De-radicalisation of Iranian foreign policy

The Republic is a more vibrant political polity than most regimes in the Middle East, even after the advent of the Arab Spring. To understand Iranian foreign policy, one needs to look at the social and ideological pillars of the Iranian Revolution.

Maged Mandour
7 October 2013

The title of this article is misleading; it shares a number of misconceptions and stereotypes about the nature of the Iranian revolution, the Iranian regime and the nature of Iranian foreign policy. The prevailing stereotype in the west is that the Iranian regime is a fundamentalist, radical, almost irrational regime. This stereotype has been prevalent in the west ever since the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis.

However, on close examination one can convincingly argue that the Islamic Republic has been following a much more rational, realist foreign policy aimed at enhancing Iranian power and prestige in the Arab world. The apparent radical policy looks much more pragmatic than first appearances might suggest.

To understand Iranian foreign policy, one needs to look at the social and ideological pillars of the Iranian Revolution that gave birth to the Islamic Republic. The Revolution had two main pillars in terms of social roots. First, was the lower urban middle class, the foot soldiers of the revolution, the people of south Tehran who felt disenfranchised under the rule of the Shah. They were the heart and soul of the urban movement that was instrumental in bringing down the Shah. Second, was the traditional middle class that can be divided into the Bazaaries and the religious establishment, both threatened by the reforms of the White Revolution, and the increased infringements of the Shah on their power base.

Prior to the revolution, this pillar spawned a number of resistance movements, most notably the MKO and the Fedayeen. Their struggle paved the way for the revolution, posing a serious threat to the government, not in terms of actual armed toppling of the government; however they opened up the terrain of civil society for an ideological struggle that ended with the success of the revolutionary forces under the leadership of Khomeini. They were the precursor of the revolution.

In terms of the ideological roots of the Islamic Republic, in his lucid study of Khomeinism, Ervand Abrahamia compellingly argues that the ideological roots of Islamic Republic is not religious fundamentalism, but rather it was influenced by writers that mixed certain religious elements of Shiism and secular ideas from the left, especially Marxism, most notably Maoism.

Khomeini did not attribute the development of his ideas directly to others, particularly if they were secular writers. However, it is easy to see the traces of the writings of other revolutionary thinkers, whose writings have a strong Marxist flavour on the ideological development of Khomeini, most notably, Jalal El-Ahmed, the ex-Tudeh writer who advocated a return to the Islamic roots of the country, and Ali Shariati whose works had a strong Marxist flavour. Some even argue that the ideology of the MKO, who later engaged Khomeini in a bloody struggle, had a direct influence on Khomeini. Khomeini divided society into the oppressed ”Mostafeen” and the oppressors “Mostakbreen”, a division that echoes the Marxist distinction between the bourgeoisie and the workers, with the revolution siding with the oppressed. In the end Khomeini had more in common with Third world, nationalist movements, than religious fundamental movements. 

Thus, the ideological and social base of the Iranian Revolution has produced a regime that is hegemonic, and representative of the aspirations of a large segment of Iranian society, combining the interests of the traditional middle class and the lower classes. The Republic is a more vibrant political polity than most regimes in the Middle East, even after the advent of the Arab Spring. However, this does not mean that the Iranian political order is completely democratic. It still maintains a significant level of coercion and oppression, as the struggle between the right and left wings of the Islamic Republic, the events of the Presidential elections in 2009, and the fate of Mousavi, the Imam’s prime minister clearly show. Moreover, the Iranian regime has been following economic policies that have disenfranchised its older allies, privileging monopolistic Islamic foundations and overt and covert military and paramilitary economic activities. This has been reflected in the critique of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri of the increased role of the military, which might signal a change in the nature of the Iranian regime and its hegemony. However, up till now the Iranian regime remains mostly hegemonic.

How does this translate into the realm of foreign policy? Based on the above, one might predict that Iran will behave on the international front in a manner that would promote the aspirations of the Iranian nationalist movement in the region. Iran has attempted to follow policies that would break down Iranian isolation as a Persian, Shia state surrounded by Arab Sunni neighbours. In other words, it has attempted to create inroads into the Arab world by soliciting the support of the Arab masses and enhancing its Iranian soft power. Take the infamous denial of the holocaust by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the west, most commentators argued that this was due to the fundamental, anti-Semitic nature of the Islamic Republic. However, on closer examination one can see that this remark had another audience in mind, namely a domestic conservative audience, and the wider Arab masses in the Middle East. This was a realist, pragmatic approach that attempted to consolidate support for the Iranian regime at home and within the region. Rather than being a piece of irrational, racist, rhetoric targeted at western audiences, the main audience was regional and domestic. Iranian championing of Palestinian rights, as well as support for radical movements in the Middle East, like Hamas and Hezbollah, fall within the same category and the same rationale, namely to increase the power of Iran in the region motivated by pragmatic realist reasons, rather than ideological, fundamental motivations.

The question that now arises is: will the election of Rouhani signal a drastic shift in Iranian foreign policy in the region? One can safely argue that this will not be the case. Although the nuclear issue might be resolved by compromises made by both sides, Iranian attempts to increase regional power and prestige will not be significantly qualified in the near future. The rise of nationalist forces in the region will inevitably clash with the interest of the largest power in the region, namely the United States, which hopes to inhibit the development of any regional force that might compete with it over regional control. In other words, the Islamic Republic, which is a manifestation of Iranian nationalist forces and the child of the Iranian Revolution has an almost “natural” tendency to clash with the United States, not due to ideological reasons, but due to clashes of interests between the Iranian nationalist forces and those of the United States.

This clash did not begin and will not end with the nuclear issue. This clash began with Operation Ajax in 1953, even before Khomeini appeared on the Iranian political scene, when the elected Prime Minister of Iran Mossadegh was removed in a CIA-sponsored military coup. At the time Mossadegh was the representative of the Iranian nationalist forces that wanted to wrest the destiny of Iran from the hands of British imperialism.

One can argue therefore that the social as well as ideological roots of the Iranian regime place significant barriers on the extent to which it can “de-radicalise”, for lack of a better term, in terms of foreign policy. The nature of the Iranian regime as a hegemonic order, which rests on the support of the traditional middle class and the lower urban middle class, is dictating the “radical behaviour” of the regime in the international realm as a representative of Iranian nationalist forces, placing it on a collision course with the United States, even if the nuclear issue is solved. 

There are also ideological imperatives: the ideological base of the regime as argued above will also push the Iranian regime towards behaving in a manner that would clash with the interests of the United States. Unless there is a change in the nature of the Iranian regime, Iranian foreign policy is expected to remain ‘radical’ within the foreseeable future.

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