by Jahandad Memarian
According to a recent special report on Iran in The Economist: “The revolution is over.” The article concludes by suggesting that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s approach to the country’s controversial nuclear program and international relations is a departure from that of his predecessors. While the piece makes several noteworthy points, it fails to mention some important nuances of Iran’s foreign policy paradigm shift, a movement three decades in the making.
Ruhi Ramazani, a veteran scholar on Iranian affairs, has long demonstrated that since Iran’s 1979 revolution, the country’s foreign policy-makers have broken away from a doggedly spiritual paradigm in varying degrees, at times acting directly in opposition to long-held religious, moral, and ideological values. Indeed, the intervening years since the Iranian Revolution have facilitated an evolution of the country’s foreign policy, which has culminated as a hybrid political construct framed by both pragmatism and spirituality, as Ramazani asserts in his book, Independence Without Freedom.
The leader of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, a super-idealist, led the charge toward a more aspirational foreign policy paradigm based on ideals rooted in what Ramazani describes as spiritual pragmatism. To achieve this, Khomeini, at times, allowed deviations from “his ideological line” (Khatti Imam) and adjusted his worldview in response to social and political circumstances. Whether in regard to declaratory or practical policies, no one altered Khomeini’s line more than Khomeini himself.
For example, after the 1979 American hostage crisis in in Tehran, which began the era of ever-increasing US sanctions on Iran, Khomeini declared, “We must become isolated in order to become independent.” Yet following the release of the hostages in 1981 and the liberation of the Iranian port city of Khorramshahr from Iraqi forces in 1982, Khomeini saw his power consolidated at home and turned the lens on his ardent followers. He placed the blame for Iran’s “hermit” status on the international stage squarely on their shoulders. In one markedly critical accusation of his hard-line supporters, Khomeini even went so far as to cite the prophet Muhammad as an example of someone who sent out ambassadors to establish conciliatory relations with the outside world. To demand that Iran permanently cut ties with other countries made no sense, said Khomeini, because for Iran “it would mean defeat, annihilation, and being buried right to the end.”
Perhaps the most salient example of Khomeini’s pragmatism was Iran’s decision to secretly purchase arms, for its defensive war against Iraq (1980-88), from both the United States and Israel in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra Affair (1985-87). By striking a deal through intermediaries, American and Israeli military supplies were provided to Tehran in return for its cooperation and assistance in securing the release of Western hostages in Lebanon. In negotiating with his adversaries, Khomeini’s pragmatism proved he was focused on the bigger picture for Iran.
Many Iranian leaders have attempted following in Khomeini’s footsteps. Even president Sayyid Ali Khamenei, now the country’s Supreme Leader, adopted similar views under Iran’s “open door” foreign policy and declared, in the summer of 1986, that “Iran seeks a rational, sound, and healthy relations with all countries.”
What would these healthy relations look like for Iran? Consider the example of the high point in US-Iran relations that occurred during the two countries’ decision to cooperate in response to the war in Afghanistan. In late 2001, Iranian diplomats (and even some members of the Revolutionary Guard) domestically lobbied for working with the United States to deliver the mutual benefit of toppling the Taliban and implementing a new political order in Afghanistan. Ayatollah Khamenei conceded and as a result Iran offered airbases, search-and-rescue missions for downed American pilots, the tracking and killing of al-Qaeda leaders, and assistance in building ties with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. But this warming in relations was short-lived. Not long after taking advantage of Iran’s assistance, then-President George W. Bush declared Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” thereby instantly destroying the tenuous goodwill the two discordant countries had been working to build.
In another example, during his first two terms, President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani pressed for military reconstruction and economic development as a means of emphasizing the country’s practical needs following the end of the Iran-Iraq war. During his time in office, Rafsanjani invited Conoco Oil, a US company, to bid for the Sirri oil field development project (the largest in Iran’s history at that time). With Khamenei’s approval, Rafsanjani worked to close the Conoco deal, understanding that this act would significantly increase economic relations between Iran and the United States. But not long after the $1 billion deal was awarded to Conoco, the Clinton administration blocked the contract as a “threat to national security.”
There are of course other events in the Islamic Republic’s history proving that from Ayatollah Khomeini to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, many Iranian leaders have genuinely attempted to—even in the face of powerful internal and external impediments—implement a hybrid paradigm, with each leader assigning different weights to practical and spiritual considerations. Considered with this history in mind, Rouhani’s efforts to facilitate compromises in regard to the Iran’s nuclear program are not, as The Economist suggests, a turning point in Iranian politics. They’re merely a continuation of an ongoing trend that should have been noticed by Western analysts long before now.
Jahandad Memarian is a research associate at the West Asia Council and a senior research fellow at Nonviolence International as well as a contributor to Al-Monitor and the Huffington Post. He holds an M.A. in Western Philosophy from the University of Tehran and was previously an Iranian Fulbright scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 2010-11. Prior to that, Mr. Memarian was a researcher at the Iranian Parliament Research Center and worked as a journalist for the Iranian news daily, Hamshahri.