Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran's Foreign Policy

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran's Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

This essay hypothesizes that the tension between religious ideology and pragmatism has persisted throughout Iranian history. The Iranian Revolution simply put it on graphic display in the contemporary period. The essay also suggests that the dynamic processes of cultural maturation seem to be shifting the balance of influence increasingly away from religious ideology toward pragmatic calculation of the national interest in the making and implementation of foreign policy decisions. The obvious implications of all this for US-Iran relations are mentioned.

The balance of ideology and pragmatism in the making of Iranian foreign policy decisions has been one of the most persistent, intricate and difficult issues in all Iranian history, from the sixth century BC, when the Iranian state was born, to the present time. For example, in assessing the decisions of Cyrus the Great for maintaining peace in the Iranian "world state," Adda B. Bozeman suggests that pragmatism rather than ideology dictated Cyrus's decisions.1 In my own works over the past half a century I have tried to hypothesize that the conundrum of the relationship between ideology and state interest has challenged Iranian policymakers ever since the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in 1501.

Here, however, I would like to ask questions about the ideology-pragmatism challenge by drawing concrete examples from the pre-Islamic as well as Islamic periods of Iranian foreign policy. Richard N. Frye's seminal works on ancient Iran inspire me to do so.2 Within the limited scope of an essay, of course, even raising questions in the broadest strokes is quite an intellectual challenge. But the overarching purpose of this essay is only to suggest that the tension between ideology and interests in foreign policymaking has persisted throughout Iranian history.


In her classic Politics and Culture in International History, Bozeman suggests that Cyrus succeeded in establishing not only the first world state, but also the first "international society" in large part because he was motivated by prudence rather than ideology in making policy decisions.3 Cyrus established a cosmopolitan state at a time when "the tyranny of empires plagued the fabric of community life everywhere." In such a world, she continues, "the Persian Empire, vaster than any preceding empire west of China, attained universal peace for some two hundred years in a large part as the result of tolerant respect for the cultural diversity of the subjugated peoples...." Cyrus's political prudence more than religious ideology underpinned his law. Richard Frye notes that Cyrus's law, which predated the Roman law, allowed the religious laws of Egyptians, Babylonians, and Hebrews to stay in force.

The testimonies of ancient commentators seem to attribute Cyrus's observance of the practical circumstances in decision-making to his personal character. Herodotus testifies to his "statesmanship and liberality." Xenophon's Cyropeadia finds Cyrus "deserving admiration," above all, for honoring his people "as if they were his own children."4 Of course, the Bible reveres Cyrus for liberating the Jews from Babylonian captivity. Even the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt in the fifth century BC "with Persian assistance."5 To this day, Iraqi Jews trace their origins to his liberation policy. It is significant that in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi proudly declared to the world on December 10, 2003 "I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great" and "I am a Muslim."6 This showed that a quarter of a century of "Islamization" had failed to undermine the strong attachment of the Iranian people to their pre-Islamic cultural heritage, including its concern with human rights. Also, as will be seen, despite the Islamist zeal in the early phase of the Iranian Revolution, the Iranian foreign policy-makers never stopped taking into account national interest in making pragmatic decisions. …

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