2013) points out that Iran viewed itselfas the only Islamic state fit to help free the oppressed and sought to achievethis in a number of different ways. He contends that Khomeini rejected the ideaof direct interference, by taking a more defensive approach and focused more onthe idea of power through faith (p44). This inconsistent approach, however, canarguably be viewed as a pragmatic response to major political events, such asits war with Iraq and, more recently, Gulf War I and II. Estesamiand Zweiri (2008) have made claims that Hegemonic undertones have guided yearsof Iranian foreign policy. Khomeini called for the exportation of the Islamicrevolution to the neighbouring Gulf and Middle Eastern states. Additionally,there is a popular belief among Iranian politicians, that moving towards theEast is less risky than building relations with the West (p 15). For instance,they have focused on building security arrangements and had long-termnegotiations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in a failedattempt to gain membership but they were refused entry last year despiteRussian support.
TheIranians have been shaped by a number of military and political defeats,throughout history, such as the one they suffered at the hands of Alexander theGreat and as such, their leaders have always had a historic defense againsttheir neighbours, to ensure that their land and their people are continuouslyprotected. They have sought to portray their nation as one that is able toexpel enemies both foreign and domestic. Overthe centuries, the Persians have not been known to maintain friendly relationswith their neighbours, instead, they have always made sure their neighboursknew 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 itstransformation into the Islamic Republic under Khomeini.
This changed Iran’s worldview and how it should portray itself to the world as Takyeh (2006) comments.Khomeini felt that religion and politics were inseparable (p13). Iran’sgeopolitical situation is amongst the most important factors to consider whentrying to examine the reason for its hegemonic goals and its interference inthe affairs of neighbouring states. They want to export the Iranian Islamicrevolution and change the shift of power in the Middle East. Although theirneighbouring states are mostly comprised of Sunni Muslims, many, such asBahrain, Iraq and Lebanon contain sizeable Shia populations living within,which gives Iran foothold in these countries therefore turning them into temptingtargets for Iran’s hegemonic approach. Tocombat this, Bahrain, for instance, that has a Sunni monarchy but a Shiamajority, has been giving passports to non-Bahraini Sunnis, to try and increasethe Sunni majority, to oppose the growing numbers of Shia citizens and reducethe possibility of future influence. Hooshang(1993) argues that Iran’s power was exerted through it proxies in differentcountries.
In Lebanon, for example, itsinfluence and interference can be measured by its support, finance and armamentof the Hezbollah group, which is a foreign extension of the Iranian regime.Hezbollah follows the Wilayat al Faqih and promotes the Iranian clergy’sagenda. (page13).
Morerecently, 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’sborders and could be a potential gateway to increase Iran’s influence in theKingdom (Stephan Snyder,2017). The extent of Iran’s support of the Houthirebels remains unclear, but senior Iranian officials, in many press interviews,namely with Reuters, claimed repeatedly that they have a few hundred soldiers (TheQuds force), stationed in Yemen, that have been helping train the Houthis. The Gulf states have accused Iran ofproviding the Houthis with arms and financial support. Accordingto Maleki & Afrasiabi (2008), the Middle East had become one of the mostmilitarized places during the 1990s, with weapons purchases increasing to 82.5billion. This may not seem like a huge collective amount today, but in the1990s, this equaled to, approximately, half the value of weapons purchasedworldwide (page 17). With statistics like this, it is not surprising that Iranwas increasingly keen to establish a nuclear program, to radiate the notionthat it is capable of defending itself.
To date, Iran has chosen not to concealits ownership and development of a nuclear program, but has, instead used it tohighlight its perceived role as a major regional power. In 2015, Iran signedan agreement with the JCPOA and agreed to two conditions: Firstly, to reduceits Uranium enrichment activities and secondly, to be open to many inspections(Katzman,2017, page 9). Ramazani(1989) indicates that many years of war, skirmishes and escalating tensionsbetween Tehran and Washington have ultimately not helped to gather anunderstanding of the situation, but have rather added to the confusion, whichhas led US policy makers to find Iran’s foreign relations incomprehensible (p202). This is largely due, to the fact that Iran has had to operate in anenvironment usually set by its opponents. The religious shift and theintroduction of the Islamic revolution brought about a definitive break withthe past and the end of American interference in Iranian affairs. Ansari(2006) believes, that the termination of relations by the United States withIran, as a result of the seizure of the US embassy and the ensuing hostagecrisis in November 1979, have resulted in freezing the US perception of Iran,and in halting any attempts of communication or understanding of the revolutionaryprocess (p 71).
Iran held the Americans hostage for a period of 444 days. Even though the hostages were never reallyinjured, they were blindfolded and paraded in front of cameras, before theywere set free hours after President Regan’s inaugural speech. The release ofthe hostages was meant as a message to the Americans and to the rest of theworld, that Iran will be the one to dictate its own future from that point on.(Ali.
M.Ansari, 2006,page 90). Therelations with the US had the opportunity to improve with the election of thereformist Khatami as he encouraged dialogue with the American people. Ehteshami (2017) claims that he took a moredefensive approach and wanted to continue what Rafsanjani had started. Hesought to take the Islamic Republic through international doors to end themisunderstanding and help reduce the social and economic conditions that hadbeen brought on by years of sanctions and lack of international cooperation.
But there were many obstacles that he had to face. Firstly, were the indirectand direct challenges that had been come with the events of 9/11 as well ascountering US intervention that this had brought to the region. Secondly wasthe re-securitization of the middle east. Finally, was the fallout from Iran’snuclear activities that had resulted in a political standoff between Iran andthe West. But with the appointment of Ahmadinejad it brought back the essenceof isolation that revived the notion that we can do what we want and no one cantell us what to do.
Inaddition to these roles, Iran has also been involved, since the mid 1990s, incrisis resolution, interstate and intra state. Iran has been the mediator in the civil war between the Tajikistangovernment and the Tajikistan Islamic movement in which it did not take sidesand sought to be a reliable broker to solve the situation. Iran also intervened with Azerbaijan andArmenia in order to avoid increasing tensions around the region.
After 9/11,Khamenei encouraged a crusade against terrorism. In an emergency meeting of theOrganization of the Islamic Conference he called for the adoption of a hard andglobal stance against terrorism. The OIC is known to comply with Iran’s foreignpolicy and its quest to promote Iran’s image of helping provide multi-lateralsolutions and playing a stabilizing role in the region.(Maleki & Afrasiabi, 2008,page 40 & 29).
Iran’s leaders haveexperienced many foreign shocks. Their system has withstood two Gulf wars. Italso survived the radiating effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union, as wellas being diplomatically alienated by many countries and subjected to severesanctions by the United States. Despite this hardship, they were not ready forthe changes in the security atmosphere in the Gulf region, that were broughtabout by the aftermath of 9/11. They had to play a defensive role, to combatthe critical threat of the American presence in Iraq and counter the USregional policies, that were put in place, in order to minimize Iran’s influencein the region.
(Maleki,2008, page 40,48) Iran’s foreign policy hashad two main objectives since the revolution:Firstly, its detachment fromwestern influence, turning into a self-sufficient state, because the strongerthe state is from the interior, the more power it can have to exert influencepast its borders. The second, was its drive towards regional supremacy, due toIran’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 veryleast, the future of the Gulf region. It believes that its old andterritorially proven civilization, that follows the notion of Iranzamin, it should have the right to influence past itsborders (p28).