Islam in Iran's Foreign Policy

The project

The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought to power an assertive Islamic regime, feared by its neighbours as a source of instability. The revolutionary rhetoric emanating from Tehran has been unnerving for incumbent regimes in the Middle East and Central Asia, and viewed with extreme concern in Washington. The intensity of the rhetoric has ebbed and flowed. But the anxiety regarding Iran's alleged agenda to export its model of government to the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia has continued to plague Iran's relations with its neighbours. Iran's refusal to comply with UN oversight and the inspections regime on its nuclear program has reinforced international concerns about its hidden agenda. At the core of the criticism about the behaviour of the Iranian regime is the charge that Iran's foreign policy is based on a set of ideological positions which are by definition fixed and uncompromising. The language used by the Iranian authorities tends to support the assumption that its foreign policy is grounded in an Islamic ideological framework. But this assumption remains untested. In fact, this assumption does not explain substantial shifts in Iran's foreign policy orientations towards its neighbours and the United States. It is important to examine the above question and analyse its utility and limits in explaining foreign policy making.

Key questions

The key question is: What is the role of Islamic ideology in shaping foreign policy in Iran?

Researching the above question is supported by three supplementary and related questions to contextualise the project:

  • How does Iran formulate its national interests?
  • How are religious ideological imperatives reconciled with pragmatism to promote state interest?
  • To what extent are Iranian state (national) interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan served by Islam?

By exploring these questions, this project will document the extent to which ideological objectives may be curtailed by value-free pragmatism. This is an exciting and fresh area of study that makes a direct contribution to conceptualisations of international relations. Furthermore, this will assist the Australian government to make informed policy based on a nuanced assessment of the dynamics behind the scene in Iran, not ideological presumptions. Exploring the dynamics that drive Iranian policy towards its neighbours in Central Asia and Afghanistan is relevant to informed policy making. The present project will make a modest contribution in filling this gap in a difficult region, where Australia's national interests are being contested at the present time.

Project background

Former-President George W Bush described Iran as part of an 'axis of evil', intent on exporting terrorism and destabilizing the region. In a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2007, then-Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that Iran is the main driving force in an 'ideological struggle' that undermines regional security and American interests in the Middle East.1

This description was the trademark of the neo-conservative position on Iran. It emphasised the normative importance of ideas and ideals in the way states behaved. Just as the United States had a duty to advance its version of democracy to the world in the neo-conservative paradigm, Iran was seen by leading figures in the neo-conservative camp to be acting out its Islamic ideology in its policy decision-making.2 This interpretation presented Iran as an irrational actor: a state that is not governed by the 'realist' pursuit of 'maximizing security', but one that deliberately makes itself vulnerable to risk by pursuing an ideologically-inspired position in relation to its neighbours, Israel, and the United States.3

The neo-conservative approach and its normative framework for US policy making has attracted widespread criticism in academia. Some of the most authoritative responses to the Bush policy on Iran were formulated by Ray Takeyh (2007), Vali Nasr (Takeyh & Nasr 2008), and Suzanne Maloney (2010) who argued that any assessment of Iran's behaviour on the international scene needs to take note of the identity politics at the domestic level. Known as social constructivism, this approach to international relations was originally presented as a cogent conceptual framework by Alexander Wendt (1992 & 1999). Wendt's constructivism marked a departure from the realist paradigm which dominated the academic field of international relations during the Cold War period.4 In contrast to realism and its emphasis on systemic external pressures on states which prodded them in one or the other foreign policy direction to maximize state security, social constructivism pointed to the importance of non-material factors (that is, ideas, social norms, and values) in conditioning the behaviour of states. In short, identities inform state interests and actions, which may or may not be consistent with the realist expectations of state behaviour.5

The irony of the constructivist challenge to neo-conservatism is that both emphasise the critical importance of internal identity politics to explain foreign policy choices. Yet the policy implications of these two approaches toward Iran could not be further apart. Neo-conservatives saw Iranian behaviour to be grounded in, if not predetermined by, Islamic revolutionary ideology. Tehran's behaviour was seen as rigid and unresponsive to other influences. In contrast, those subscribing to the constructivist approach emphasised that Iranian Islamic identity is not static but dynamic, and that environmental changes on the international level make an imprint on internal dynamics. Anoushiravan Ehteshami, among others, noted that the 'axis of evil' concept in the Bush administration's security doctrine proved a critical factor in Iran's domestic politics – shutting a window of opportunity for US-Iran rapprochement.6

Maloney has been among the leading scholars to argue a case in relation to Iran that may be described as constructivism (although this terminology is not generally used in the literature on Iran). She has argued that Iranian corporate identity, which is acted out in its external relations, is grounded in three distinct foundations: Persian nationalism; Islamism; and anti-imperialism (2002). This is a sophisticated approach that does not reduce the identity of the state to Islam alone. Maloney sees Iran's identity to be multi-layered. In her own words: 'Iranian political identity embodies different and often divergent identities, which are variously invoked as domestic political competition and international circumstance demands.'7

Interests derived from various layers of identity are bound to be non-uniform, pointing to ruptures in Iranian political behaviour. Foreign policy choices adopted by the Iranian regime exhibit both qualities of calculated pragmatic choices aimed at maximizing state security, and ideologically-charged choices consistent with the revolutionary ethos of the state. Extreme examples of this contrast may be Tehran's position towards the Azeri-Armenian war and the endorsement of the US operation in Afghanistan in 2001, as opposed to continuing support for Hamas and a history of aggressive and diplomatically damaging statements towards its Arab neighbours in the Persian Gulf. How can these contrasting positions be reconciled?

The existing literature has tended to ascribe policy shifts to the ascendancy of the 'conservative' or 'reformist' factions in the Iranian leadership.8 This interpretation goes some way in explaining the stark contrast between diplomatic overtures towards the West, such as former President Muhammad Khatami's 'dialogue of civilisations' initiative, and the anti-Israel hyperbole which has characterised Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency.9 It is generally accepted that the reformist camp is driven by pragmatic impulses that come close to the realist expectations of state behaviour. In contrast the conservative camp is seen to be guided by the ideational foundations of the Islamic state with a binary view of the world as divided between Islam and its perceived enemies (consistent with the classical division of dar ul-Islam & dar ul-Harb).

This perspective allows for no middle ground – no grey areas to pursue compromise or pragmatism. The reality of Iranian politics and foreign policy is far from a clear-cut differentiation of reformists versus conservatives. Some of the leading figures described as reformist today (such as the 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mossavi) were firmly against reform a decade ago. Iran continued to provide support to Hamas and Hizbullah during Khatami's presidency, while the Ahmadinejad government has tried to tone down criticism of its Arab neighbours at a sensitive time. In the wake of Saudi support for the Sunni King of Bahrain to suppress the Shi'a-majority revolution (2011), and against the history of Iran's territorial claims over Bahrain (Bahri 2000), the Iranian government has managed to contain its ideological zeal and reiterate respect for the sovereignty of Bahrain. In short, both the reformist and conservative camps exhibit both pragmatic and ideological approaches to foreign policy.

There is a fundamental contradiction at the core of the Islamic Republic which pulls it in two different directions.10 On the one hand, the Iranian constitution enshrined popular sovereignty in the name of the 'republic', while on the other hand, makes it conditional to the sovereignty of God represented by the Supreme Leader.  The consequence of this inherent tension at the core of the Islamic Republic has been sporadic zig-zags in domestic and foreign policy. Pragmatism has a place in Tehran's approach to its neighbours but, at the same time, it is conditioned by ideological constraints. Ramazani argues that the response of the international community to this contradiction could be instrumental in the ascendancy of pragmatism over ideology.11 This suggests that the boundaries of pragmatism may be expanded. The question is, to what extent? How do the conflicting influences of value-free pragmatism and Islamic- revolutionary ideology interact in any given foreign policy making scenario?

These questions are especially important in relation to the five Central Asian republics to the north of Iran and Afghanistan to the east. All share close historical connections and cultural heritage. All follow Islam, although Shi'a Islam is not the religion of the majority in Central Asia and Afghanistan.  Furthermore, as a country with direct access to open seas, Iran has great potential to contribute to, and benefit from, expanding trade with this landlocked region. Thus, there is a rich tapestry of interests which Iran may pursue with its neighbours – all potential levers of soft power – against the background of its Islamic ideology and worldview. Despite this reality, the literature on Iran's foreign policy has largely focused on the US-Iran relations, and to a lesser extent, on Iran and the Arab world. Yet the above factors make the nature and dynamics of Iran's relations with Central Asia and Afghanistan worthy of close examination, especially due to their potential for giving Iran regional leverage.

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