Iran Pulse

Revolution at 40: Have Iranian regional policies come full circle?

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Article Summary
Forty years after the Islamic Revolution, the shah’s view of Iran and its role in the region is paradoxically echoed in the foreign policy debate by those with a more revolutionary perspective.

Revolutions are often defined as mass-based movements that violently, over a relatively short span of time, bring down a regime and often lead to a restructuring of the polity and the transformation of the class structure of a society. As a result, it is commonly assumed that the country's foreign policy will also undergo fundamental changes. Yet, while the dominant understanding of revolution is heavily intertwined with change, there has been a good deal of continuity in regional policy when it comes to post-revolutionary Iran.

To trace this continuity, it is important to understand the ways in which Iran’s regional policies are viewed by elites in the country. Their perceptions can be divided into two broad approaches: The “defensive reactive” approach argues that Iran must react to the instability and insecurity surrounding it by transforming such situations into more secure and stable environments. The “revolutionary proactive” approach argues that Iran’s engagement in the region is justified by the country's inherent attributes.

With respect to the defensive reactive approach, to Iran’s west, Iraq poses highly multifaceted challenges and opportunities. Iran has a complex relationship with Iraq on four levels that are relatively independent of one another: state to state, parties/politicians to parties/politicians, clergy to clergy and military to military. In this equation, the priorities and policy orientations of all the respective actors, including their policy recommendations and strategies, are not necessarily identical or even coordinated. The management of such a relationship is thus a huge task for both countries.

Further west, Syria and Lebanon are viewed in terms of Iran's “strategic depth” in the region due to the Islamic Republic’s threat perceptions. In this context, Tehran's ranking of threat perceptions puts the United States at the top, followed by Israel, broader chaos and instability in the region (including terrorism) and the prevailing world order. Saudi Arabia has recently emerged as a distant fifth threat. Iran’s presence in these countries is aimed at establishing effective deterrence and is justified as in principle being defensive and reactive in nature. In other words, its presence is seen as a necessary response to perceived threats. In this equation, Iran’s establishment of effective soft and hard deterrence requires both soft and hard infrastructure.

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To those who view Iranian regional policy as defensive reactive, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are constitutive elements of Iran’s security complex. Notably, Yemen is not considered a part of this complex. Indeed, the current situation in Yemen is viewed primarily as a failure of Gulf Cooperation Council policy rather than the success of Iranian planning and policy. Thus, Yemen is seen as a target of opportunity that Tehran has taken advantage of and wants to translate into leverage against Saudi Arabia.

Since Yemen is not a part of Iran’s security complex, it is much easier for Tehran to grant concessions to Saudi Arabia so Iran is relieved of sharing the burden of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding there and can create a conducive environment for a better relationship with Riyadh. In other words, Yemen is a low-hanging fruit that should be taken advantage of not only to address the tragedy in the war-torn country, but also to help find ways to better manage Iranian-Saudi relations.

Of additional note, adherents to the defensive reactive view dismiss sanctions as changing any strategic calculus because once an issue becomes securitized, the cost-benefit logic to decision making is no longer applicable. 

Mindful of this ideational framework, a change possibly capable of altering Iran’s strategic calculus is the lowering of outside threats at the discursive and operational levels, particularly by the United States and Israel. Here, it is critical to bear in mind that governments oftentimes make decisions on the basis of their perceptions of reality rather than reality itself (assuming that such a distinction is possible or even desirable or useful). Therefore, recognizing Iran’s legitimate interests and perceived threats could be extremely helpful in moderating Iranian threat perceptions and thus policies.

On the other side of the spectrum, those in Iran who favor the revolutionary proactive approach include the following as justification for Iran's engagement in the region: its large, educated population and rich natural resources; its long, imperial history; and, its geopolitical situation combined with a strong combat-ready military. These attributes are seen as attracting the attention of actors outside its borders. In this reading, the Islamic Republic has in principle been invited by concerned regional countries to have a presence in them in order to protect their territorial integrity and their national identity. As such, the argument is that without an Iranian presence, these countries would most certainly disintegrate.

Those who adhere to the revolutionary proactive approach also argue that it is only natural for a country like Iran to project its power and expand its reach and influence. To them, Iran cannot merely be reactive and passive toward what occurs around it. As such, Iran’s regional presence is characterized as not only a request from those who persuade the Islamic Republic to establish a presence, but that such a presence at its core is the essence of Iranian power, which inherently expresses itself outwardly.

Of these two broader approaches to Iranian regional policy, the revolutionary proactive view has much in common with that of pre-revolutionary Iran. Indeed, regardless of the jargon the shah employed in his Persianist articulations, his view of Iran and its role in the region was not fundamentally different from those of proponents of the current revolutionary proactive view. If anything, as time has passed, the continuities have become an increasingly significant part of the country’s foreign policy. That said, one should not forget that on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s polity, including its very nature, remains a contested and simultaneously evolving space.

Revolutions stem from a belief among a sizable portion of the population that “yes, we can.” While it is certain that other conditions must be present to prompt a revolution, there is no doubt that a revolution's success indicates and implies the height of a potent mix of human agency and utopianism. The presence of structural or other impediments are merely obstacles to be overcome. In this equation, if such impediments cannot be vanquished, it is not due to their strength, but rather a weakness of will or agency on the part of those who seek to tackle them. As time passes — as it has in Iran, like everywhere else — these impediments are perceived as stronger, while the polity’s will to overcome them becomes weaker. Therefore, the emergence, and ultimately the prevailing, of pragmatism and rationality seem inevitable. 

Almost 40 years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, revolutionary fervor is still strong among a significant segment of Iranian society. Among some, it is driven by belief in the cause. For others, it stems from personal or group interests and benefits or material and non-material investments they have made for the cause. Yet for some, of course, it is a sense of nostalgia. There is also another segment of society, particularly among those born after 1979, who do not understand why their parents pushed for the Islamic Revolution in the first place.

On the issue of Iran’s regional policies, it appears that the rationalists and pragmatists in the country, including the moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani, have a tendency to support the defensive reactive view of how Iranian foreign policy ought to look. Perhaps most paradoxically of all, those who tend to support the revolutionary proactive approach, the effective reincarnation of the shah’s view of the country and its role in the region, are the revolutionaries.

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Found in: Iran revolution

Nasser Hadian is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, where he has served as the director of graduate studies (1996-98). He was the director of the political development program at the Center for Strategic Research think tank (1992-95) in Tehran. He also was a visiting professor and research scholar at the Middle East Institute and the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University (2001-04).

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