The learning process

Around the early 1960s, the opposition to the shah’s rule in Iran was gradually pushed into exile. The Marxists mostly left for Western Europe, particularly Germany and France, while the religious opposition largely settled in Syria and southern Lebanon, as well as Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. Until 1979, when the religious opposition returned to Iran to lead the country, they were mostly associated with Palestinian revolutionaries and Arab leftists. For some two decades, their worldview about the Middle East, the West, Israel, and Arab states was shaped by Palestinian and leftist literature and discourse. Mostafa Chamran, Iran’s first post-revolutionary defense minister, fought alongside Palestinians against Israel in southern Lebanon throughout the 1970s. It was during these years that both the clerical and non-clerical members of the shah’s religious opposition became acquainted with Egyptian fundamentalist authors, such as Sayed Qutb and Hassan al-Banna. When juxtaposed, the pronouncements of Iran’s revolutionary leaders about the West, Israel, and Arab governments substantially converge with the fundamentalist discourse in the Arab world during the 1950s and 1960s.

Upon returning to Iran in 1979, the fundamentalist leaders of the Islamic Republic indoctrinated a whole generation of students, activists, and citizens about the “decadent” West, “corrupt” Arab governments, and the “illegitimate” state of Israel. To this day, the country’s key institutions, the body politic, officials, administrators, and the ideological machinery of the deep state continue to espouse the same rhetoric. Interestingly, while there has been some debate about policy toward the West in general and the United States in particular in the academic and think tank community in Iran over the decades, discussion about Middle East policy has more or less been absent. Iran’s Middle East policy is viewed differently, in an almost sanctified way, with the implication that it is above criticism and its rationale cannot be questioned.

The first decade after the revolution

For the first decade of the revolution through 1989, fundamentalist ideology shaped the pillars of Iran’s foreign policy not only toward the Middle East but the West and the bipolar international system as well. Like all revolutionary states, Iran projected its ideology and beliefs, particularly in the Arab world, where it believed governments are vulnerable and the masses only seek guidance and direction from revolutionary Iran to liberate themselves. In this context, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) was perceived as a blessing, not only to liberate “Arab lands” but also “occupied Palestine.” Those objectives were not realized, however. Almost all Arab governments reacted proactively and sought to strengthen strategic relations with the United States. Iran’s objective of freeing “Muslim lands” resulted in extensive great power engagement in the Arab world.

Nonetheless, the Iran-Iraq war, the longest conventional conflict of the 20th century, served as a learning experience for both the clerics and the revolutionary class. A profoundly idealistic revolutionary generation gradually realized the prevailing power of realism in world politics. This generation learned three vital lessons during the devastating eight-year war with Iraq. First, due to its unconventional views, revolutionary Iran could not hope to cultivate sustainable friendships with most Arab governments. Second and as a result, the country should develop loyal enclaves in the Middle East, particularly among the Shi’a, not only to “export the revolution,” but also to seek influence and leverage. Lastly, given Iran’s countless complications in procuring arms during the war and its lack of reliable allies, the country’s nuclear program, begun under the shah and abandoned in the early days of the revolution, should be restarted.

The revolutionary class became military commanders during the war and emerged victorious despite all odds, and afterwards it began to consolidate politically. Typical of all revolutions, two competing paradigms arose: one championing economic reconstruction and political normalcy and the other espousing historical dialectic and the philosophy of a never-ending battle between the haves and the have-nots. The former underscored nationalism over fundamentalism and the latter fundamentalism over Westphalian Agreement. But the primary clash was over power, not ideas. The pleasure of wielding power was immeasurable compared to the difficulty of operationalizing ideas. Soon, foreign policy became split into two power-seeking clusters under the guise of revolutionary versus pragmatic thinking, although the former was far better positioned to triumph. The Middle East proved to be the main battleground between the two camps, one advancing proxy representation and the other advocating state-to-state political and economic relations.

After 1989

After the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, on June 3, 1989, the objectives and the substance of Iran’s foreign policy did not change but its inducements were transformed. Over a span of more than four decades, Iran’s foreign policy toward the United States, Israel, and the Arab world has demonstrated remarkable continuity. This article argues that the ideological underpinnings of the first decade were substituted with regime security and national security exigencies in the later decades. Iran’s national security/regime security rests on three pillars: resisting integration into the global economy, keeping the United States outside of its domestic politics, and cementing a regional Shi’a enclave. The more Iran integrates with the international community, the more there will be opportunities that can be exploited by domestic liberal and reformist groups. Beginning in 1989, power struggles among the sons of the revolution and the bifurcated nature of the country’s body politic between revolutionaries and reformists necessitated the emblematic use of ideology and ideological principles by the former to outmaneuver the latter in both domestic politics as well as foreign policy. Ideological pronouncements, education, propaganda, and indoctrination persisted. However, its limitations were also understood. Ideology was employed by the revolutionaries after 1989 for posturing, conceptually justifying foreign policy, and consolidating power domestically.

With the floating of the idea of regime change in the United States in the mid-1990s, the revolutionary class reached the conclusion that American-Iranian differences could not possibly be bridged. There is an underlying presumption and a conviction in the ranks of the revolutionary class that European and American interest in Iran is aimed at unseating and replacing them with either domestic or external power groups. Reviving the country’s nuclear program was conceived as a policy of hedging against particularly American designs for regime change. With ambivalence and hostility in Arab capitals, the revolutionaries also concluded that establishing normal relations with Arab governments, given their strategic ties with the United States, is wishful thinking. Moreover, the encouraging gestures exchanged between the Rafsanjani and later Khatami and Rouhani governments and the U.S. further alarmed the revolutionary class, raising the prospect that the reformists might team up with Washington against a revolutionary Iran. The revolutionaries also felt threatened by the potential embrace of reformists through overwhelming American political support and economic assistance. Thereafter, ideology emerged as the only suitable platform for the revolutionaries to consolidate their power against the liberals and reformists. Beginning with Akbar Rafsanjani’s presidency (1989-1997), one president after another tried but failed to modify Iran’s foreign policy approach from a confrontational to a conciliatory one. Rafsanjani reached out to Saudi Arabia to normalize relations but was outmaneuvered by the revolutionaries and the subsequent emerging modus vivendi in diplomatic relations lasted only a short period. Over many decades, the depiction of Saudi Arabia has vacillated between “a pillar of Islam” and “an enemy of Islam.”

Since Iran’s domestic politics is a zero-sum game, coalition building or even reaching a consensus on national interests is inconceivable. Many Iranian presidents since 1989 have unsuccessfully attempted to pursue open foreign economic relations, a road map followed by most developing and newly industrialized countries. To this day, national economic development takes a back seat to regional activism, the nuclear program, and anti-Westernism. The revolutionary class believes any foreign policy concession would only reinvigorate the non-revolutionary camps within the country. Fear of American designs, either directly or through Arab normalization with Iran, further calcifies this confrontational posturing. The irony is that Iran’s stance toward the United States and Israel makes it almost impossible to regulate and normalize relations with Arab governments, which, for the most part, have strategic relations with Washington. The dilemma has been heightened by the increasing number of Arab governments willing to join the Abraham Accords and normalize relations with Israel. Nonetheless, deeper Arab coalitions with the United States and Israel have only encouraged Tehran to strengthen its grip in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.

Even if Kuwait and the UAE, along with potentially other Arab governments, restore full diplomatic relations with Iran, the extent of commitments and their sustainability will most likely not move beyond pleasantries and superficialities. Much of the difficulty lies in the profound distrust and misgivings on both sides about the intentions and the playbook of the other. Whether Iran is capable or not, there is a pervasive Arab perception of it as domineering, interventionist, and possessive toward Arab societies and governments. Even when the shah was a strategic ally of the United States in the pre-revolutionary period, Iran was not acknowledged as a hegemonic regional power in the Arab psyche. This has led some pundits to depict Iran as a lonely country in the Middle Eastern context, with enormous differences in religion, ethnicity, history, and even mentality compared with almost all of its neighbors. These opposite worlds only confirm the hypothesis that Iran’s foreign policy toward the Arab world is a function of its domestic dynamics and power configuration.


There are two broad coalitions in the Arab world toward Iran: one consists of Oman and Qatar, which keep a measured distance from Saudi Arabia and maintain contacts with Iran, and another, which includes Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE, that converges with Riyadh and keeps a measured distance from Tehran. As this makes clear, Saudi Arabia is a pivotal variable in the overall matrix between Iran and the Arab world, and the key to any level of sustained improvement of relations between Iran and Arab countries depends on the Saudi-Iranian equation. In this context, Riyadh appears to be undecided about restoring relations with Tehran without clarity in three key areas: Iran’s continued involvement in Yemen, Tehran’s consistent political investment in the Saudi Shi’a community, and the outcome of nuclear negotiations with the United States. With much skepticism and uncertainty on all three fronts, even rudimentary normalization in Saudi-Iranians relations is in limbo for now.

Iran’s relations with the Arab world are the most unstable and turbulent in its entire foreign policy architecture. National security/regime security concerns, such as gaining political leverage vis-à-vis Israel and the United States on the one hand, and the projection of power and influence to enlarge the confrontational playground with Washington on the other, will continue to shape and energize Tehran’s foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond. Nevertheless, the widespread protests in Iran that began in mid-September, following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini while in detention, have incited an overwhelming international reaction and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s global image and standing have never been so low. While the country’s foreign policy is in flux, it remains uncertain what measures need to be employed and how long it will take to remedy the injury, if ever.


Mahmood Sariolghalam is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Iran Program.

Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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