Shaped during their coming of age in the Shah’s prisons and at the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s leadership harbors fundamentalist and anti-Israeli beliefs that are deeply ingrained in their revolutionary identity. Nevertheless, Iranian leaders have often combined their ideological fervor with pragmatic calculations to achieve their strategic objectives. While Iran’s geopolitical power has increased considerably since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it faces old territorial and new international challenges. As a non-Arab Shi‘a state, Iran suffers from strategic isolation in the Middle East. Its geopolitical importance is limited by growing ethnic and sectarian divides in the region.
Ayatollah Khomeini, who was keenly aware of these challenges, directly appealed to the umma by deliberately bypassing the leaders of other Muslim states. Although partly successful in the Persian Gulf states and southern Lebanon, the revolution’s appeal did not reach Iran’s Shia brethren in Saddam Husayn’s army during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). After Khomeini’s death in 1989, Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami employed more conciliatory tactics and less extensive use of revolutionary rhetoric. Ending with a declaration of Muslim unity and solidarity, the December 1997 Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Tehran marked a high point of Iranian success in terms of regional public diplomacy.
After September 11th and Iran’s inclusion in the “Axis of Evil” by the Bush Administration in January 2002, conservative hardliners slowly returned to prominence. After his election in June 2005, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, recognizing the power of anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli rhetoric both as a foreign and domestic policy tool, broke with the conciliatory rhetoric of his predecessors and returned to the early revolutionary rhetoric of confrontation.
With the backing of Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene’i, Iran’s new nuclear policy team ordered the restarting of uranium enrichment in August 2005. Concurrently, Ahmadinejad and his advisors seized the chance to internationalize the nuclear conflict by attacking Israel and questioning the Holocaust, a subject which previously had not played an important role in the Iranian domestic debate. This rhetoric not only paralyzes Ahmadinejad’s domestic opponents, but also fits into a national security concept promoted by hardliner elements. Their goal is to overcome Iran’s strategic isolation in the Middle East by extending Iran’s security perimeter to Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Read moreover, by re-positioning Shi‘a Iran as a pan-Islamic force fighting for the (Sunni) Palestinian cause, Iran seeks to reduce the growing ethno-sectarian divide caused by the Iraqi civil war.
Ahmadinejad chose the venues for his anti-Israeli outbursts carefully. During the December 2007 Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Mecca, he elaborated on his idea for relocating Israel to Europe in an interview with Iranian state television. Through his rhetoric, Ahmadinejad managed to endear himself to the Arab “street” and dominate the agenda. By using regional and international gatherings such as the OIC and the Gulf Cooperation Council meetings, he has forced the pro-US Arab regimes to walk a tightrope between their allegiance to the US on the one hand, and a growing Islamist opposition and a considerable Shi‘a minority in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the other.
However, Ahmadinejad’s belligerent rhetoric soon backfired, leading the consensus-oriented Supreme Leader to balance the demands of the moderate reformers and the conservative pragmatists with those of Ahmadinejad’s Neo-conservative power base. By establishing a new foreign policy-making council (Strategic Council for Foreign Relations) in June 2006, Khamene’i created a counterbalance to Iran’s main foreign policy decision-making body, the Supreme National Security Council, which is chaired by the President. The new council is headed by some of the Islamic Republic’s most experienced foreign policy officials. After the December 2006 local elections, which brought defeat for the President’s supporters, the Supreme Leader reasserted himself as the main arbiter on foreign policy matters and started to keep Ahmadinejad’s belligerence in check. However, if the appointment of Saeed Jalili as the new top nuclear negotiator in fall 2007 is any indicator, Ahmadinejad’s influence in foreign policy decision-making is still considerable.
In response to this setback in the internal foreign policy-making struggle, Ahmadinejad started to increase Iran’s international outreach. The strategy towards the international community centers on a message of self-sufficiency in technological progress and justice in world affairs. The main targets were the members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). In September 2006, Iran’s public diplomacy scored a victory when 118 NAM members issued a statement at their summit in Havana in support of Iran on the nuclear issue. Since then, Ahmadinejad has seized every occasion to assert Iran’s leadership of the developing, nonaligned states. During a January 2007 tour of Latin American states, Ahmadinejad proved that Iran is willing to add substance to the rhetoric of creating a “backyard of loneliness” for the US. At a meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, both leaders pledged to set up a fund worth $2 billion to support countries which oppose US foreign policy. Even though it is not clear whether the fund is in place, both states have intensified mutual investments and the exchange of technology. At a June 2008 UN summit on world food security in Rome, Ahmadinejad stressed that “the competitions for power and wealth need to be changed to competitions for serving humanity and friendship and the unilateral and oppressive relations must be replaced by just mechanisms.”
Due to its effective public diplomacy and anti-imperialist rhetoric, Iran has been much more successful than the Arab states in reaching out to different parts of the world. In July 2008, Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki announced Iran’s bid for a seat on the 2009-2010 UN Security Council at a meeting of the group of 57 Islamic nations. Iranian diplomats have claimed the support of the “Asian Group” and general agreement from other factions. Even though this application ultimately failed, it demonstrated the difficulties that the US and Europe face as they attempt to isolate Iran from the “international community” for its nuclear program.
The use of anti-Israeli, pan-Islamic, and anti-imperialist rhetoric has been a deliberate tool in the conduct of Iran’s post-revolutionary foreign policy. President Ahmadinejad’s administration has reintroduced and amplified Ayatollah Khomeini’s rhetoric as a tactical means, which include overcoming Iran’s isolation in the region and internationalizing the standoff over its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denials and his efforts to tie the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran’s nuclear program have increased Iran’s pan-Islamic reach into the Arab street and have put Arab governments on the defensive. On the international stage, Iran’s leadership has succeeded in internationalizing Iran’s nuclear program by tying it to the North-South conflict and stressing the themes of international justice, state sovereignty, and technological self-sufficiency.
Nevertheless, Iran’s foreign policy approach has not been entirely successful. It has increased Iran’s international isolation and led to three UN Security Council resolutions and economic sanctions. Some Arab governments, such as that of Saudi Arabia, have become more vigorous in their opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, raising the prospect of a regional arms race. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric also has backfired within Iran, strengthening the more pragmatic conservatives around the influential former President Rafsanjani and the former nuclear negotiator and new Majlis speaker Ali Larijani.
Though Iran has managed to win the hearts and minds of the Arab populace and some NAM members, a different approach is required to establish trust with Arab and Western governments. Iran is facing challenges to its security ranging from a possible failed state in Iraq, a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and international pressure over its nuclear program. It is likely that historic pragmatism will once more prevail over its revolutionary identity in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy conduct.
. President Ahmadinejad’s speech at the High-Level Conference on World Food Security, Rome, June 3-5, 2008, .