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Iran's Foreign Policy since the Islamic Revolution - Consistent and Invariable?

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2006 30 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: Naher Osten, Vorderer Orient


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Khomeini’s Iran: Islamic Foreign Policy
2.1. The Transition Period
2.2. Isolation and “Export of the Revolution”
2.3. Relations with the West

3. The Rafsanjani era: Period of Pragmatism
3.1. Iran’s foreign policy under Rafsanjani
3.2. Relations with the West

4. The Khatami era: Period of Reform
4.1. Iran’s foreign policy under Khatami
4.2. Relations with the West

5. Iran under Ahmadinejad: Return to Conservatism and Confrontation

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The recent events around the newly elected president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, concerning Iran’s efforts of nuclear enrichment, against international regulations and agreements as well as his statements about Israel in which he, among other things, denied the Holocaust, have brought to mind again, how much effect Iranian foreign policy has on the international political arena. Iran is a key player in Middle Eastern politics, especially in the Gulf area, and has been a nemesis of the United States for decades.

The Islamic Revolution in 1979 has created a new Iran that, in its roots, accounts for fundamentalist Islamic laws and doctrines, the export of its revolutionary ideology and rejection of western culture or values. But has Iranian foreign policy always been a constant in the country’s history after the Islamic Revolution and immune to change? Has it always been an instrument for the expression of Islamic revolutionary ideas and animosity toward the west? Or did it change significantly during the different political periods? If yes, what were the reasons for those changes? These are the questions and issues this work intends to give answers and explanations to.

In this context Iran’s foreign policy agenda in the different periods of Iranian politics will be examined. Also the country’s relations with the Western world, that is the United States and mainly the Western European countries, respectively the European Union, will be emphasized in order to identify the implementations of its foreign policy in practice. Chapter 2 will deal with Iran’s foreign policy under the influence of Ayatollah Khomeini. The period of transition (Chapter 2.1.) and the time of Islamic consolidation and manifestation of the isolation policy (Chapter 2.2.) will be regarded separately. Chapter 3 will analyse the foreign policy of Iran during the presidency of A. H. Rafsanjani and identify a first shift in the policy paradigm. In order to serve this work’s thesis a major part of this work will be dedicated to Chapter 4 which examines the aspects of Iranian foreign policy under Mohammad Khatami, due to their significance in this regard. In each of the mentioned chapters a subchapter will take a closer look at Iran’s relations with the West (Chapters 2.3., 3.2., 4.2.). Despite the fact that scientific research material about the recent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the new president of Iran and the abovementioned events does not yet exist, chapter 5 will give a comment on this issue out of the composer’s perspective. Eventual Chapter 6 will draw a conclusion and formally give an answer to the work’s main question.

2. Khomeini’s Iran: Islamic foreign policy

After large ongoing street protests in Tehran and throughout Iran against the Shah regime, in which an independent Islamic government was demanded, the Shah went into exile in the United States at the beginning of 1979. A few days later, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual and clerical leader of the anti-shah-movement, returned to Iran from France and was instated as the new ruler. The monarchy in Iran was officially ended and the country stood at a crossroad. During the initial time of the Islamic Revolution a major dispute for power erupted among the different revolutionary groupings such as the radical Islamists, secularists, leftist nationalists, communists and others. Through a national referendum the radical Islamist clerics around Khomeini gained the most influence and power and eventually founded the Islamic Republic of Iran.

2.1. The Transition Period

After the formal creation of the Islamic Republic, Imam Ayatollah Khomeini gave the permission for the establishment of a new government. Mehdi Bazargan became the new Prime Minister on a provisional basis. With regard to former interactions of foreign powers in the domestic affairs of Iran during the decades prior to the Revolution, the Bazargan government pushed ahead a non-alignment policy as to be the new foreign policy paradigm.[1] Other than the obligation for the defence of Iran’s territorial integrity it included the aspect of non-alignment with former colonial powers in Iran, the fight for Islamic unity in the world and support for liberation movements worldwide.[2] As its first action after the announcement of the new policy Iran abandoned the Central Treaty Organization in March 1979 and all other international deals and accords which had been sealed by the Shah’s government.[3]

Already at an early stage in the new government’s rule it had to face a serious foreign policy crisis, namely the hostage-taking of over 50 US-diplomats and Embassy-workers inside the US-Embassy in Teheran by Islamic, fundamentalist students. The action was said to be backed by the clerical forces in the government (and Khomeini himself). The students saw themselves as the true force of the revolution and defenders of the Islamic cause.

Although Bazargan was an actual participant in the Islamic Revolution he could not agree with Ayatollah Khomeini on basic political issues, such as the actual role of his government in the relations between the religious movement of Khomeini and the more secular factions. However, he was forced to share power with the Islamic Revolutionary Council (IRC). During the hostage crisis the conflict between the two worsened and eventually Bazargan had to resign in November 1979 and Abdul-Hassan Bani-Sadr was elected as the new president.

Though a nationalist politician Bani-Sadr came from a clerical background and had therefore strong ties with fundamentalist forces in the leadership. He continued the non-alignment policy of his predecessor but added a more aggressive and militant note to it in favour of the Islamic cause (according to his speeches). However, after several disagreements between Khomeini and him, Bani-Sadr was also forced to resign. The new president, Ali Rejaee, did not survive many days in office until he was eventually assassinated by an opposition organization.[4] The early days of the Islamic Revolution proved to be somewhat turbulent.

In September 1980 Iran officially became an Islamic Republic in the actual meaning and the first government under the new constitution was established. Also the hostage crisis could be resolved on terms which were negotiated through the Algiers Agreement. In return for the release of the hostages the United States agreed to not interact with Iranian domestic affairs in the future.[5]

2.2. Isolation and “Export of the Revolution”

After this period of transition we can observe an Iranian foreign policy agenda which is clearly marked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical Islamic view of international relations. After the establishment of the actual Islamic Republic his influence on the government’s policy grew. The foreign policy paradigm shifted to an even more radical outlook.

Khomeini regarded Islam as the only true guideline for society and state and was convinced of a bipolar world, divided between a “universe of Islam” and a “universe of Non-Islam” (or those who are against Islam). These two sides would always stand in conflict with each other. In fact, Khomeini rejected the nation state system as a whole and believed in the future of an Islamic world system. The Iranian nation would only be necessary step toward the spread of Islam and an export of Islamic revolutionary ideals throughout the world.[6]

Despite the bipolar standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union prior and during the time of the revolution, the Iranian government saw the greater threat for itself in the USA (although both countries were seen as enemies of Islam). This is simply related to the very close political and economical ties between the United States and the Shah-regime. In order to position itself in international politics, Iran had to articulate and develop a foreign policy paradigm that would express its devotion to the Islamic cause and its export as well as the continuation of Iran’s non-alignment policy. It did so by publicly expressing that the Iranian nation had no interest in allying with neither the eastern nor the western bloc. Especially Khomeini, though officially a spiritual leader and not the foreign minister, was eager to show that the Iranian nation was solely committed to the Islamic Revolution and rejected any dominance of the superpowers in word politics and westernization in general.[7] The Islamic government prohibited all foreign investments and the establishment of an internationally independent economy was set as a major objective. The official foreign policy of Iran in this period can be regarded as an outcome of the long-lasting rule of colonial powers over the country, the previous regime’s involvement with foreign powers (especially in terms of foreign investment) and, of course, the growing influence of radical Islam.[8]

As mentioned above, the non-alignment policy was not the only ambition in the foreign policy of the new government. The promotion of Islam throughout the world was another. Ayatollah Khomeini emphasized the necessity of spreading Islam and the Islamic Revolution in order to evade a defeat by the superpowers in the world. Iran shall therefore engage in bringing Islam to the oppressed people and countries. This foreign policy perspective even found its way into the new Iranian constitution in which Iran’s duty for giving the world the ideals of the Islamic Revolution is determined.[9]

What did these theoretical frameworks of Iran’s foreign policy in this period mean in actual practice? In fact, the export of the revolution and radical Islam started to turn into a big threat for the regimes of other Muslim nations in the Middle East. Iran willingly supported terror organizations like Hamas and especially Hezbollah (although, officially, Iran refrained from giving support to any armed resistance in Islamic dominated countries) and distanced itself with these actions from other Muslim countries in the region.

The result of the two abovementioned main foreign policy objectives was basically an overall isolation of Iran in the international community during the first years of the Islamic Republic. However, the insufficiency of this isolation policy became obvious in the shape of economic problems (caused partly as a result of US-sanctions imposed on the country). From the mid 1980’s on a much more pragmatic handling of the foreign policy agenda was adopted and economic relations with Western Europe and, in part, the United States were reopened and intensified. Even Khomeini himself had to change his perspective under these circumstances and agreed that country cannot be isolated from the rest of world once the revolution had been established in Iran.[10]

2.3. Relations with the West

In the period between 1979 and 1989 Iran’s relation with the West can be regarded as existing under very difficult circumstances. Under the regime of the Shah Iran and the United States were very close allies, both politically and economically. The so-called “twin pillars policy”, which was established by the administration of President Richard Nixon, was aimed at the protection of the Persian Gulf region and America’s interests[11] there under the leadership of Iran. The Shah regime needed the support of the United States in order to remain in control of domestic and foreign opposition against his rule through the relatively powerful armed forces and the infamous intelligence service.


[1] Ramazani, Ruhollah K. 1983: p. 12

[2] Siavoshi, Sussan 1995: p. 210 f.

[3] Hunter, Shireen T. 1992: p. 109 f.

[4] Irfani, Suroosh 1983: p. 190 f. (the oppostion group was “Mujahedeen-i Khalq” which fought for a Marxist Islamic adjustment of Iran’s system)

[5] Hunter, Shireen 1992: p. 58 f.

[6] Ramazani, Ruhollah K. 1983: p. 17

[7] ibid.: p. 19

[8] ibid.: p. 21 f.

[9] ibid.: p. 18 f.

[10] Ramazani, Ruhollah K.: 1989: p. 202 f.

[11] Mainly the establishment of a defence system in the Middle East region under an hegemonial lead of the US


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Institution / Hochschule
Middle east technical university; Ankara – Department of International Relations
Iran Foreign Policy Islamic Revolution Consistent Invariable Middle East World Affairs



Titel: Iran's Foreign Policy since the Islamic Revolution - Consistent and Invariable?