Does Iran’s Constitution Promote Export of Islamic Revolution?

by Eldar Mamedov

Some claims are repeated unchallenged so often that they end up becoming part of the conventional wisdom. Such is the case with the assertion that the Iranian constitution mandates the export of the country’s Islamic revolution and bestows on the Islamic Republic the responsibility to protect all Shia Muslims in the world regardless of citizenship.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made such claims in his speech in the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament (EP) on February 22. Before that, he claimed the same thing in the Munich Security Conference and on many other occasions.

In the EP, Ana Gomes, a centre-left Portuguese member of the Committee, challenged Al-Jubeir to produce evidence of his claims by pointing to a specific article of the Iranian constitution calling for the export the Islamic revolution to other countries. The Saudi minister skipped the question.

The truth of the matter is that there was no way for him to answer it, because there is no such an article in the Iranian constitution.

The closest the constitution gets to the idea of the export of revolution is in the preamble, which says that “the Constitution, having regard to the Islamic contents of the Iranian Revolution, which was a movement for the victory of all the oppressed over the arrogant, provides a basis for the continuation of that revolution both inside and outside the country.”

This language is abstract and vague enough to qualify more as a declaration of principles than a concrete injunction that the government must export the Iranian political system. This is exactly the purpose of constitutional preambles. The spirit and the language of this part are reminiscent of other revolutions with universalist aspirations, such as the French and the Russian.

The foundations of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic are laid down in chapter X (articles 152 to 155). Al-Jubeir conveniently omits to mention article 154, which says that the “Islamic Republic of Iran completely abstains from any kind of intervention in the internal affairs of other nations.” It also says that it “supports the struggles of the dispossessed for their rights against the oppressors anywhere in the world.” But that, again, is so vague that it could as well be interpreted as no more than moral-political support for various “anti-imperialist” movements.

Nor does Al-Jubeir’s allegation that Iran considers all the Shias in the world are under its protection hold water either. The constitution refers several times to “mostafazin” (downtrodden), but nowhere does it suggest that it is limited to the Shia. How would then one explain the fact that the Islamic Republic has established ties not only with Sunni Islamist movements like Hamas, but also leftist regimes in Latin America, like Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia? Moreover, the constitution does recognise the notion of the citizenship of the nation-state of Iran (Chapter III on the Rights of the People). The language of the article 11 calling Muslims a “single nation” is at most a symbolic aspiration, which in practical terms means merely prioritizing friendly relations with Muslim nations.

More important than the letter of the Iranian constitution is the fact that since its establishment the Islamic Republic had to balance expansive revolutionary-ideological goals with the practical foreign policy demands of a nation-state. The relative importance of ideology has varied depending on time and place. The exporting zeal was highest in the immediate aftermath of the revolution in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, but even then it was tempered by occasional bouts of pragmatism. Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision to release the American hostages on the day of the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 or to end the war with Iraq in 1988 are two examples. In the 1990s, under the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, revolutionary fervor started ceding ground to the imperatives of post-war reconstruction, which led to the relative normalization of relations with Europe and Persian Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, which had been only a decade earlier targets of inflammatory Iranian rhetoric.

Furthermore, when it comes to the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Iranian policy was almost entirely pragmatic. Iran leaned toward Armenia in its war with Shiite Azerbaijan over fears of anti-Iranian Azerbaijani irredentism. In the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan, Iran helped to broker an agreement between the post-Soviet secular ruler Emomali Rahmon and the Islamist opposition to end the country’s civil war in early 1990s. When Rahmon reneged on the agreement and banned the Islamist party of Renaissance, the Tajik Islamists criticized Tehran for failing to uphold the deal it helped to forge. And in Azerbaijan, Iran prioritized relations with official Baku over defense of Shiite Islamists persecuted by that country’s autocratic regime. So much for the export of Islamic revolution in practice.

But isn’t Al-Jubeir right to point out Iran’s support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Islamist militias in the Middle East as evidence of its policy of exporting Islamic revolution? Hardly. Although there might be ideological complicity—certainly in the case of the Lebanese Hezbollah—the main reason for Iran’s support of these organizations is deterrence, not ideology. Since Iran has no external security guarantor, it relies on friendly forces to deter its regional rivals from aggressive actions against it. But as Iran’s staunch support for Syria’s secular dictator Bashar al-Assad shows, this has very little to do with the promotion of Islamism. National interest, based on Iran’s self-perception as a preeminent power in the Persian Gulf region, plays a much bigger role in shaping Tehran’s choices than revolutionary zeal. Israel/Palestine is an exception, since staunch opposition to Zionism is one of the few remaining ideological hot-button issues that allows the regime to claim faithfulness to the revolutionary heritage.

Although the constitution of the Islamic Republic does contain some language that could be construed as endorsing its universalist claims, it would be far-fetched to conclude that it mandates the government to export Islamic revolution. Iran’s foreign policy since 1979 shows a dynamic interplay between national interest and revolutionary goals, with the former overall gaining the upper hand more often than the latter. To present Iran as a dogmatic revolutionary power hell-bent on the export of its system of government, as Saudi officials do, serves to perpetuate a regional order based on the exclusion of Iran, which is both unrealistic and destabilizing in the long run.

Photo: Adel Al-Jubeir (US State Department via Flickr).

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. Interesting post, many complicated points have been missed here , but just to insist on one , major one , the author claims that :

    ” the main reason for Iran’s support of these organizations is deterrence, not ideology. Since Iran has no external security guarantor, it relies on friendly forces to deter its regional rivals from aggressive actions against it …..”

    End of quotation :

    But the author of the post , doesn’t explain , why Iranians need deterrence at first place . Who are those rivals , and why would they take aggressive actions against Iran . The primary test , would be the Subjective perception of the Iranians themselves . And it is simply , mere ideology ( strategically ) and not deterrence ( tactically ) . This is because , in their eyes , the main battle , is the deep and strategic whish of the arrogant and hegemonic powers ( of the West ) to eradicate , to eliminate , the Islamic revolution and current regime , as such , due to Ideological reasons . It is deeply rooted in the perception of that regime and their ideological leaders . It is all about , us Vs. them . The formers are seeking new global order , where justice would reign , consisting of opposing and resisting old global order based on oppression of nations .

    So , in their eyes , it is Ideology Vs. Ideology , and that is why deterrence is needed .
    Here , one really negligible illustration :

    Tasnim News Agency

    ” Iranian People Mark Day against Global Arrogance”


  2. Cheez, it’s surprising that Al-Jubeir is making crazy claims since he obtained a B.A. summa cum laude in political science and economics from the University of North Texas in 1982, and an M.A. in international relations from Georgetown University in 1984. So he he knows the US thinks that allying with Israel makes his crazy claims bullet-proof.

    Regarding why Iran need deterrences one good reason is that the most powerful nation on the planet, the United States, has continually attacked Iran with cyber attacks, financial attacks and threats of “all options n the table.” In recent Congressional testimony, General Votel the US war leader in the Middle East said: “Iran remains the major threat to U.S. interests and partnerships in the Central Region.”

  3. Who really cares what Jubair says anyway? Its not like he’s objective nor that Saudis aren’t exporting their own jihadists.

  4. It is really funny for a shiekhdom or its representative with the US Mmentality claiming what’s written in IRI’s constitution which he hasn’t even read! Also for a state responsible for formation and financially supporting the Salafi terrorist groups to make such a stupid comment claim! Does anyone remember 9/11 any more!
    I’m exercising now and more comments to come!?

  5. Let’s not forget that Iran was attacked by Saddam Hossain by the encouragement from the US and GCC back in 1980 which the brutal slaughtering lasted until 1988! Since then systematically Iran has been encircled by the American military bases and unjust wars in its neighborhood and greater ME! Iran strategy of defending itself was developed over this times by establishing and supporting defensive groups outside of the circle of the US forces and also to antagonize Israel and other Arab states which supported Saddam Hossain! Then GWB destroyed Saddam Hossein for his reasons or lack of them and the final prize went to Iran! Now Iran is being blamed by others’ for their own wrong doings in Iraq!
    The issue raised by Jubair has nothing to do with the IRI constitution and has a lot to do with what Khomeini said during the Revolution and while their constitution was being developed! He said that IRI will be the protector of the oppressed and against the oppressors around the world! Which is directly against the US policy of beating its freedom drum but supporting the dictators around the world!

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