Iran’s Multifaceted Foreign Policy

Iran’s Multifaceted Foreign Policy

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Iranian foreign policy is not the province of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but rather of a complex set of groups mostly run by clerics. This results in a foreign policy that often is muddled and occasionally contradictory.

April 7, 2006 12:33 pm (EST)

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Iranian foreign policy choices continue to generate concern, from Tehran’s nuclear posturing to its activities in Iraq to its support for U.S.-branded terrorist organizations like Hamas or Hezbollah. But where does Iran’s foreign policy originate? This question becomes particularly relevant as the United States looks to begin dialogue with Iran on Iraq. The answer reveals much about the divisions within the Iranian leadership. While Iran remains suspicious of—and at times openly hostile to—U.S. ambitions in the Persian Gulf region, its foreign policy has grown more complex and nuanced since the ideological 1980s. In positions of power are moderates as well as militants, reformers as well as revolutionaries. The result is a foreign policy that, experts say, is muddled and far from monolithic. "Although Iran’s hard-line leadership has maintained a remarkable unity of purpose in the face of reformist challengers, it is badly fragmented over key foreign policy issues, including the importance of nuclear weapons," wrote Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution and CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh in a 2005 Foreign Affairs article.

Who sets Iranian foreign policy?

The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), currently headed by Ali Larijani. Larijani doubles as Iran’s top negotiator on nuclear issues and enjoys close relations with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say over all SNSC decisions. "Decisions in Iran are made by consensus rather than decree" says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group. "Ayatollah Khamenei rules the country much like a CEO." The SNSC is composed mostly of top officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, intelligence, and interior, as well as military leaders from the army and the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s main security apparatus formed in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

What is the outlook of these government officials?

Many of their foreign views, including those of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were shaped by the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. "[Many of] the first-generation revolutionaries of Iran are still pursuing an ideological or kind of a defensive strategy to maintain the country’s revolution," said Mahmood Sariolghalam, a professor of international relations at the National University of Iran, at a recent CFR meeting. Many of these leaders say the West, particularly the United States, was complicit in Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical gas against the Iranians. Yet some experts say the orientation of Iran’s "war generation" elite has shifted somewhat from the offensive posture it held during the 1980s. Then, it sought to export the Islamic Revolution throughout the Middle East, by violence if necessary—but today, the elite has adopted a more defensive and pragmatic stance. Others, including some U.S. officials, say anti-Israel statements by Ahmadinejad are more reflective of the Iranian regime’s true character, which would become even more worrisome if Iran acquired nuclear capabilities.

Which other governing bodies influence Iran’s foreign policy?

There are several, experts say. Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, has the power to approve all international agreements, contracts, and treaties. But the Guardian Council, a highly influential twelve-member body of six clerics and six conservative jurists picked by the Supreme Leader, has veto power over all decisions made by the Majlis. Another body, the Expediency Council, arbitrates between the Majlis and the Guardian Council, and consults the Supreme Leader when these two bodies fail to reach agreement. The Expediency Council is chaired by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who continues to wield considerable behind-the-scenes influence over foreign policy. Khamenei recently expanded the powers of the Expediency Council. Finally, experts say the Revolutionary Guards also play an increasingly important role in setting foreign policy. The Revolutionary Guards are reported to be training, funding, and equipping Shiite militias in southern Iraq.

Are these bodies always in agreement on matters of foreign policy?

No. In fact, their policies can often appear contradictory. For example, when Larijani and others say Tehran’s uranium-enrichment program is for peaceful purposes, these statements are undermined, experts say, by Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for the elimination of Israel. Reformists within the Majlis often accuse the executive branch of taking stances that are too confrontational. Also, Iran’s foreign ministry has a sometimes conflicting agenda in Iraq with its Revolutionary Guards, particularly on the issue of Tehran’s relationship with anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The foreign ministry prefers not to deal with Sadr, while the Revolutionary Guards have reportedly established close contacts with Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, and even provide his troops with financial and material support. But William Samii, an Iran expert with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says the examples cited above are more emblematic of a lack of coordination than a rift within the ruling elite.

What is the role of Iran’s president in foreign relations?

Ahmadinejad has some influence over foreign policy—he appoints the cabinet and the head of the SNSC—but power remains mostly in the hands of the SNSC and the Supreme Leader. "[Ahmadinejad] is a small piece of the puzzle and can be influential on the fringes, but certainly not [by] steering Iranian foreign or nuclear policy," Sadjadpour says. Experts say Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements calling for Israel’s elimination should not be construed as official foreign policy. "He’s sort of a bull in a china shop and neophyte in foreign affairs," says Samii. "He does not have great input on [Iranian] foreign policy. But he hasn’t been president six months and he’s managed to alienate most of the international community." Two days after his anti-Israel comments, Khamenei came out publicly to say Iran’s official policy was one of nonaggression toward all members of the United Nations. "He made it very clear: enough of this talk," Sadjadpour says. Older generations in Iran, particularly centrists like Rafsanjani and former president Mohammed Khatami, have been particularly critical of Ahmadinejad’s hard-line foreign policy, as well as his "wholesale replacement of state officials," says Samii.

How much influence does Iran’s Supreme Leader wield?

Sadjadpour says Khamenei plays a more influential role in Iranian foreign affairs now than at any point in his seventeen-year reign. According to Iran’s constitution, the Supreme Leader serves as commander-in-chief of the armed and police forces; the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the state ministry in control of television and radio; and leader of the country’s judiciary. Most important, "he’s the person steering the Iranian nuclear ship," Sadjadpour says. "But if you look at his track record the last seventeen years, he’s been someone who has wanted neither confrontation nor accommodation with the West." Sariolghalam likens Iran’s stance to that of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, saying, "[The policy] is not to provoke the United States nor intervene in Iraq but to maintain some degree of conflict." Khamenei, Samii says, also has the power to transfer authority to anyone or any office he deems necessary. The Supreme Leader also has representatives within all of Iran’s governing bodies who report back to him.

What are the Iranian business community’s views on foreign policy?

Its greatest fear, experts say, is the threat posed by UN Security Council sanctions, which might further cripple Iran’s economy and cut off investment. Iran’s economy is dependent on outside investors and overly reliant on its energy sector. More than 90 percent of Iranians receive their income from the state. Although Iran, buoyed by high oil prices, has $40 billion in foreign exchange reserves, its economy suffers from high unemployment and rampant inflation. "What we’ve seen from the Iranians over the last fifteen years is that they are hypersensitive to threats to their economy," said Brookings’ Middle East expert Pollack at a recent CFR meeting. And the Supreme Leader is aware of this, Sadjadpour says. "He realizes Iran is dependent on foreign investment, must have good relations with the outside world, and cannot survive in isolation."

What is Iran’s foreign policy toward the United States?

Officially, Tehran and Washington have had no formal diplomatic relations since the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration dealt clandestinely with Iran by selling the regime arms in exchange for Americans held hostage in Lebanon. There has also been some low-level cooperation between Washington and Tehran on antidrug policies, counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, and anti-oil-smuggling efforts in Iraq. More recently, in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Iran reportedly made an overture to U.S. officials to begin what former U.S. policymaker Flynt Leverett says was "a diplomatic process intended to resolve on a comprehensive basis all the bilateral differences between the United States and Iran." The Americans, preoccupied with Iraq, rebuffed the offer. "There was skepticism that this was a serious Iranian offer and not an overture from the highest levels in Iran," Sadjadpour says.

In recent weeks, Larijani has indicated a willingness to engage U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on the issue of Iraq. Others in Iran have also expressed a desire to deal directly with Washington, instead of through proxies like Russia or the so-called EU-3, on the nuclear issue. "It’s better to negotiate with the Great Satan than with little Satans," said Ali Zadsar, a member of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, as reported by RFE/RL. On Iraq, the Bush administration has approved such talks with Iran but no schedule has been set.

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