Five strategic preferences have dictated Iran’s foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution. However, it is important to note that a country’s policies do not suddenly shift with a change in government – strategic preferences are systemic, cultural and institutionalised. This paper addresses the Rouhani presidency’s modifications in the country within the context of enduring Iran’s enduring strategic preferences.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian foreign policies have oscillated around five strategic preferences which set the general contours of the country’s international relations. The current strategy of the Rouhani administration repackages these preferences but does not radically depart from them. The Iranian state, like any other state in the international system, holds and pursues national interests. It has been an analytical mistake to assume that these are merely tactical and short-term or that Iran after the revolution acts “irrationally” and ad-hoc. Undoubtedly, there have been serious shifts in the way Iran positions itself in international affairs – Rouhani is not Ahmadinejad (just as Barack Obama is not George W. Bush). (1) But the strategic preferences of any state do not suddenly shift in total with changing governments. Strategic preferences are systemic, cultural and institutionalised. They have depth and longitude that go beyond current politics. President Hassan Rouhani is the surface effect of gradual changes in Iran’s domestic politics after the revolution, a product of a post-revolutionary generation yearning for reforms, but he is still operating within the general contours of the Islamic Republic’s strategic preferences as they emerged after the 1979 revolution. The following paragraphs will assess modifications the Rouhani presidency has brought about with a particular emphasis on the enduring strategic preferences of the Iranian state.
What are Iran’s strategic preferences?
The first strategic preference that has guided the ruling classes in Iran is geared to the idea of maximising economic independence. (2) This preference was inscribed into the Iranian constitution by the Sorbonne-educated liberals surrounding Ayatollah Khomeini at the beginning of the revolution, in particular the first Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and the first President Abol-Hassan Bani Sadr. (3) At the heart of it is the conviction — similar to Islamic economic theories authored by Ayatollah Motahhari in Iran and Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr in Iraq — that a “just” welfare state should be at the centre of the economic system. While Iran has attempted to liberalise the economy in the recent years and tried to join to the WTO in the past, the country continues to keep a relative distance from multilateral institutions and radical neo-liberal reforms. The ruling classes continue to pursue a form of economic nationalism which partially manifests itself in the emphasis on mastering the full nuclear fuel cycle on Iranian territory. Rouhani is trying to present Iran more vigorously in international economic forums and in his recent speech at Davos he made it clear that Iran is open for business.
There is certainly a technocratic emphasis in his policies which are carried out by a very capable cadre of economic experts that he has appointed in key ministries. But it is highly unlikely that the Iranian state, in particular the powerful conglomerates affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards, will liberalise the economy to the degree that they lose their privileged position. There will not be a neo-liberal infitah (opening) policy comparable to what happened in Egypt under Sadat or in Tunisia under Ben-Ali. The Iranian economy will continue to be mixed and the state will ensure that it does not concede too much ground to the private sector or foreign investors.
Second, since the revolution, Iran has allocated immense ideological and material resources to the Palestinian issue with mixed results both for the Palestinians and Iran’s national interests. Yasir Arafat was the first major political leader to visit Iran after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The revolutionaries greeted him with great fanfare and handed him the keys of the Israeli compound in Tehran which served as a major centre for Israeli operations during the reign of the shah. Moreover, in an effort to institutionalise the pro-Palestinian sentiments of his Islamic followers and the Iranian left, Ayatollah Khomeini designated the last Friday of Ramadan to the liberation of Jerusalem (so-called Quds Day). “The road to Jerusalem Passes Through Baghdad,” was a prominent slogan of the millions of volunteers of the newly established Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and their Basij militia during the devastating Iran-Iraq war which drained the material and human resources of both countries for decades to come, exactly because the war was charged with immense ideological venom. (4)
The Palestinian cause has been appropriated by the Iranian government as a way to claim regional leadership and play a central role as the defender of Muslim rights. For instance, religious leaders in Iran consider holy sites such as the Al-Aqsa mosque as Islamic waqf (religious endowment) whose sovereignty should be shared by all Muslims, not only Palestinians. There is also genuine support for the Palestinian cause within Iranian civil society. Several non-governmental-organisations are involved in fund-raising efforts and several Iranian hospitals provided free medical help to Palestinians wounded in the successive intifadas in occupied territories. Rouhani has not broken from these policies. Recently, Iran hosted a high ranking delegation of Islamic Jihad, there are renewed talks with the PLO and the country continues to have cordial relations with Hamas despite the fall-out over Syria. At the same time, there are nuanced shifts: Iranian officials, quite comparable to the period under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), have refrained from using labelling Israel as the “Zionist regime” and Rouhani has not targeted the country in the way his predecessor Ahmadinejad did. In another parallel to the Khatami years, the current foreign minister Zarif recently indicated the Iranian government would accept any final settlement the Palestinians would agree to. Asked if Iran would recognize the state of Israel if the Palestinian question would be resolved, Zarif replied:
“You see, that’s a sovereign decision that Iran would make but it will have no consequence on the situation on the ground in the Middle East. If the Palestinians are happy with the solution then nobody, nobody outside Palestine could prevent that from taking place. The problem for the past 60 years is that the Palestinians have not been happy. The Palestinians have not been satisfied and they have every right not to be satisfied because their most basic rights continue to be violated and people are not ready to address those rights.” (5)
Third, the revolution has buttressed a sense of grandeur in Iran’s historical consciousness which was equally apparent in the thinking of the shah. But whereas the shah’s dependencies on the west did not allow him to act upon his imperial mentality, the Islamic revolution turned Iran into an antagonist to US (and Israeli) hegemony in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) and the wider Muslim world in a grand effort to position the country as a major power in the international system. As such, Iran sees itself as a major competitor to US power in WANA and beyond, exemplified by the country’s stringent opposition to NATO forces and US military bases in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and elsewhere in Iran’s immediate geo-strategic neighbourhood.
However, in this regard as well, Iran has initiated only a gradual shift in its foreign policies. For Rouhani and his administration, competition with the United States does not preclude establishing full diplomatic ties between the two countries. In conversations with Iranians close to the administration, the model of China is repeatedly invoked. China and the United States have serious differences in eastern Asia, not at least over the contentious issue of Taiwan. But the two countries have close economic ties and they have managed to liaise diplomatically as well. The future of Iranian-American ties could be similar. On issues of agreement – territorial integrity of Iraq and opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda groups throughout the Muslim world – Iran and the United States have a lot of reason to foster enduring security links.
On issues of disagreement such as Palestine and Israel, Syria and Hezbollah, the two countries are likely to tip-toe around one other and try to pursue their national interests without a zero-sum mentality that would antagonise the other side. Such a mitigated “cold peace” could be a major factor in stabilising the region. Both Rouhani and Obama campaigned on the basis that they will talk to the other side and indeed they are delivering that campaign promise. This move is tactical rather than strategic. As long as the current diplomatic process over Iran’s nuclear energy programme yields results that can be sold by both administrations as successes to their sceptical domestic constituencies, the common interest binding Iran and the United States together is likely to galvanise closer relations between the two countries.
Fourth, since the 1979 revolution, Iranian foreign policy elites have called for the empowerment of the “third world.” To achieve this, the Islamic Republic immediately ceased its membership of the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and became a strong advocate of the Non-Aligned-Movement. This policy has transmuted into a discourse accentuating the need for a multi-polar world order that is not dominated by a single superpower. Naturally, Iran perceives itself as one of the columns in such an international system together with Brazil, India, China, Russia, the European Union and the United States. The non-aligned policy encapsulated in slogans such as na sharghi, na gharbi, jomhur-ye eslami (Neither East nor West, Only the Islamic Republic) has manifested itself in Iran’s close relations with likeminded governments in Latin America, in particular the Bolivarian vanguard in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Iran has fostered close political and economic relations with these countries in the past decades. The former President of Brazil, Lula, even took the audacious step, together with Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, to propose a solution to the nuclear impasse during the Ahmadinejad presidency which was rejected by the White House. While it is a priority of the Rouhani administration to mend ties with the West and to find a final solution to the nuclear impasse, Rouhani has already indicated that he will deepen Iran’s existing relations with Latin America. (6)
The fifth and final preference focuses on the ideal of Islamic communitarianism, something Iran’s ruling elites have discussed since the 1979 Revolution. The Iranian state pursues this primarily through the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the network of bonyads (foundations) that operate in the country’s clerical “Vatican,” Qom. While the symbols and imagery of the revolution were steeped in Iranian and Shia traditions, Ayatollah Khomeini was adamant to portray the revolution as pan-Islamic, indeed as a revolt of all the oppressed against their oppressors, not in order to extend the claim for leadership beyond the confines of the Shia minority within Islam. To that end, the revolutionaries instituted “unity week,” a culturally driven policy to institutionalise unity between Sunni and Shia. At the same time, Iran has never really sacrificed the country’s national interests to the pan-Islamic utopia. The ruling classes of the country have been very careful not to criticise Russia and China for their brutal policies against their Muslim minorities in Chechnya and the Xinjiang province respectively in order not to jeopardise Iran’s cordial relations with the two countries.
Similarly, Iran tends to support Christian-orthodox Armenia in their territorial dispute with Shia-majority Azerbaijan. There is no automatic pan-Islamic solidarity that the Iranian state can afford to pursue on every occasion. While closer cooperation between Muslim-majority countries is pursued through various institutions, the pan-Islamic ambitions of the revolution have been conscribed by the outfit of the Iranian nation-state which demands a state-centric rationality that does not lend itself to caliphatic adventures.
Domestic determinants of Iran’s international affairs
The five strategic preferences of the Iranian state continue to be salient during the Rouhani presidency, despite the apparent shifts in Iran’s international disposition. The bargaining position of the Iranian President is particularly strong because he has received the backing of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Ayatollah made it unmistakeably clear that the president has a green light to pursue policies of constructive engagement. Hence, and in many ways for the first time in Iran’s post-revolutionary history, the two most powerful institutions of the Iranian state emphasise cooperation and diplomacy in international affairs as a means to maximise Iran’s national interest.
This shift is exemplified in the cultural imagery of the Islamic Republic. In the current discourse, and discernible from Ayatollah Khamenei’s central policy speech accentuating “heroic flexibility” in Iran’s dealings with international adversaries, the Islamic Republic accentuates the pragmatism of Imam Hassan, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad and the third Imam of the Shia. (7) Addressing senior veterans of the Revolutionary Guards, Khamenei maintained that a “wrestler also shows flexibility for technical reasons sometimes, but he never forgets who his rival is and what his main goal is.” (8) Hence, whereas the revolutionaries of yesterday emphasised the romantic “heroism” and sacrifice of Hassan’s younger brother, Imam Hossein, who together with his family was killed by the armies of Yazid in the seventh century CE, today the ruling classes in Iran repeatedly refer to his older brother Imam Hassan, known for his pragmatism, level-headedness and politically accommodating strategies. Whereas the Hussein paradigm emphasises revolutionary change a la Che Guevara manifesting itself in Hossein’s self-sacrifice during the battle of Karbala, the “Hassan paradigm” symbolises pragmatism, exemplified in the peace treaty that Hassan signed with Muawiya when he voluntarily handed over to him the leadership of the Ummah (nation) in the seventh century CE.
But there are also concrete institutional changes in the foreign policy decision-making process of the Islamic Republic. For example, the nuclear dossier is now firmly in the hands of the foreign ministry, with no tangible interference by the conservative National Security Council. The foreign ministry itself has been staffed with the best and brightest of Iran’s post-revolutionary diplomatic cadres. In another sign of consensual policies between the President and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly signalled to the influential Revolutionary Guards that they should not interfere in the current diplomatic process. Although Rouhani is not a radical reformist in domestic politics, there are incremental shifts away from the highly securitised atmosphere that was characteristic for the Ahmadinejad presidency, in particular after the mass demonstrations against his re-election in 2009. The regime’s censorship has been slightly relaxed and Iranian civil society has started to function with fewer restrictions again.
It is analytically central to point out that Rouhani (and all the Presidents before him for that matter) are products and not drivers of these changes which are determined by the preference settings of Iranian society. This can be theorised as “pluralistic momentum” that continuously impinges on the realm of the state through a bottom-up-process, from Iranian society to the ruling classes. (9) The central characteristic of this pluralistic momentum in Iran is that the clerical establishment can no longer take for granted the allegiance of their client social strata.
Pluralism engenders competition and state policies have to be “sold” to an audience that is no longer obliged to “buy” from one source. In this “market situation,” the monopoly on political power is dissected. As a result, institutions and elites operating within the domain of the state have to organise themselves in such a way as to mobilise their respective constituencies. They enter into a competitive situation with other groups who follow the same political rationale. Comparing electoral campaigns in Tehran, Shiraz, Ahwaz, Tabriz, Isfahan, Boroujerd and other cities during the summer of 2005, it was rather remarkable that the presidential candidates, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, scarcely employed Islamic imagery or referenced the political will of Ayatollah Khomeini to further their agenda. The campaign of Rouhani was very similar – geared to specific issues rather than abstract slogans. In short, Iranian leaders understand that it is public opinion that matters.
Secondly, all institutions attached to the state are under pressure to produce results, especially in the economic sphere. In turn, the pressure to produce results in a competitive situation engenders the rationalisation of policies. This explains why both reformers and conservatives advocate economic growth and public participation in the political and cultural process. In a pluralistic situation where political parties become marketing agencies of the state, reform ceases to be a monopoly of self-declared reformist parties. In other words, the reform agenda is necessarily intrinsic to the political process comprising all state institutions. It transcends the mono-causal conservative-reformist divide because the functioning of the whole state apparatus depends on public participation. Public relations with the client social strata, lobbying, fund-raising, involvement with the secular economy – the Islamic Republic is dependent on the country’s civil society in all these aspects of the affairs of the state. In such an interactive situation it is not impossible (for conservatives and reformists alike) to sell policies to a population of consumers without taking their wishes concerning the content of those policies into account. As such, Rouhani is a surface effect of these dynamics and his reconciliatory foreign policies, especially towards the west, reflect the preferences of mainstream of Iranian society.
There are sociological factors for the capacity of Iranian society to drive this pluralistic momentum: In 1980, at the beginning of revolution, there were merely 175,000 students and 15,000 lecturers spread around 20 cities in Iran. In 2012, there were four million higher education students and over 110,000 lecturers in 120 cities. In 2010, Iran ranked higher than Brazil and Turkey in the United Nation’s Human Development index. (10) According to the British Royal Society, the number of educational publications in Iran increased from 736 in 1996 to 13,238 in 2008, the fastest such growth in the world. (11) In addition, the number of internet users rose dramatically, a monumental 13,000%. (12) In 2012, Iran announced the establishment of a nanotechnology centre and allocated 4% of its GDP to research and development as a part of a comprehensive plan for science. This is one of the highest allocations for research in the world. Thus, the Islamic revolution has seriously expanded the geography of knowledge in Iran which in turn has had an effect on the preference setting of Iranian civil society.
Iran under Rouhani has changed, in particular with regard to the country’s international affairs and attitudes towards reconciliation with the United States. But these nuanced changes are tempered by the enduring strategic preferences of the state which will continue to guide the international affairs of the Islamic Republic. These preferences of the Iranian state do not preclude closer relations with the United States or even a tacit accommodation of the issue of Israel. But they make it impossible that Iran emerges as a subservient pawn. Ultimately, for the United States and the West, the Iran of the future will not be the Iran of the Shah. Every Iranian president after the 1979 Revolution has been voted into office to deliver Iran’s national interest and to move the state towards more democracy and accountability. These preference settings of Iranian civil society have been boosted by the Arab revolts which have demonstrated that the new yardstick of politics in the region is not ideology anymore, but rather democracy, respect for human rights and social equality. President Rouhani is merely the latest manifestation of these realities of contemporary Iranian society and the regional context in which Iran is embedded.
Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, head of Centre for Iranian Studies at the University of London.
(1) For a comprehensive analysis of foreign policy under President Ahmadinejad, see Anoush Ehteshami, Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007).
(2) See Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Iran in World Politics (London: Hurst, 2008) and more recently, Maaike Warnaar, Iranian Foreign Policy During Ahmadinejad: Ideology and Actions (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
(3) Mehdi Bazargan resigned amidst the US hostage crisis. Abulhassan Banisadr fled the country to Paris where he continues to live in exile until today.
(4) Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy (London: Routledge, 2006).
(5) Fars News Agency, “Zionist Media Fabricate Iranian FM’s Remarks on Tehran’s Recognition of Israel,” 5 February 2014, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13921116001667.
(6) IRIB World Service, “Iran Firm to Boost Ties With Latin America: President Rouhani,” 10 February 2014, http://english.irib.ir/news/iran1/item/178359-iran-firm-to-boost-ties-with-latin-america-president-rouhani.
(7) Arash Karami, “Ayatollah Khamenei’s Heroic Flexibility,” Al-Monitor 19 September 2013 http://iranpulse.al-monitor.com/index.php/2013/09/2854/khameneis-heroic-flexibilty/.
(8) Iranian Diplomacy, “Supreme Leader Underlines Belief in Insightful ‘Heroic Flexibility,’” 17 September 2013, http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/en/page/1921549/Supreme+Leader+Underlines+Belief+in+Insightful+quot%3BHeroic+Flexibilityquot%3B.html.
(11) ranreview.org, “Iran and Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century,” Association of Professors and Scholars of Iranian Heritage, 3 September 2011, http://www.apsih.org/index.php/news/english-news/275-iran-and-global-scientific-collaboration-in-the-21st-century. On the growth of science sectors, see also The Royal Society, “Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century,” London, March 2011, http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2011/4294976134.pdf.