Iran’s Foreign Policy Principles

The below is part of an unpublished article I wrote, but did not finish. So rather than not using it, I decided to slightly edit it and share it. 

Iran and neighbouring countries on Google Maps

Iran and neighbouring countries on Google Maps

The Islamic Republic of Iran came into existence in 1979. Ruhollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader, principal decision maker of the country. Whereas the pre-Revolution era was marked by close ties with the United States, as well as with Europe and Israel, with the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Iran turned vehemently anti-American. Its secular nature was completely abandoned and Islamic law was established. This change obviously set in motion a very different foreign policy behavior as well. However, some elements of the Shah’s foreign policy remained. The importance of stability along its borders continued to be key foreign policy concern for the Islamic Republic. [1]

A review of the literature on Iran’s foreign policy reveals a set of empirically supported principles that characterize its foreign policy decision making.

I. Foreign intervention and safeguarding national security

The first of the defining considerations in Iran’s foreign policy decision-making is security, and directly connected to security, stability. There is a fear and anxiety against foreign interference and the presence of foreigners in its region.[2] The apprehension of Iran towards foreign intervention finds ample reasons. Looking only at the twentieth century, it was marked by an almost exclusive rule under the auspices of foreign rulers. As early as 1906, a Persian Constitution was signed, establishing a Parliament, representing the interests of the people. However, the innovation was crushed in 1911 through the interference of the British and the Russians, which effectively partitioned the country. The interest of these foreign powers to interfere in Persian politics lay in the abundance of black gold — the oil fields of Persia. British imperial moves gave way for Reza Khan to stage a military coup and be installed as Prime Minister in 1921, practically governing the country from then on.[3] Then in 1953, the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh was removed from office through the orchestration of a coup d’état, supported by the United States and the United Kingdom. This marks the rule of Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, the son of Reza Khan Pahlavi. Shah Pahlavi was a close ally of especially the United States and he received much military and economic support from the US. The United States helped establish the Iranian secret police during those years . His rule ended with the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

US Embassy hostage taking 1979 in Tehran

A practical example of this emphasis on foreign intervention by the new Islamic regime, is the 1980 International Court of Justice case of the United States against Iran, where the United States started legal proceedings against Iran following the embassy hostage taking in 1979. Not going into details, but Iran’s defense was not more than the following: “… [the hostage taking] only represents a marginal and secondary aspect of an overall problem, one such that it cannot be studied separately, and which involves, inter alia, more than 25 years of continual interference by the United States in the internal affairs of Iran, the shameless exploitations of our country, and numerous crimes perpetrated against the Iranian people.”[4]

These sentiments by Iran are established also elsewhere — the constitution of Iran. Article 9, under the first chapter, ‘General Principles’, states that “[i]n the Islamic Republic of Iran, the freedom, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of the country are inseparable from one another, and their preservation is the duty of the government and all individual citizens.”[5] The above reinforces the emphasis in Iranian politics on the notion of national security; in international relations theory this is one of the core assumptions of the the realist school of thought — all policy is aimed at national security.

Lastly, with regards to the issue of security and stability, Iran has been apprehensive of the presence of the United States and the NATO in its direct surroundings –Iraq and Afghanistan [6].

Anno 2013, the installment of Patriot missiles in Turkey has infuriated Iran and leads to diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

II. Anti-Americanism and anti-Israel

Another defining foreign policy principle is anti-Americanism and an anti-Israel position. These sentiments were shaped during the establishment of the Islamic Republic on the assumption that the United States seeks to dominate the Middle East and plunder its natural resources.[7] Also the anti-Israel position by Iranian leadership over the decades can hardly have gone unnoticed. The anti-Zionist and anti-Imperialist rhetoric [8] Iran is known for using, has strategic considerations. For instance, in light of a possible Arab-Israeli peace deal in the mid-1990s regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iran blamed the U.S. for having a hidden agenda and that “[the peace deal] was designed to rob the Palestinians of their rights in favor of Israel’s regional ambitions and aspirations.”[9] In this case, criticism of biased U.S. policies sought to have benefited the Palestinians. The current President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the most fierce and aggressive anti-Israel President of the Islamic Republic so far. His belief is that Israel has no right to exist and that Iran’s mission is to limit Israel’s influence internationally.[10] According to the Jerusalem Post, Ahmadinejad stated that “Israel is a creation of the West so that it could exert control over the Middle East.”[11] Khamenei also spoke out against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, calling him a “servant” of Israel and the United States.[12]

III. Ideology as a FP principle

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi

The third defining foreign policy principle is ideological. It comprises of two factors. On the one hand, there is an ideology fueled by religious considerations—the Iranian leadership’s conviction during the 1980s that Iran should spread religion and export the Revolution.[13] Illustrating the relevance of this in contemporary Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini in February 2011 praised the protests and uprisings throughout the Middle East and stated that “[t]his is what was always talked about as the occurrence of Islamic awakening at the time of the Islamic revolution of the great Iranian nation and is showing itself today.”[14] The second kind of ideology is Iran’s ambition to become a sort of regional hegemon since the 2000s. “Iran sees itself as a regional power and believes it should be treated accordingly.”[15] Areas where Tehran has actively sought influence are (1) in Iraq, with its support for the Shia minority; (2) in the Palestinian territories, gaining influence through  support and its anti-American rhetoric in light of the failures of the peace negotiations; and (3) in Lebanon, where Iran supports Hezbollah’s struggle militarily, politically and economically.[16] Furthermore, anno 2011, Iran is competing with Turkey over regional influence and the Arab government’s friendship. Iran’s conviction shows in the following: “The sheer number of Iranian officials who are fluent in Arabic highlights the efforts of Tehran to overcome the ethno-linguistic geopolitical constraints it faces as a Persian country trying to operate in a region where most Muslim countries are Arab.”[17]

All in all, religious ideological considerations are not as pivotal in the foreign policy of Iran. It is used as a means to achieve a goal. Consider the Iran-Hamas cooperation; Iran is Shia and the members of Hamas are Sunni. However, in the case of Lebanon and Syria, the religious ties do play an important role. It serves as the foundation of the alliance built on trust. In Lebanon the Iranian influence was, and continues to be through Hezbollah. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s influence in Lebanon was consolidated through the Manifesto of the Nine. Khomeini approved this to become the “theocratic concept of Guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult for the Lebanese Shi’a [Hezbollah].”[18] Similarly, the leadership in Iran found itself to be religiously close to the Alawite/Nusairi Baathist regime in Syria.[19] To reinforce these religious ties, the construction of a popular Shia mausoleum by Iran during the 1990s and 2000s allowed the Syrian regime to establish strong symbolic ties to Iran. “[T]he Syrian regime, whose leaders belong to the ‘Alawi minority, is concerned about taqrib, the act of creating ties with ‘orthodox’ Shi’is.”[20]

Phases in Iran’s foreign policy priorities

From left to right:  Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President/Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council (an advisory body to the Ayatollah) Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Iran expert Ehteshami distinguishes different phases in the Iranian foreign policy priorities since 1979. Most notable of these phases is the move “from radicalism to accommodation,”[21] which took place in the aftermath of the Iran-Iran war in 1988 and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini the following year. The election of President Rafsanjani shifted policy from confrontation to introducing a policy of rapprochement with the West—to seek international financial aid at the time of severe economic problems in Iran, mainly as a consequence of the long brutal war against Iraq.[22] The results were remarkable. European economic sanctions imposed on Iran were lifted and Tehran managed to attract much needed foreign direct investments, especially in the oil refining industry. This period has also been characterized as an “economisation of foreign policy.”[23]

Foreign policy principles in the Constitution

Concluding this overview, it is worthwhile to refer to the official foreign policy principles of Iran, as they are spelled out in its Constitution. Article 152 states that

[t]he foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based upon the rejection of all forms of domination, both the exertion of it and submission to it, the preservation of the independence of the country in all respects and its territorial integrity, the defense of the rights of all Muslims, nonalignment with respect to the hegemonist superpowers, and the maintenance of mutually peaceful relations with all non-belligerent States.[24]

Most of the above mentioned approaches identified in this literature review find resonance in the official foreign policy principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran, such as foreign interference versus “preservation of the independence of the country,” anti-Americanism versus “nonalignment with respect to the hegemonist superpowers,” the export of the revolution/ideological considerations versus “the defence of the rights of all Muslims.” The Constitution does not cover all the foreign policy strategies that Iran embraced in the last three decades, but that has to do with the changing political and economic as well as domestic and international environment, which forced Iran to be flexible in applying foreign policy principles.

From 1989, Iran’s foreign policy strategy has been guided by pragmatism. Rezaei defines it as emphasizing “the necessity for states to respond to the realities of world politics.”[25] One could argue that pragmatism is an umbrella under which a number of factors fall; security considerations, regional interests, the use of ideology and the hostility against foreign presence in the region, including Israel.

Iran’s foreign policy behavior has to be seen as a whole. This makes that the previously discussed factors are all highly interconnected with one another. For instance, there is a strong correlation between Iran’s hostility towards foreign interference in the region and the anti-Israel sentiments it utters. Tehran continues to see Israel as a Western satellite and a tool to influence the region.


[1]    Shaul Bakhash, “Iran,” L. Carl Brown (ed.), Diplomacy in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001), p. 255

[2]    Ibid., p. 255

[3]    Stephen Kinzer, Reset:Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future (New York: Times Books, 2010), pp. 19-26

[4]    International Court of Justice, “United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (United States of America v. Iran)”, (1979), p. 19

[5]    The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran

[6]    Kayhan Barzegar, “Iran’s Foreign Policy Strategy after Saddam,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2010), p. 174

[7]    Shahram Chubin, “Iran’s Power in Context,” Survival, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2009), p. 166

[8]    The author is conscious of the differences in meaning of anti-Americanism and anti-Israel on the one hand and anti-Zionism and anti-Imperialism on the other. However, within the current context their meanings find no difference.

[9]    Anoushiravan Ehteshami, “The Foreign Policy of Iran,” Raymond A. Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami (eds.), The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 2002), p. 302

[10]  Chubin, “Iran’s Power in Context,” p. 171

[11]  Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2011

[12]  Al Jazeera English, February 4, 2011

[13]  Ehteshami, “The Foreign Policy of Iran,” p. 286

[14]  Al Jazeera English, February 4, 2011

[15]  Volker Perthes, “Ambition and Fear: Iran’s Foreign Policy and Nuclear Programme,” Survival, Vol. 52, No. 3, (2010), p. 96

[16]  Chubin, “Iran’s Power in Context,” p. 177

[17]  Gulfnews.com, Opinion. September 30, 2011

[18]  Abbas William Samii, “A Stable Structure on Shifting Sands: Assessing the Hizbullah-Iran-Syria Relationship,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 62, No. 1, (2008), p. 36

[19]  Bulent Kenes, “Iran’s Role in Syria,” Today’s Zaman, June 21, 2011

[20]  Myriam Ababsa, “The Shi’i Mausoleums of Raqqa: Iranian proselytism and local significations,” Fred H. Lawson (ed.), Demystifying Syria (London: SAQI, 2009), 89

[21]  Ehteshami, “The Foreign Policy of Iran,” p. 299

[22]  Shahriar Sabet-Saeidi,. “Iranian-European Relations: A Strategic Partnership?,” Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri (eds.), Iran’s Foreign Policy. From Khatami to Ahmadinejad, (Berkshire: Ithaca Press, 2008), pp. 57-58

[23]  Ehteshami, “The Foreign Policy of Iran,” p. 290

[24]  The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran

[25]  Ali Akbar Rezaei, “Foreign Policy Theories: Implications for the Foreign Policy Analysis of Iran,”  Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri (eds.), Iran’s Foreign Policy. From Khatami to Ahmadinejad, (Berkshire: Ithaca Press, 2008), p. 29

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4 thoughts on “Iran’s Foreign Policy Principles

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