The Quest for Power and Respect: A Survey of Iranian Foreign Policy Since 1921

The Quest for Power and Respect: A Survey of Iranian Foreign Policy Since 1921

Table of Contents

About this Article

This article provides a concise survey of Iran’s foreign policy doctrines during the past 100 years. From foreign occupation to yearning for independence, from counterbalance of power during the Cold War to hyper Nationalism which followed it, from the “neither East, nor West” mentality to the “constructive interaction” narrative is all covered here in a chronological timeline. The effects of major wars, both regional and international, combined with the effects of key domestic movements on Iran’s foreign policy are also discussed here. The major themes of Isolationism, Idealism and Exceptionalism which run through Iran’s foreign policy are outlined here but with an eye on Iran’s geopolitical status and her role in the area of international political economy, particularly after the discovery of oil in Iran.

Securing the realm: Reza Shah’s foreign policy 1921 – 1941

Iran’s foreign policy from 1921 to 1941 is intertwined with the name of Reza Pahlavi. In the fall of 1923, Reza Khan, known as Sardar Sepah, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, was appointed by the Qajar monarch Ahmad Shah as the 35th Prime Minister of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution Era. He held this position for two years and one month, after which time he deposed Ahmad Shah ruled in his stead as Reza Shah from 1925 to 1941.

Iran and the Soviet Union

Eight years before Reza Shah came to power, the Bolshevik Revolution had taken place in Russia, and in order to gain the support of the Iranian government, the Soviet revolutionary government unilaterally revoked all colonial concessions contained in previous treaties. However, when Reza Shah came to power, despite Russia’s defeat in World War I, the rivalry between Britain and the Soviet Union in Iran had revived. Not only had Caspian Sea fishing rights and the transit of Iranian goods through Soviet territory not been resolved, but a Soviet ship was now stationed at the port of Anzali.

A few months after Reza Shah came to power, in an effort to put pressure on Iran, Soviet officials banned Iranian goods from entering Soviet territory. In the summer of 1926, Reza Shah initially sent Abdolhossein Teymourtash, his Royal Court Minister, to Moscow for talks. A few months later, Iranian Foreign Minister Aligholi Ansari continued the negotiations, which eventually led to the signing of the1927 Agreement. According to the Agreement, the Soviet government recognized the right of transit of Iranian goods from Soviet territory to European countries and vice versa. At this point, Tehran and Moscow reached two other agreements: The Fishing Rights Treaty and the Treaty of Security Guarantee and Neutrality.

The privilege of exploiting the fishing industry and fishing rights in Iranian’s territorial waters of the Caspian Sea had been fully granted to the Russians almost half a century earlier. In 1925, the concession period expired, and Iran refused to extend it. After two years of conflict, the decision was made to form a joint Iranian-Soviet company headed by an Iranian in order to manage the fishery for a quarter of a century. In 1952, this contract expired and two years after the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, Iran nationalized the fisheries industry too.

The Treaty of Security Guarantee and Neutrality between Iran and the Soviet Union was signed in1927. At that time, Moscow and London had severed relations due to the discovery of a Soviet spy network in England. In addition, a series of agreements (known as the Locarno Treaties) between European countries was signed in which Germany’s western borders with France and Belgium were recognized. The move paved the way for Germany’s membership in the “League of Nations” and brought back a defeated Germany to the family of Western European countries.  Moscow interpreted these treaties as indicating the major European powers were forming a united front against the Bolshevik revolutionary government in the Soviet Union and withdrew from the treaty in 1925.  

It was under these circumstances that the Soviet Union signed a neutrality and non-aggression pact with Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran. Under the Security Treaty between Iran and the Soviet Union, the two countries pledged to refrain from attacking the other’s allies and not to be a part of any alliance or coalition against each other. The two countries also pledged to resolve their disputes peacefully and refrain from negative campaigning or propaganda against each other.  They agreed as well to disrupt the formation of any militant groups within their borders that aimed to weaken or overthrow the ruling government of the other.  Furthermore, it was agreed that “if one of the signatories of the treaty came under attack by a third party, the other signatory is obliged to maintain her neutrality.”

However, Moscow’s desire to export its revolution to Iran and Tehran’s active suppression of the Communist groups in Iran, in 1937, caused relations between the two countries to deteriorate prior to Reza Shah’s exile from Iran.

Iran and England

After World War I, London’s geopolitical strategy towards Iran stemmed from three main objectives: protecting the Indian subcontinent; preventing Iran from falling into the hands of its northern neighbor, the Soviets; and protecting the oil resources.

In 1801, the Russian Czar Alexander I made a secret proposal to French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte to jointly invade India. The Indian subcontinent was the British colonial empire’s greatest prize and any encroachment from the Iranian side of the border would have been a nightmare for the British there. Iran and Afghanistan at the time were viewed by the British as a security belt for their Indian territories. The British and the Russian colonial rivalries in Iran have a long history, but with the emergence of a revolutionary government in the Soviet Union, and the rise of anti-colonial ideology, especially among the Iranian elite, Britain’s renewed interest in Iran became a necessity. The British, thus, favored supporting a strong central government in Iran to prevent the spread of communism and a possible Soviet takeover of Iran. 

Two years after the Communist Revolution in Russia, the 1919 agreement was signed under the reign of Ahmad Shah Qajar between Iran and Britain. If implemented, this agreement would have placed Iran under the full protection of Great Britain. This secretly negotiated six-part Agreement secured almost all of London’s interests and ambitions in Iran and established an overarching British oversight authority over the military and finance in Iran. To secure such a favorable treaty, the British had bribed several Iranian politicians handsomely. Iran also gave Britain the exclusive right to build and operate her railways and highways. Four years before Reza Shah’s accession to the throne, the contents of the agreement were exposed and in the face of increased opposition, the agreement was declared unconstitutional by Iran’s parliament.

In 1911, three years before the outbreak of World War I, the British Royal Navy changed its fuel from coal to oil, which made Britain’s access to Iranian oil of strategic importance. Ten years earlier, British millionaire William Knox D’Arcy had obtained the right to extract and transport Iranian oil. The duration of the concession was 60 years, but the northern provinces of Azerbaijan, Mazandaran, Astarabad, Gilan and Khorasan were excluded. In 1909, with the help of the British Admiralty, new investors joined the concession, forming the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. More than 15 years later, when Reza Shah came to power, the extraction and production of oil in Iran were still limited to Masjed Soleyman, which had been the concession’s first big discovery in Iran.  It was believed that Iran was sitting on a “sea of oil” in its southern regions and the Persian Gulf coastal areas. This fact made Iran’s strategic importance for the British Empire, equal to that of the Suez Canal. 

The difficult process of transferring D’Arcy’s acquired rights to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and numerous other British violations, including a significant reduction in Iran’s royalties from the oil extraction operations,  led Iran to cancel and the concession in the fall of 1931;  Reza Shah threw the oil contract into a furnace.  Less than six months later, another contract was signed, known as the 1933 contract. Under the new agreement, Iran’s share of the concession increased from 16% to 20% percent, but this share was to be calculated after the so-called British taxes of 36% were paid. This tax rate was high in comparison with contracts with other countries’ oil companies such as the ones in Venezuela.

The founder of the Pahlavi dynasty was however more successful in getting out of other unfair foreign agreements: the abolition of the capitulations, the takeover of postal and telegraph operations from Belgian advisers, gaining independence for the customs bureau, and assuming the right to issue banknotes in 1928.  His actions to replace British political and military dominance on the coast of the Persian Gulf completed the expansion of the central government’s authority throughout Iran.

In his only trip abroad, Reza Shah traveled to Turkey in 1935 at the invitation of Ataturk and was influenced by the extent of modern reforms there– including the growing role of women in Turkish society. At the same time, Iran pursued “the good neighbor” policy with her neighbors:  avoidance of conflict, concluding bilateral economic agreements, resolving border and territorial disputes and establishing better relations with Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reza Shah’s foreign policy sought to balance between the British and Soviet colonial powers and achieve peaceful coexistence. He set neutrality in international crises and conflicts as the dominant guideline in his transnational relations. The expansion of Iran’s economic relations with Germany, however, along with his attempt to establish relations with a “third force” or “third power” to balance the power of Moscow and London in Iran, eventually became the Achilles heel of his foreign policy.  Iran’s cordial relations with Germany even after the outbreak of the Second World War led eventually to the military aggression by the Soviet Union and Britain against Iran in August 1941. The occupying Allied powers demanded Reza Shah’s abdication in September 1941 and quickly exiled him to South Africa. 

Reza Shah was replaced with his son, Mohammad Reza Shah who ascended the throne in 1941. Mohammad Reza Shah’s foreign policy exhibited at least four different aspects, reflecting the changing times and circumstances of Iran: 

Revival of National Sovereignty and Power (1941-1953)

Iran’s fate would have been different had it not been invaded and occupied by Britain from the south and the Soviet Union from the north in 1941. However, after the British occupation of Iran, which led to the exile of Reza Shah, Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was brought to power thanks to the cleverness of a number of Iranian politicians, including Mohammad Ali Foroughi. After the end of World War II, maintaining independence and territorial integrity as well as eliminating the effects of Allied occupation were at the forefront of Iran’s foreign policy goals. The dominant strategy of the period was called the “Third Force” strategy, which aimed to expand relations with the United States. Tehran hoped to use that relationship to balance the power of Moscow and London.

In December 1943, the Tehran Conference was convened with the participation of the leaders of the three Allied powers, United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The participating leaders, who originally attended a secret meeting to select the commander of the Allied Powers and set a date for the opening of the “Second Front” in Europe, agreed with the proposal of Iranian Prime Minister Foroughi to withdraw their forces from Iranian territory no later than six months after the end of World War II. Shortly after the end of the war, US troops (which were legally “guests” of British troops) left Iran. [1]

British soldiers also withdrew from Iran before the six-month deadline. Soviet military units, however, consolidated their positions in northwestern Iran and became the key supporters of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, which sought independence. Coordinated efforts of Iranian statesmen,  especially those of the Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam (Qavam al-Saltanah) who used US support, led to the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Iran almost two years after World War II, which produced the immediate fall and collapse of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.

One of the most important features of this period in Iranian foreign policy was the introduction of the concept of a “Third Power” into the game and with it the United States as the balancer of the Soviet forces in the context of the Cold War which followed.  But Iran was unable to use the same strategy against Britain.[2]

Negative Equilibrium Policy (1951-1953)

During this period, the granting of any kind of oil concession to foreign states was prohibited. The debate over this policy had been furious among politicians and the public since the middle of World War II. In 1951, Iran’s parliament nominated, and the Shah appointed, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh to be the Prime Minister. Within days Mossadegh pushed through parliament a bill nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and provoking a crisis with Britain. At this time Mossadegh introduced the policy of negative equilibrium as the dominant strategy in Iran’s foreign policy. Negative equilibrium required Iran to adopt a neutral position between Great Britain and the Soviet Union and cease the granting of concessions to those powers—hence the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil concession which Mossadegh believed gave Britain too much control in Iran. In practice, Dr. Mossadegh’s policy of negative equilibrium strongly rejected any “compromise” by emphasizing “resistance.”[3] 

This left not much room for negotiations to resolve the crisis with Britain; Mossadegh went so far as to call those in favor of a compromise or negotiations as traitors. The doctrine of  negative equilibrium by Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh initially mobilized nationalistic sentiments, but the intensification of the Cold War and the new political realities, eventually caused the collapse of the government.[4] Negative equilibrium was discarded after the coup d’etat of  August 19, 1953 and the removal of Dr. Mossadegh. It was, however, to be revived and clothed in revolutionary rhetoric after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  

Positive Nationalism Policy (1953-1962)

According to Paul Seabury, in a “bipolar world situation,” a weak country located in the neighborhood of a superpower with a history of foreign military operations, must either fully accept the authority of that neighboring superpower or accept the “infiltration and dominance” of a distant superpower.[5] It was under such circumstances that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose power had been strengthened by the overthrow of Mossadegh, articulated the policy of “positive nationalism.”  In part meant to present a positive contrast to Mossadegh’s “negative equilibrium,” this doctrine was the justification of Iran’s alignment with the West, and especially the United States, after 1953.

Instability in the Middle East reinforced the alignment with the West.Political unrest in Lebanon and Jordan, and especially the overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq in the summer of 1958 (which was accompanied by the horrific murder of Iraq’s Hashemite monarch), set off alarm bells for the Shah of Iran. Almost three years prior, the Middle East Treaty Organization was formed with the participation of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. The recent incidents, especially the fall of the Iraqi monarchy followed by Iraq’s withdrawal from the Organization, led to the remaining treaty members to strengthen the alliance and rename it the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). US President Dwight Eisenhower called maintaining stability and security in the Middle East one of the goals of US foreign policy; a strategy known as the Eisenhower Doctrine.

In those years, there was another looming issue. Almost four years after the October Revolution in Russia, the newly formed Soviet Socialist Government entered into an agreement with the Iranian government known as the 1921 Treaty. Under Articles 5 and 6 of the Convention, the “The Distinguished Party Governments” agreed that in the event of an occupation of Iran by third-country troops, or Tehran’s inability to suppress a threat from its northern borders, “the Soviet government would have the right to bring its troops into Iran–“[6] until the Iranian government can take the necessary military action to defend itself.” Iran feared that Moscow would use this agreement to justify “any kind of Soviet military intervention in Iran.” [7] 

In the secret talks that took place between Tehran and Moscow between 1938 and 1958, the Kremlin’s last condition to “amend” the 1921 agreement was for Iran to withdraw from the CENTO Treaty. Mohammad Reza Shah, who from the beginning of this period until his overthrow was the sole decision-maker on important and vital foreign policy matters did not accept this condition and the negotiations failed.

“Independent National” policy (1963-1975)

The failure of the Tehran-Moscow talks led to the cooling of relations and the biggest propaganda war between the two sides. But from this low point in relations with Moscow, changes in the international and regional environment allowed the Shah to follow a new “independent national” policy.  This policy entailed the gradual rebalancing of Iranian relation with the superpowers and the pursuit of a larger regional role for Iran. 

In the fall of 1963, Tehran in a memo assured Moscow that it would not allow Iranian territory to be used to build missile sites belonging to third countries. The exchange of messages was the beginning of a period that saw warmer relations with the Soviet Union, and shortly afterwards Moscow agreed to Tehran’s request to buy and install a steel plant in Isfahan. [8] Relations between the two neighbors improved for two reasons: The Shah backing off of his desire to “amend” the 1921 treaty, and advances in missile technology installed in U.S. submarines. The Polaris intercontinental ballistic missile that could carry multiple warheads and was launched from submarines gradually became the mainstay of the US strategic deterrent around the world, reducing the need for long-range bombers and silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. This also reduced the need for missile bases and sites in foreign countries.[9] 

In the same years, the United States repeatedly reminded Iranian officials that US engagement with the CENTO Treaty was not a “full membership,” and that bilateral agreements with the countries of the region were signed solely to prevent the spread of communism. In other words, government officials in the region were explicitly warned that bilateral or multilateral agreements with Washington would be “muted” and ineffective in the face of threats from internal insurgency or regional disputes. Two incidents during this period, both of which were related to India and Pakistan, best demonstrated this “silence” which had a profound effect. Although Pakistan had a “security agreement” with the United States and Britain, Washington and London were “neutral” in the summer of 1964 during the Second India-Pakistan War (which, like all wars between the two countries, ended in Pakistan’s defeat) [10]

The Shah always considered the improvement of the army and its personnel as one of his most important duties. In his view, these events greatly increased the vital need to increase the combat capability of the armed forces, but the United States, which was the main supplier of weapons and military equipment to Iran, always imposed restrictions on it for various reasons. Three events, however, in the space of a few years, changed all the calculations.

  • Britain’s withdrawal from East of Suez

In January 1968, London announced that bilateral agreements between the Sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf and Britain would be terminated by the end of 1971, and that the United Kingdom did not intend to renew them. The Persian Gulf, where a significant portion of the world’s exported oil passed through its gorge (the Strait of Hormuz), was suddenly faced with a “power vacuum” that only Tehran could fill.[11] Iran is a geo-strategic reality in the Persian Gulf, but due to internal weakness and the presence of Britain, could never assert herself as this de facto power. The simultaneous timing of Britain’s withdrawal from East Suez coinciding with economic modernization and the rise of political power in Iran provided Tehran with this opportunity.

Iran first acknowledged its position in the Persian Gulf by accepting a UN referendum of the people of Bahrain who wanted independence (and Iran had virtually no influence in Bahrain for more than 300 years), followed by the recapturing of Abu Musa Island from the Emirate of Sharjah. A few years later, Airborne Special Forces Commandos from the Army were sent to Oman to fight against Yemeni-backed leftist guerrillas. The victory over the Dhofar fighters, who had taken refuge in the final battle in the Shershitti caves in southwestern Oman, effectively made Iran a victorious force in the Persian Gulf. [12]

  • The Nixon Doctrine

In the spring of 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, then-President Richard Nixon introduced a doctrine aimed at reducing the United States’ “defense burden” around the world. The doctrine, which was announced on the island of Guam in Southeast Asia, had two axes: first, the balance of international power had shifted from bipolar to multipolar. Second, a number of countries in the world that were identified as “regional powers” were given a more effective role in maintaining the stability and security of their area with increased sale and transfer of weapons.

  • The Oil Crisis

The Egyptian army’s initial success in the war with Israel in October 1973 led to the creation of an “air bridge” in which weapons and ammunition from the United States were sent to Israel. In response, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) boycotted oil exports to a number of Western countries, including Britain and the United States. The incident nearly quadrupled oil prices to $12 a barrel.[13]

These three events, which took place in less than half a decade, paved the way for Iran’s staggering arms purchases. The Iranian leader’s desire to increase the power of the air force was never hidden. Nearly a decade after the events of August 19 1953, US President John F. Kennedy told the Shah of Iran with diplomatic language and  much blunter deeds that  the excessive strengthening of the Iranian armed forces did not correspond to the degree of growth and development in Iran. A decade later, however, those three crucial developments, in addition to the urgent need for oil importers to trade back the hundreds of millions of dollars that flowed into the exporting countries due to rising oil prices, persuaded the Nixon White House to sell any military equipment to Tehran except a nuclear bomb. [14]

Nearly a decade before these three factors led to the Shah’s rapid rise to power on the international stage, especially in the Persian Gulf region, a series of socio-economic developments (known as the Shah and People “White” Revolution) of Mohammad Reza Shah had turned him into an active unchecked power domestically as well. The relative success of these reforms created a high expectation among many segments of Iranian society. Transforming Iran from a predominantly agricultural and rural society to a semi-industrial and mostly urban one, strengthened and expanded the middle class. These new developments were in direct contradiction with the old traditional power base of Iranian society. All in all, these rapid changes created many challenges in every aspect, but also created a legitimacy crisis for the entire political system. 

In light of these three pivotal events, and despite the hidden tensions between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Shah’s and Iran’s role had stabilized in the region. Yet, there was some tension with Iraq. The governments of Iran and Iraq, apart from the political animosities of the two regimes, which had increased since the Ba’athist takeover in the late 1970s and their ideological conflict, had a long history of border disputes, the most important of which was Shatt al-Arab.  Iraq considered Shatt al-Arab an inland river and called on Iran to use Iraqi pilots to guide Iranian riverine shipping. But Iran believed that Shatt al-Arab is a border river and that both sides had the right to use their own river pilots. In May 1969, the first Iranian ship, the Ibn Sina, under the supervision of an Iranian pilot and with the support of the Iranian Air Force and Navy, sailed from the Persian Gulf to Shatt al-Arab.

In March 1975, during a conference of OPEC leaders in the Algerian capital, the Shah and Saddam Hussein (the strongman of Iraq at the time) signed a border agreement known as the 1975 Algiers Agreement.  In addition to signing the agreement, they also completed defining land borders and agreed to prevent the penetration of “border disruptors”—a reference to Kurdish separatists—in the two countries. They further agreed to fix the international border in the Shatt al-Arab along the thalweg, or deepwater channel, which represented an Iraqi concession to Iran. The 1975 Algiers’ Agreement, which was entirely in Iran’s national interest, was a surprise to the international community and particularly to the United States and Israel.  Shah’s decision to initiate and finalize this agreement, which halted the Kurdish independence movement in Iran and in the region, was his last major foreign policy achievement before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. [15]

The amazing rise in power and international standing of Iran from the days of occupation in 1941 to becoming the most powerful state in the Persian Gulf region has fascinated researchers and scholars alike. According to some analysts, the most important feature of Iran’s foreign policy during the second king of the Pahlavi era was his outward outlook. Mohammad Reza Shah had studied in Switzerland and was fluent in both French and English. He did not promote his domestic policies well, and while Iranian journalists longed for an interview with him, he interviewed with foreign reporters at every opportunity. This led to the belief that, for the Shah of Iran, his true audience was the international community, not the people of Iran. 

“Neither East nor West”—New Directions after 1979

In the first months after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, as is often the case in any revolution, a group of somewhat liberal officials came to power. But soon, the more extremist elements seized control. Shortly after, the new regimes’ foreign policy was defined by over the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and the American hostage crisis.  Since then, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy has gone through several phases:  a construction phase, an interaction phase, a confrontation phase and a moderation phase.

Hostage-taking and Isolation

Almost immediately after the revolution, Iran adopted a “neither East nor West” policy, pursuing a strategy of avoiding the two superpowers of the time. In addition, Iran withdrew from the CENTO Treaty, announced that it would become a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and would have political relations with all countries except Israel and apartheid South Africa. In addition, Iran’s Foreign Ministry unilaterally repealed Articles 5 and 6 of the 1921 agreement with the Soviet Union by sending a communique; however, Moscow has never confirmed it.[16]

From the start of the interim government, contradictions in foreign policy direction and differences over the priority of “Iran over Islam” became apparent. “We wanted to help Iran through Islam, but Mr. Khomeini wanted to use Iran to increase the power of Islam in the world and in the region,” said the provisional government’s prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan. The provisional government eventually collapsed due to the demands of the clergy and extremists and ultimately as a result of the attack on the US embassy in Tehran. The pretext for the hostage-taking was the Shah’s arrival in the United States. The group was led by Seyyed Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, apparently without Ayatollah Khomeini’s knowledge. The occupation of the Embassy was supposed to end “after a few days” with the release of the hostages.[17] However, Mr. Khomeini called the hostage-taking a “second revolution” and it continued until the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the United States.  The hostage crisis created a massive change in Iran’s foreign policy. It changed the geopolitics of the region, prompted a new strategy in US foreign policy that remains active to this day. The driving doctrine of “neither East nor West” has now clearly gravitated to the East.

“Idealism” was the main feature of Iran’s revolutionary foreign policy. Within a few months of the revolution, tensions between the pursuit of ideological principles in foreign policy and practical policy making became apparent. Aside from chanting slogans in support of the “oppressed of the world” and the relentless attack against the “arrogant” West, the revolutionaries’ heavy blows to the armed forces, by “cleansing them of anti-revolutionary elements,  was the biggest sign of a change in Iran’s foreign policy and international relations. The root causes of Iraq’s invasion of Iran can be traced back to the effects of this policy change:

  • The execution of the army leaders and the reshuffling of its structure, to the point of eradicating the army, created a vacuum that led to the unilateral cancellation of the Algiers’ Agreement by Baghdad and Iraq’s invasion of Iran.
  • The Iraqi army invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. The weakening of Iran’s military forces, in addition to disarray in the Foreign Ministry and the call by the leader of the Islamic Revolution, himself, for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had provided ample reasons for the Iraqis. 

The effects of war on Iran’s regional policy

During the Iran-Iraq war, Syria was Iran’s only political ally in the region due to its ideological conflict with Baghdad. Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia were strained by the long-running rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh, but by the mid-1980s, it had reached its lowest point after the transfer of weapons to Mecca and the killing of Iranian pilgrims in that city.[18] Moscow’s support for Iraq and the suppression of the Tudeh Party in Iran were among the unresolved issues between Tehran and Moscow. The Kremlin saw the crackdown on the party’s leadership and supporters as temporary and a result of the natural course of events and hoped that over time its negative effects would be reduced. 

Iraq invaded Iran at a time when anti-Americanism was at the heart of Iran’s foreign policy, despite the fact that nearly 80% of the equipment for its ground forces and ammunition and 100% of its air force equipment had been purchased from the United States. 

During this period, despite its isolation in the international community, Iran intervened in the Lebanese civil war, helped strengthen Hezbollah in that country and accomplished some of its foreign policy goals by taking Western nationals’ hostage. In early June 1986, a delegation led by then-US National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane traveled to Tehran with the intention of exchanging a number of missiles for one or two Western hostages held in Lebanon, but the revelation of this “Top Secret” trip caused so much turmoil in Tehran that it accelerated the eventual removal of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri from the post of deputy leader. [19]

Apart from a fatwa in February 1988 calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, the author  of the Satanic Verses, the most important event in Iran’s foreign policy during this period was the adoption of a ceasefire under UN Security Council Resolution 598, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s emphasis that Iran’s Foreign Ministry should lead the peace talks. 

Hashemi’s Presidency Called “Reconstruction Period”

During this period, the principle of “exporting the revolution”—which had been articulated shortly after the Shah’s ouster– did not change as a theoretical concept, but the government tried to adapt the goals of the Nezam (the ruling order) to the international environment of the time. The fight against “global infidels” was still the focus of the political speeches in Iran, but in practice much of the government’s power was spent on attracting foreign capital investments and dealing with the aftermath of the war. The Islamic Republic continues to call itself the Umm al-Qura (the “metropole” or “capital”)  of Islam, but it was clear that instead of literally or physically exporting the revolution, they were calling for exporting the culture or the idea of the Islamic revolution.  The common denominator of all these was a “calculating realism” approach by Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.  Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and the formation of a US-led coalition to counter it, these traits were demonstrated once again during that crisis and in the region.

During this period, the speed of developments related to the collapse of the Soviet Communist Empire and the end of the confrontation between the two superpowers had clearly astonished and confused Iran’s leaders and foreign policy decision makers. Iran tended to avoid adventurism during this period, although terrorist incidents in Germany (the Mykonos restaurant attack) and Argentina (the AMIA bombing) strained relations with the Europeans and Argentina. More important, though, was the improvement of relations between Tehran and Riyadh, Iran’s most significant foreign policy achievement during the reconstruction period.

A large and indescribable part of this improvement was due to the warm and cordial relationship between President Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Abdullah, then the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Political relations between the two countries, which had been severely damaged during Ayatollah Khomeini’s lifetime, warmed up to the level that Riyadh agreed to hold the eighth Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Tehran. The gathering was held in November 1997 during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, but preparations and an agreement in principle were made during the presidency of Hashemi- Rafsanjani.

Mohammad Khatami’s reform period

Avoiding aggression, emphasizing the need for pluralism of discourse and detente were the characteristics of President Mohammad Khatami’s foreign policy, which took place during  the reform period. Shortly before Hashemi-Rafsanjani handed over power, ambassadors from European countries who had accused Iran of involvement in acts of terrorism – specifically the assassination of Kurdish leaders at the Mykonos cafe in Berlin – left Tehran in protest. But Khatami was elected president by a large majority (20 million votes) and from the outset spoke of the need to “lower the wall of distrust” in relations with other countries. Shortly after Khatami’s election, the ambassadors of European countries returned to Tehran. Khatami also extended an olive branch to the United States in an interview with CNN, which led eventually to Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State officially acknowledging (without apologizing for)  the CIA’s role in overthrowing Dr. Mossadegh and expressing interest in improving relations.[20] However, the conflict between reformists and conservatives at home was so intense that none of these measures led to a breakthrough in Tehran’s relations with the West.

Terrorist Attacks of September 11 and Iran

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Iran helped the United States strike against Afghanistan and prevented Al-Qaeda members from escaping through Iranian territory. In 1998, the Taliban had overrun Afghanistan and killed 11 members of Iran’s consular staff and a journalist at Mazar-e Sharif and had since then supported Afghan forces opposed to the Taliban.[21]

Khatami’s government used the idea of “Dialogue Among Civilizations” as the cornerstone of his foreign policy; the United Nations, subsequently named the year 2001 after the same concept. The dialogue of civilizations was not a solid plan; it lacked a clear strategy and had no special mechanism. The idea was only put on display during a few domestic and foreign gatherings about non-political issues and with an emphasis on culture and civilization, but in terms of propaganda, it showed Tehran’s insistence on changing its image and benefited the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Despite Tehran’s assistance to Washington during its invasion of Afghanistan, the introduction of the concept of Dialogue Among Civilizations in its foreign policy, and the Khatami government’s internal struggle with a crackdown by conservative forces, George W. Bush, the U.S. President at the time declared the Islamic Republic of Iran along with North Korea and Syria (Iraq) as members of the “axis of evil.” With that, everything that Khatami’s government had said and done to justify the rationale for relaxation of tension with the West, especially the United States, was destroyed.[22]

Iran’s Nuclear Program

In the summer of 2002, the extent and depth of Iran’s nuclear activities in Isfahan, Natanz, and Arak were revealed by an Iranian opposition group. Diplomatic activities soon intensified, leading to a series of talks held between the Iranian delegation (led by Hassan Rouhani) and representatives of the three European countries of Germany, Britain and France. Tehran’s key goal in the talks was to keep the nuclear case at the International Atomic Energy Agency and prevent it from being referred to the Security Council. The talks lasted three years, and towards the end of Khatami’s presidency, Iran pledged to voluntarily suspend enrichment (and without parliament ratification) abide by the provisions of the Additional Protocol. Despite the fact that everything was done under the leadership of the Supreme Leader, a few days before the start of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term in office, Khamenei called the outcome of the talks with the European Union a “retreat” and criticized Khatami’s government. 

The Confrontational Era of Ahmadinejad’s Presidency

During this period, the policy of de-escalating tensions and benefiting from a positive facade in foreign relations that had been pursued for the previous sixteen years was completely abandoned. The president of the Islamic Republic called for “Israel to disappear from the face of the earth,” a slogan that had not been used since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. During this period, Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia also cooled and murmurs by the United Arab Emirates to reclaim the three Persian Gulf islands seized by the Shah increased.

After the presidential election of 2009, which saw the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic faced the most serious threat since its inception.  Proreform candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi refused to accept the results of the elections, alleging electoral fraud, which led to massive but peaceful demonstrations that were brutally suppressed and turned bloody by the government. During many weeks of persistent protests, hundreds were killed and thousands imprisoned. This is known as the “Green Movement.” A few months after the start of Ahmadinejad’s second term, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in a detailed speech, described “dignity, wisdom and expediency” as the three basic principles of Iran’s foreign policy.

In the middle of Ahmadinejad’s second term, in 2011, a series of uprisings took place in the Middle East and North Africa, known as the Arab Spring. At first, Iran declined to comment on the movement because of its clear resemblance to the massive protests of 2009 and the Green Movement. But soon Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in a bid to reframe the unrest, called it an “Islamic awakening” that challenged the pro-Western governments in the region. Yet, while Tehran supported the “awakening” in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak, it rejected a similar “awakening” for the Syrian people—which was dismissed as a Western plot.

Nuclear Negotiations

Nuclear negotiations during this period became the most important issue in Iran’s foreign policy, as the imposition of sanctions, which Iranian leaders had previously referred to as a scrap of paper, caused enormous economic pressure. During this period, the value of Iran’s national currency was declining day by day, so badly that at the end of Ahmadinejad’s term, it had lost 10 percent of its value from just before his reelection. Relations became especially tense when Israel was pushing for military action against Iran’s nuclear sites, and the Revolutionary Guards’ naval force maneuvered around US Navy ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz. President Barack Obama, who had pursued a delicate carrot-and-stick policy, warned Iran and at the same time reminded Israel that “as President of the United States, he does not bluff.”

Instead of a tangible foreign policy achievement during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran was left with little more than a slogan, calling the UN Security Council Resolutions “scraps of paper,” reminiscent of the rhetoric of the early days of the Revolution.   

After President Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013 and dubbed his cabinet the “Government of Prudence and Hope,” confidence-building and de-escalation became the main focus of Iran’s foreign policy in an effort to generate a new “balance” in this arena.

Rouhani’s most important achievement during his presidency was the signing of the JCPOA agreement with Western countries, under which sanctions on Iran were gradually lifted and Iran pledged to keep its nuclear program under the full supervision of the UN-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and refrain from the production of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.[23]

In the spring of 2018, the United States effectively pulled out of the Agreement and started a new round of sanctions against Iran. While Iran insists that they are faithful to JCPOA and the other signatories must also comply with it, the Europeans have so far failed to soften the blow of the sanctions for Iran. 


  1. Glenn Snyder and Paul Diesing, Conflict Among Nations; Bargaining, Decision Making and System Structure in International Crisis, Princeton, Princeton U Press, 1978
  2. Shahram Chubin and Sepehr Zabih, The Foreign Relations of Iran; a Developing State in a Zone of Great Power Conflict, Berkeley, Uni of California, 1974: PP 2
  3. Sepehr Zabih, Roots of the Iranian Revolution, Chicago, Lake View Press, 1982

Sepehr Zabih, Iran’s International Posture: De Facto Non-Alignment with a Pro-Western Alliance, Middle East Journal, 23 (3), Jan 1970: PP 304

  1. Ibid, Chubin and Zabih, Forward by Paul Seabury
  2. Regicide
  3. K. R. Singh, Iran; The Quest For Security, India Quarterly, 30 (2), April – June 1974, PP 128
  4. Rouhollah K. Ramazani, Iran’s Changing Foreign Policy:  a Preliminary Discussion, Middle East Journal, 24 (4), August 1970, PP 432
  5. Alexander MacLeod, Shah of the Indian Ocean?, Pacific Community, 7 (3), April 1976, PP 426 
  6. Ibid, Bayne, PP 219; and Ibid, Zabih, 1970, PP 311 
  7. J C Hurewitz, The Persian Gulf: British Withdrawal and Western Security, American Academy of Political Science, (401), May 1972: PP 106
  8. See David J McMunn, Great Britain Withdrawal from Persian Gulf: 1968 – 1971 for Iran’s reaction the British retreat from the Persian Gulf
  9. Han, The Nixon Doctrine: Design and Dilemma, Orbis, 16 (2), Summer 1972, PP 361
  10. Samuel P Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1968 
  11. The Implications of Iran Iraq Agreement, PP 4 (pint 20)
  12. Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012
  14. Years after this incident, I have had several meetings with Ibrahim Asghar Zadeh, the spokesperson for the “university students,” who has reaffirmed the varsity of these events. His version of the events is consistent with other researchers on this topic as well as other historical documents regarding the hostages’ incident.
  15. U.S.S.R, calculatedly, gave up on the Tudeh party because on the one hand they had a more realistic understanding of the Revolution in Iran and on the other hand, the Tudeh party’s leadership and structure was outdated. 
  16. See, the Memoirs of Hosseinali Montazeri in the Union of Iranian Publishers in Europe, Vol. II. Also, before that Ayatollah Montazeri, in a number of cases, such as mass executions and whispers about the “absoluteness” of Velayat e Faghih, had questioned the entire system or Nezam.
  17. See Mhooshmand Mir Fakhran’s  interview with Robert Hunter, the ex-ambassador and the senior consultant to Rand Corporation, in the Fall of 2013.  
  20. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister describes the two ideas of “constructive interaction” and “ the delicate balance” as follow: “…among the local, regional and international needs,  on the one hand,  and the current capabilities and policies on the other; between flexibility and continuity; between goal and capabilities; between the means and the tools of power in the constituency changing world, one must always create a balance.
Expert on Iran & Middle East | + posts

Dr. Hooshmand Mirfakhraei received his B.A. and M.A. in political science from the National University of Iran and his Ph.D. in international relations from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Mirfakhraei was a researcher in the Office of Political and International Studies, affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has been a reporter for the Persian section of Voice of America Since 2006.

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