The missing concept of national interest in Iran’s foreign policy

"Iranian foreign policy is based on the inalterability of revolutionary and religious interests instead of articulation of national interest."

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Politicians in Iran have often discussed the concept of “national interest,” describing it as an idea connoted with western values and principles. The most important reason for such a discussion may be the nonexistence of a due nation-state in its real terms in Iran. Thus, national interest has always represented a notion defined in the context of the ruling discourse.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and due to the religious nature of the Iranian Constitutional Law and the severe influence of religious rules on Iran’s foreign policy, it would be better to analyze Iranian foreign policy through a value-based and normative lens. One cannot justify the sources of Iranian national interest merely via a realistic approach of the concept. When defining Iranian national interest, the word “foreign” in the context of “foreign policy” must be made clear first.

The separation between national and foreign policy is usually apparent in every conventional nation-state. Issues that exist within a nation’s borders are considered national, and those beyond its boundaries are related to foreign policy. However, in Islam, there are no such borders; instead, beliefs and values define the borders. Within a nation-state, the concept of “national interest” lies at the heart of the state’s foreign policy, but in Iran, Shia Islam guides its principles of foreign policy – at least in theory.

Thus, a reconciliation between Islamic and national interests has always been crucial to Iranian authorities. Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s first prime minister, said: “The main objective of the first post-revolution government was to serve Iranian national interest by means of Islam; while, Khomeini had meant to serve Islam by means of Iranian national interests.” Here, it is apparent the definition and explanation of national interest have always been a challenging issue for authorities in Iran since it seems to collide with Islamic interests as the driving force of the country’s foreign policy. This attitude is evident within all post-revolution administrations and especially during the first years of the Islamic Revolution.

According to the Iranian Constitution, it is vital for the regime to reconcile national interests with Islamic ones. This has caused various interpretations of the ruling foreign policy discourse and their contradiction with Iranian national interests. Some believe there is a sharp dichotomy between transnational responsibilities of a religious state and the idea of a universal Islamic State with the requirements of a nation-state constrained by geographical boundaries and national identity. For those who believe in a normative framework of Iranian national interests, there is no distinction between national and religious affairs. They assert that Iranian national identity does consist of two Iranian and Islamic elements in which are, per se, indispensable. Thus, it is impossible to make a distinction between these elements as well as Islamic and revolutionary values as parts of the national interests.

Considering Article 177 of the Iranian Constitution, one can conclude that national interests along with Islamic ones are the guiding principles of the decision-making process in Iranian foreign policy. Furthermore, it appears the legislator has given no priority for one over the other. During the first years of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s administration and due to the dominant ideological attitudes on foreign policy, the concept of national interest was discarded for Islamic ones.

After the Iran-Iraq War and the “reconstruction era” of the Rafsanjani administration, there were some efforts to improve international relations to advance foreign investment and strengthen the national economy. During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and through efforts to develop the national political development, a reconciliation of Islamic and Iranian interests seemed to be achieved. It was during this period that the image of an isolated Iran changed to some extent into a normal state. However, this shift in priority for national interests did not last due to Khatami’s inability to reach a consensus among the national political elites. Moreover, the most important reason for this failure can be attributed to the definitive role of the Supreme Leader in defining and steering Iran’s foreign policy.

The Supreme Leader has always formulated the rhetoric of Iranian national interest along with his preferable conservative party. For example, in 2001, at the end of Khatami’s first term, this defensiveness was articulated by the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, in these words: “Our national interests lie with antagonizing the Great Satan. We condemn any cowardly stance toward American and any word on compromise with the Great Satan.” This emphasizes Khatami’s failure to convince the political elite regarding dialogue with the West. The same inability to define Iranian national interest continued under the administrations of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as current President Hassan Rouhani.

Reviewing the practical outcomes of Iranian foreign policy indicates that Iran’s international interests have been intertwined with Islamist ideology and Islamic identity. Thus, the “Iranian” and “Republic” dimensions give weight to Islamist approaches, and there is a clear mismatch between national and religious interests. As a result, it is evident that Iranian foreign policy is based on the inalterability of revolutionary and Islamic interests instead of articulation of national interest. The following are reasons which can explain the inalterability of fundamental principles of Iranian foreign policy. Due to these reasons, a drastic shift in Iran’s foreign policy even under the present regime seems impossible:

I. Since the early days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, foreign policy and economics have leaned toward third-world and developing countries and are often detached from  western and developed countries. Iran’s economy is disconnected from the international economy due to its dependency on oil and its limitation of external relations to purchase goods and services.

II. In Iran, power is based on Islamic ideology and is rooted in the history of the Islamic Revolution. Defending the rights of all Muslims throughout the world, non-recognition of Israel, and the rejection of all sorts of non-Muslim domination over the Muslim community are principles that guide Iranian foreign policy.

III. The devotion to a theocratic government prevents Iran from having normal relations with the United States, in particular, since normalizing ties with the US would necessitate Iran to recognize Israel which is regarded as impossible according to the Iranian Constitution.

Samireh Ahmadi holds a Master's degree in European External Relations from the University of Hamburg and another Master's degree in International Relations from Tehran University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany