Iran's Regional Policy: Between Radicalism and Pragmatism

By Menashri, David | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Iran's Regional Policy: Between Radicalism and Pragmatism


Menashri, David, Journal of International Affairs


The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was a major turning point in the modern history of Iran, with reverberations far beyond its borders. Twenty-eight years on, the new regime is still searching for an appropriate approach to cope with the challenge of governance while it contends with domestic disenchantment, perpetual struggle for power between competing tendencies and grave regional and international challenges. (1)

Since the mid-1990s, the pro-reform camp has gained popular support and sustained control of the elected bodies of government. This is evident from Mohammed Khatami's presidency (1997), the reformists' dominance of the local councils (1999) and the Majlis (2000) and Khatami's reelection (2001). However, the conservatives have maintained their control over the non-elected institutions (such as the Council of Guardians, Council of Experts, Expediency Council and numerous extra-governmental bodies, in addition to the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah All Khamenei, who succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini), thus preserving their ability to thwart crucial political, social and economic changes. Since then, the conservatives consolidated their control of the local councils (2003) and the Majlis (2004), culminating in 2005 with the ascendancy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who demonstrated adherence to the original revolutionary dogma more than any of the contesting candidates to the presidency. As a result, the policy of dialogue between civilizations, promoted by Khatami, was replaced by an eventual clash of civilizations; the process of reform gave way to growing conservatism, and the policy of detente--in regional and international relations--gave way to a growing tension. Iran's involvement in Iraq, in Lebanon and within the Palestinian Authority, combined with a determination to pursue its nuclear program, and the current president's incendiary statements (against the United States and Israel and regarding the Holocaust) have led Iran to stir up conflict with both its immediate neighbors and countries far from home.

This brief survey seeks to examine Iran's regional policy in the framework of the revolutionary experience and the recent changes in the domestic and international arena. Some key issues, such as Iran's nuclear policy, relations with the United States and the relative power of the different domestic factions--despite their direct bearing on our discussion--will be mentioned only briefly. Other important questions, like Iran's strategic alliance with Syria, the impact of the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and developments in the Gulf area are similarly not discussed. The first part of this essay focuses on the general trend of pragmatism in past Iranian regional policy, while the second part is limited to an examination of some of the main areas in which Iran has been recently involved--the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah and Iraq.

IRAN AND ITS TROUBLED NEIGHBORHOOD

The Islamic Revolution led to a dramatic change in Iran's foreign outlook and its international relations. For the new leaders of Iran, the Islamic Revolution was not just a title for a movement, but an ideal they wished to put into practice throughout the Muslim world. The Islamic regime viewed its victory as one stage in and an instrument of an overall change in the world of Islam--a model for imitation by other Muslims. "Our movement is for an Islamic goal, not for Iran alone," Khomeini said upon taking power. Iran was only "the starting point." Muslims "are one family," he added, "even if they live in regions remote from each other." (2) Even being Shia or Sunni "is not the question." (3) For many revolutionaries, the ultimate goal remained to launch an ideological crusade aimed at bringing the genuine messages of Islam to people everywhere. Assessments by Mohammed Javad Larijani (former Iranian deputy foreign minister) highlight the centrality of such a worldwide mission. Following the fall of the USSR, he stated that "the cresting of the Islamic movement will soon transform the face of the world" in the same manner the Renaissance changed Europe. …

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