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Iran’s Foreign Policy: Balancing Ideology and Pragmatism

The direction of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy has been a source of argument among scholars and foreign policymakers since the establishment of the revolutionary state in 1979. Much like its revolution, however, the nature of Iran’s foreign policy is still a mystery to many researchers, as it is difficult to find a fully satisfactory explanation about its direction and pattern of behavior. Understanding the nature of the post-revolutionary Iranian state will certainly assist in evaluating how its foreign policy works. In an ideologically driven state such as Iran, ideology and state power work to support each other in such a way as to make it almost indestructible. In this system, national interests are subordinate to the concept of seeing the world from a utopian ideological lens crafted by the founders of the revolution.

In practice, however, how far can ideology truly drive a country’s foreign policy? While an ideological foreign policy favors principles and normative approaches, a pragmatic foreign policy seeks practical and descriptive approaches. The inevitable clash between the state’s abstract ideological objectives and the pragmatism needed in international relations has made Iran’s foreign policy unpredictable, confusing, and to some extent self-contradictory. To understand this policy, it must be noted that the post-revolutionary Iranian foreign policy is a model of a dual identity with the survival of the state at its heart. In this system, depending on the nature of the threat to the survival of the state, Iran chooses to follow either ideological or pragmatic approaches in its foreign policy.

Iran’s Strategic Calculations

The foreign policy of Iran is rooted in a specific narrative of Shia revolutionary ideology. However, this ideologically-based policy occasionally comes into conflict with the national interests of Iran. In such cases, despite state propaganda’s calls for loyalty to the ideological roots of the revolution, Iran often chooses a pragmatic approach over an ideologically-based one. This can go as far as cooperating with nontraditional partners, and even ideological enemies such as the United States.

As long as Tehran does not confront threats to its survival at the international level, it continues to pursue its ideologically-bound foreign policy. In this phase, the ruling elites – consisting of the ruling political administration as well as the military and security apparatus – are primarily responsible for achieving the state’s ideological foreign policy. However, when faced with conditions that threaten the survival of the state, Iran adopts a more flexible attitude, its foreign policy decisions becoming considerably more pragmatic. The degree of the state’s flexibility is thus directly related to the severity and proximity of the threat to its survival. At the stage of shifting policy direction, the state must also work at the domestic level to ideologically justify the new policy to both the state’s idealist political factions and their supporters, as to the reason for its ideological retreat at the international level – a particularly crucial endeavor, as the hardcore supporters of the state’s ideology form the core of its defense strategy against domestic and international threats.

In practice, this approach places emphasis on the role of the hegemonic structure of the state, the state’s strength and autonomy, and the role of leadership (charismatic or institutional strength) in the state’s ability in ensuring a smooth transition from ideology to pragmatism. The stronger the hegemonic structure of the state and the more its autonomy, the easier it is for the state to shift its foreign policy while simultaneously justifying any ideological change to its domestic hardline supporters. It is important for these supporters to be ideologically convinced by the state’s reasons for retreating from its idealist foreign policy, as they form the backbone of the state’s defense in confronting domestic threats from political rivals or a dissatisfied public. Subsequently, the state must ensure that these groups are convinced of the state’s ideological cohesiveness in order to secure their continued support.

Pragmatism in Practice

On several occasions, Iran has retreated from its ideologically driven foreign policy when it confronted threats to the survival of the state. In the 1980s, Ayatollah Khomeini initially called the Iran-Iraq War the beginning of a solution to the problems of the Middle East, and repeatedly stressed that Iran would continue to fight until it achieved total victory. Along these lines, Iran rejected several peace plans by the international community throughout the war. However, after eight years of an inconclusive war and when both Iraqi and Iranian forces were exhausted and the continuation of the war would threaten the survival of the state, Iran’s foreign policy once again shifted towards pragmatism. Ayatollah Khomeini accepted UN Security Council Resolution 598 and agreed to a ceasefire in 1988.

Shortly after the ceasefire and the removal of the threat to its survival, Iran once again shifted the direction of its foreign policy towards revolutionary ideology in February 1989. In a historic fatwa, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the execution of Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, and all involved in the publication of the book. In response to this fatwa, 12 European countries recalled their ambassadors from Iran and froze all economic ties with Tehran. Once again, Iran found itself under mounting economic pressure and diplomatic isolation. Shortly after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in June 1989 and in a clear change of direction towards pragmatism, the state dissociated itself from the Ayatollah’s call for the death of Salman Rushdie to save it from mounting pressure.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan with broad international support. Two years later, it also invaded Iraq. While the Iraqi invasion would later turn into a quagmire for the United States, it was rapidly successful in destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime. With this apparent early success, regional leaders feared that the United States would attempt to replicate the campaign against its other adversaries, and Iran found itself under threat of becoming the next U.S. target in the region. In this situation and against its ideological values, in early 2003, Iran covertly contacted the United States to open a channel for a broad dialogue over all disputing issues including full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel, and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian militant groups. Fearful for its survival and facing increasing international pressure, Iran halted its nuclear program in the same year.

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, which resulted in the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015, were another example of Iran giving up its ideological objectives in favor of a pragmatic approach under a threat to the survival of the state. Similar to his predecessor, Ayatollah Khamenei has long described negotiations with the United States as a red line of the state. However, under U.S.-led crippling economic and financial sanctions which threatened the state’s survival, Iran decided to engage in meaningful negotiations over its nuclear program with the Obama administration in 2013. The newest rounds of negotiations between Iran and the United States suggest that a “maximum pressure” policy by the United States was at least somewhat effective in forcing Tehran to give up its ideological foreign policy in favor of a more pragmatic approach.

Based on the above argument, it is expected for Iran to adopt the same approach towards its other challenges in foreign policy, including its ballistic missile program and the support of militant organizations throughout the Middle East. At the moment, these programs are considered by the state to be ideological red lines and therefore “unnegotiable.” We will see if this is actually the case.

Dr. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Üsküdar University. Dr. Khelghat-Doost is also a Next Generation Leader on Gender, Peace, and Security (GPS) at Women In International Security (WIIS), Washington D.C., United States as well as a member of the Board of Academia at the Academy of Security, Intelligence and Risk Studies in Singapore.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Üsküdar University. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the National University of Singapore (NUS). His main fields of interest include gender, media, forced migration, political violence, international security, terrorism, and sustainable development with special focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. He is author of the book The Strategic Logic of Women in Jihadi Organizations: From Operation to State Building (Springer, 2021). Dr. Khelghat-Doost is also a Next Generation Leader on Gender, Peace, and Security (GPS) at Women In International Security (WIIS), Washington D.C., United States as well as a member of the Board of Academia at the Academy of Security, Intelligence and Risk Studies in Singapore. He has the experience of conducting field research in several countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.


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