Academic journal article McNair Papers

Alternative Foreign Policy Views among the Iranian Policy Elite

Academic journal article McNair Papers

Alternative Foreign Policy Views among the Iranian Policy Elite

Article excerpt

Western policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran has long been based on the assumption that Iran could be persuaded to change major aspects of its foreign policy, such as its support for death threats against Salman Rushdie, its murder of Iranian oppositionists in the West, its cooperation with terrorists (Lebanon, Palestinians, and various North African countries), and its sponsorship of opposition the Israel-PLO accord. In their declaratory policy, the G-7 industrial countries share a common assumption that the problem is with particular Iranian foreign policies, not the regime: "Concerned about aspects of Iran's behavior, we call upon its government to participate constructively in international efforts for peace and stability and to cease actions contrary to those objectives." (1) That is also U.S. policy as set out in Martin Indyk's speech on the "dual containment" policy, in which he was careful to hold the hope for normal relations with Islamic Iran: (2)

   I should emphasize that the Clinton administration is not
   opposed to Islamic government in Iran. Indeed, we have
   excellent relations with a number of Islamic governments.
   Rather, we are firmly opposed to these specific aspects of the
   Iranian regime's behavior, as well as its abuse of the human
   rights of the Iranian people. We do not seek a confrontation,
   but we will not normalize relations with Iran until and unless
   Iran's policies change, across the board.

There are some contrary voices, who suggest that Iranian behavior is not likely to change. Their argument is made stronger by the frequent dashing of hopes that moderates would consolidate power and change policy--a hope first held out in December 1979 when the election of Bani Sadr as president was said to foreshadow release of the American embassy hostages, and then repeated regularly with each twist and turn of Iranian politics. Talk of Iranian moderates has been unpopular among U.S. politicians since the days of the Iran-Contra affair, in which President Reagan was so badly burned (the release of some U.S. hostages being matched by the taking of new ones). Some Europeans also express in private their doubts about Iranian moderation. In a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Foreign Minister Claes of Belgium (which then held the EC Presidency) was quoted by U.S. officials as saying, "It would be a historic mistake" for Europeans to believe they could continue the search for Iranian moderates. (3)

How realistic is the assumption that the Islamic Republic could be persuaded to change important aspects of its foreign policy? Surely the answer to that question depends not only upon what the West does, but also upon the factors inside Iran that shape foreign policy. The aim of this paper is to examine one of the most important such factors, namely, the attitudes towards foreign policy.


As in most countries, foreign policy is less important than domestic politics to Iranians and Iranian politicians. For example, the headline in the January 25, 1994 Keyhan (the country's leading paper) read "Joint Government, Majlis Meeting to Examine Country's Most Important Issues"--and foreign policy was not mentioned at all among the many issues. Whether ideologues or pragmatists, members of the Iranian elite have a whole host of domestic matters to occupy their time and attention. Foreign policy is subordinate to these pressing domestic issues--subordinate in the dual sense that foreign policy comes second and also that foreign policy is seen through the lens of how it affects domestic policy.

The Iranian political classes have lots of domestic problems on their mind these days. Let me cite just two among the many domestic issues which preoccupy them but which have received relatively little coverage in the Western media. First is the supreme religious leadership. The generation of pre-revolution Grand Ayatollahs has largely passed from the scene, with the 1992 death of the widely respected Khoei of Iraq and the 1993 death of the Iranian Golyepagani. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.