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.