by Mohammad Ataie
It is fashionable among Trump administration officials to call Iran “abnormal.” Unless Iran behaves like “a normal nation,” says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Washington’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against it will continue. Even in recent days, amid signs of a possible thaw in Iran-U.S. relations, both Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton said that Iran should become a “normal” state. Iran will be considered normal, according to the administration, when it sheds the revolutionary ideology that drives its regional expansion, labeled by Tehran’s adversaries as the “occupation” of four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sanaa.
Although Iranian regional policies are in some ways influenced by revolutionary ideology, neither Iran’s reach in the Arab world nor its support for non-state actors began with the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1979. Instead, the Islamic Republic’s regional policies are in many ways a continuation of the Pahlavi epoch and not purely a reflection of a revolutionary mindset. This stands in stark contrast to Pompeo’s narrative of “four decades of abnormal Iran,” which brushes off the geopolitical and historical context of the Islamic Republic’s regional policies by reducing them to an ideological agenda.
Revolutions mark both rupture and continuation. The 1979 revolution is no exception. The overthrow of the Shah, who was viewed by many as an American puppet, stirred deep emotions and inspired activism across the region. But this initial tempest and Iranian efforts to export the revolution in the 1980s gave way to a pragmatist foreign policy after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989. Despite the longevity of revolutionary rhetoric, in many ways today’s Iranian regional policies reflect those of the monarchy’s in the 1960s and 1970s, when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi pursued a strategy of containing regional adversaries across the Middle East and beyond.
The Shah’s Regional Agenda
After consolidating power within Iran by the mid-1950s, the Shah’s attention turned to growing Marxist and radical pan-Arab threats to his throne across the Arab world. These primarily emanated from the rise of Nasserism, the fall of the Iraqi monarch in 1958, the overthrow of the Yemeni king in 1962 and the subsequent eight-year long civil war in Yemen, the creation of the Marxist Republic of South Yemen in 1967, and the Libyan revolution in 1969. In pursuit of containing the Nasserist and leftist surge, he forged alliances with Arab monarchs and ordered his secret police, known as SAVAK, to foster a bloc of anti-Nasser and anti-left forces in the Middle East.
Contrary to Pompeo’s talk of four decades of Iranian support for non-state actors, the 1979 revolution did not trigger Iran’s involvement in Lebanon, nor its engagements in Iraq and Yemen. The Shah enmeshed the imperial regime in all these countries to check anti-monarchist forces. In the 1960s he lavished money and arms on Yemeni royalist factions who fought against Marxist adversaries and Nasser’s Egypt. In the wake of the 1958 Iraqi coup d’état and the murder of the Iraqi king, Faisal II, he launched an extensive program to back the Iraqi opposition, including the Kurds and the Shii al-Dawa leaders. His military support for the Kurdish and Shii opposition continued until 1975, when Iran and Iraq settled their border differences. From 1972-1977, the Shah also undertook a military intervention in Oman to suppress the leftist Dhofar uprising against Sultan Qaboos.
All the while, the Shah was keen to project Iran’s military presence well beyond the Middle East to protect what he viewed as Iran’s commercial interests against the threat of communism overseas. In the early 1970s, the imperial navy extended its military presence to the Indian Ocean to safeguard Iran’s maritime interests and ensure the safe export of petroleum to the rest of the world. In 1974, the Shah—along with the leaders of Egypt, France, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia—jointly established an international counter-revolution alliance, the Safari Club, to fight communism in Africa and augment pro-apartheid South African forces such as UNITA in Angola.
Of all Imperial Iran’s regional engagements, none is more interesting than Lebanon, which Iranian leaders both before and after 1979 have viewed as a key country in terms of projecting their influence in the Middle East. Contrary to widespread belief, Hizbullah, created in the early 1980s, was not the harbinger of today’s Iranian involvement in Lebanon. Lebanon was, in the eyes of the Shah, the frontline in the fight against radicalism. It was no wonder that the monarch stationed in Beirut his point man in the region, Mansur Ghadar—a very influential figure in SAVAK—to monitor and curtail pan-Arab, Marxist, and pro-Palestinian forces within and outside Lebanon. From the mid-1950s until the late 1960s, Iran’s paramount policy in Lebanon was countering Nasser’s influence in the region.
As the appeal of Nasserism began to decline after the June 1967 War, the Shah’s attention turned to Palestinians and their support for Iranian dissidents, who received military training in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. In response, the Pahlavi monarch embraced anti-Nasser and anti-Palestinian politicians while providing money and weapons to Maronite and Shii notables in Lebanon. Key to the Shah’s strategy was the Lebanese Shii community. The monarch provided financial support to “moderate” clerics and politicians and undertook construction projects, like schools and hospitals, to win the community’s loyalty.
The Shah’s policies were more or less in line with the centuries-old approach of Persian kings, who often bestowed upon themselves the extra-territorial title of the “Sultan of the Shia.” Since the Safavid empire, which ruled Persia from the 16th century to the mid-18th century, Iran has been a beacon to Shia around the world, especially those in modern Lebanon and Iraq. Even for the Pahlavis, the Shii communities were so important that the shah’s officials spoke of creating “a pan-Shii union encompassing Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.” So much for Pompeo’s rants about Iranian support for sectarian militia being the offspring of “revolutionary ideology.”
After 1979, Lebanon remained at the heart of Iran’s regional strategy, now coupled with the internationalism of the revolution. A blend of revolutionary idealism and geopolitical challenges have been behind the Islamic Republic’s outreach to the Levant and the formation of the Damascus-Tehran axis. The two governments’ cooperation began in the early 1980s in response to mounting shared fear of Iraq, after its invasion of Iran in 1980, and Israel, following its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In the decades since, Damascus-Tehran relations evolved into an effective partnership to contain U.S. power in the region.
Checking Baghdad was indeed a strategic challenge that the Islamic Republic inherited from the Shah. In the mid-1970s, the ruling Iraqi Baathists’ rivalry with the Syrian Baathist regime and Iraq’s territorial claims in the Persian Gulf and southern Iran had drawn Syrians close to Imperial Iran. Former president Hafiz al-Assad’s first state visit to Tehran was in December 1975, just as Tehran and Baghdad were settling their border differences, in order to ensure that the new modus vivendi between the two states would not work against Syria. Assad did not visit the Islamic Republic of Iran until September 1990, ten years after the revolution, to ensure that Iran would remain neutral in the imminent international operation to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Iraq is still among Iran’s top security challenges. Border disputes brought both countries to the verge of a full military confrontation in 1969. In 1980, Saddam Hussein broke Iraq’s 1975 agreement with Iran, which had created a stable border, and invaded Iran, triggering an eight-year long war. This costly war intensified Iranians’ already deep concern with placing a friendly regime in power in Baghdad. After 2003, the U.S. invasion of Iraq gave Iran a golden opportunity to expand and consolidate its influence in Iraq. Iran worked through a network of Shii and Kurdish forces, many of which had for decades received support from Iran, to ensure that the post-Saddam Iraq would not turn into a pro-American outpost against Tehran.
In contrast to Iraq and the Levant, Yemen became a focus of the Islamic Republic’s support for non-state actors only after Saudi Arabia launched its ongoing campaign of air strikes against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in 2015. While it is not clear what military assistance the Houthis have received from Iran, backing them gained Iran a foothold on the southern flank of Saudi Arabia and an opportunity to distract and weaken Riyadh, a regional rival.
The continuity in Iranian regional policies before and after 1979 contradicts the hollow “normal nation” litany that Pompeo and others in the Trump administration are spouting to justify their “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. The likenesses between the monarchical and clerical epochs show that Iran’s regional policies are bound by history and geopolitics. Both the Shah and the clerics pursued the strategy of backing non-state actors and utilizing historical and religious ties to Shii communities in the region for achieving deterrence against perceived threats.
Rather than revolutionary ideology, Iranian policy has been shaped by concerns about regional and international threats. This strategy of backing non-state actors and Shii forces across the region spans at least six decades, not four, as Trump’s officials claim. If Trump, as he indicated during the G7 summit in France, is after a “better deal” that, among other issues, addresses Iran’s regional policies, he first needs to understand the rationale that drives these policies and acknowledge the geopolitical challenges that are at the center of Iran’s reach across the region. After all, this approach proved successful in concluding the landmark nuclear agreement in 2015, when the former administration recognized, in the words of then-President Barack Obama, Iran’s “legitimate defense concerns” in the region.
Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and PhD Candidate in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.