Ray Takeyh: The Origins of Iran's Bellicosity
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
More than thirty years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power—and two decades after his passing—the Islamic Republic remains an outlier in international relations. Other non-Western, revolutionary regimes eventually eschewed a rigidly ideological foreign policy and accepted the fundamental legitimacy of the international system. But Iran’s leaders have remained committed to Khomeini’s worldview. The resilience of Iran’s Islamist ideology in the country’s foreign policy is striking. China’s present-day foreign policy isn’t structured according to Mao’s thought, nor is Ho Chi Minh the guiding light behind Vietnam’s efforts to integrate into the Asian community. But Iran’s leadership clings to policies derived largely from Khomeini’s ideological vision even when such policies are detrimental to the country’s other stated national interests and even when a sizable portion of the ruling elite rejects them.
Many Western observers of Iran don’t understand that its foreign policy has been fashioned largely to sustain an ideological identity. Thus, we can’t understand Iran’s foreign relations and its evident hostility by just assessing its international environment or the changing Mideast power balance. These things matter. But Iran’s revolutionary elite also seeks to buttress the regime’s ideological identity by embracing a confrontational posture.
The question then becomes why the Iranian leadership continues to maintain this ideological template so long after its revolutionary emergence. After all, other revolutionary regimes, after initially using foreign policy for ideological purposes, later moved away from that approach. Why has China become more pragmatic but not Iran? The answer is that the Islamic Republic is different from its revolutionary counterparts in that the ideology of its state is its religion. It may be a politicized and radicalized variation of Shia Islam, but religion is the official dogma. Thus, a dedicated core of supporters inevitably remained loyal to this religious ideology long after Khomeini himself disappeared from the scene. Revolutionary regimes usually change when their ardent supporters grow disillusioned and abandon the faith. It is, after all, much easier to be an ex-Marxist than an ex-Shiite. In one instance, renouncing one’s faith is political defection; in the other, apostasy. Although the Islamic Republic has become widely unpopular, for a small but fervent segment of the population it is still an important experiment in realizing God’s will on earth.
To understand this, it helps to review some pertinent Iranian history, beginning with the thought and actions of Ayatollah Khomeini...
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