Iranian foreign policy: not so revolutionary anymore
Iran today is more concerned with ensuring regional stability than exporting revolution.
ALEXANDRIA, VA. — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini landed at Tehran's Mehrabad airport on Feb. 1, 1979, and every year since that date marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Dawn (dah-yi fajr), the annual commemoration of the Islamic revolution.
Observers at the time feared that similar revolutions would occur in other Islamic states, and in a speech this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated that such a possibility is not out of the question. In Isfahan, Iran, on Feb. 3, he said he has encountered revolutionary sentiment in his global travels, provincial television reported. "Not just academics, not just men of letters, not just intellectuals," Mr. Ahmadinejad told the crowd, "but the people on the streets and in marketplaces lovingly shout: 'Iran, Iran, long live Iran, may Iran remain, may Iran be victorious.' "
Ahmadinejad is a committed ideologue surrounded by like-minded advisers, and he may actually believe that Muslims in other states are inspired by the Iranian revolutionary model. But the reality is that the only place where it has gained a foothold is in Lebanon, with the Shiite Muslim organization, Hizbullah. Iranian officials continue to praise Hizbullah and provide it with financial and military support, but the Iranian revolutionaries who were keen to export their experience two decades ago have mostly adopted a pragmatic foreign policy approach today.
Hizbullah's founding document, written in 1985, left little doubt about the relationship with Iran. It announced Hizbullah's desire for Islamic rule in Lebanon until there is Islamic rule worldwide, and it identified Ayatollah Khomeini as its leader. The document's language mirrored Khomeini's in many other ways: For example, it expressed the desire to eliminate Israel as well as hostility toward the United States. Those words were translated into deeds with suicide bombings that killed 241 US Marines in 1983, and with kidnappings and murders of Americans throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Hizbullah's attachment to Iran at the time was based on more than the revolutionary example and a religious connection. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps personnel from Iran were training Hizbullah fighters in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon from 1982 onward, and as the former Iranian ambassador to Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, said in the Sharq newspaper in August 2006, Hizbullah members even fought on the Iranian side in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. In that same interview, Mr. Mohtashami-Pur acknowledged Iranian provision of missiles to Hizbullah more recently. Semistate charities in Iran, furthermore, provide Hizbullah with millions of dollars in aid.
Iranian assistance to Hizbullah in the 1980s was guided largely by an activist impulse and the desire to see Khomeini's creation replicated elsewhere. For similar reasons, Iran directed assistance to Shiite mujahideen fighting the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan, and it tried to incite Shiite residents of Bahrain and Kuwait to revolt against their rulers.
Exporting the revolution and assisting the so-called oppressed in other countries continue to be codified in the Iranian Constitution. Iran no longer focuses on Shiite Muslims alone, however, and it helps Sunni groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In practice, and despite Ahmadinejad's rantings, Tehran now prefers greater pragmatism in its foreign relations. Therefore, continuing assistance to Hizbullah has less to do with duplicating Iran's theocracy and assisting a "liberation movement" than it does with a desire to have an armed ally on Israel's border that can be mobilized in a time of war. Tehran is working with Saudi Arabia to preclude a renewed outbreak of sectarian clashes in Lebanon because it recognizes the harm this does to Hizbullah's domestic standing. When Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani visited Damascus on Jan. 21 and when Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Mualem visited Tehran two days later, the avoidance of Shiite-Sunni strife was a major aspect of their talks.
There is no question that Iran continues its involvement with armed groups throughout the Middle East, and it also works bilaterally with neighboring states in order to gain regional dominance at the expense of the US. Iran will work with Shiite or Sunni entities in this quest. But these allies are unlikely to put their own survival on the line in the interest of Iran's ambitions.
If Washington is serious about ending Iranian interference in Lebanon and elsewhere, it must make clear to those cooperating with Iran that their survival is at stake, and it should use all available diplomatic tools to communicate to Iran the danger that Iran faces. Ahmadinejad may speak irrationally, but there are other national leaders in Tehran with a firmer grasp on reality.
• Abbas William Samii is a regional analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, and for eight-1/2 years was a regional analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc. The views expressed here are his own.