Iranian foreign policy (Part I)
The Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, could be considered the milestone of Iran’s contemporary history. The ascension of Ruhollah Khomeini as the indisputable revolutionary leader with uncontested executive power converted the Islamic Republic into a fierce revisionist state. Backed in the principle of velayat-e faqih, Khomeini sought to develop the basic framework for Iran’s consolidation and transformation of the International System. Past experiences as the coup d’etat against Mossadeq in 1953, influenced enormously the will of Iranians, its elites and the desire of Khomeini to reinforce the economic and political independence of Iran and the avoidance of any interference in its domestic affairs, as well as exporting the Islamic Revolution abroad, reject any imperialism and support the liberation movements and the entire Muslim Community.
Once the charismatic leader passed away in 1989, despite the original ideology which steers the Islamic Republic of Iran has not changed, the control of the state has never been monopolized again. In that sense, it is time to ask who controls the foreign policy decision making in Iran?
Before starting our analytical research, it is important to scrutinize the Iranian foreign policy from a set of social constructions inherent from the modern and the Shia Islamic heritage of Iran. Therefore, the nationalistic pride based on the glorious past of Iran, the Shi’a idealism related to the end of history and the appearance of the Mahdi has configured the constitutional structure of Iran, influencing the disputes of the Iranian elites between the acceptance of change and adaptation in the international system and the continuity and respect of the traditional culture. Thus, it is the Iranian social construction of the world as a framework rather than the Shia revolutionary ideology (Warnaar, 2013) the theoretical structure for understanding the foreign policy behavior and decision-making process of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The rules of the game
To analyze the balance of power in the Iranian foreign policy decision-making process, it is important to focus on the three dynamics that consolidate the figure of Khamenei as the Supreme Leader of Iran. Therefore, Khomeini’s fatwa in 1989 and the concentration of religious legitimacy under Khamenei’s hands; the Constitutional amendment issued by President Rafsanjani and Khamenei in 1989 and finally the Ascension of IRGC in the political arena should be analyzed.
After the appointment of Khamenei as the future, Supreme Leader of the Iranian Republic by the Assembly of Experts and the ratification of Khomeini, the hard core of Qom ayatollah’s order was not eager to recognize a minor cleric as the source of imitation. This challenge to the future Supreme Leader of the Iranian Republic was initially solved by Khomeini when, moving forward his velayat-e faqih principle, he stipulated the absolute mandate of jurist (Velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih). Thus, separating the figure of the Leader with the figure of the emulation source (marja’iyyat), Khomeini tried to legitimize the weaker starting position of Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader of Iran. On his way to consolidate his position within the spiritual realm, due to the powers granted by the Article 110 of the Iranian Constitution, Ali Khamenei created and shaped several religious institutions as the Friday Prayer Policymaking Council, the Supreme Council of Religious Seminars of Qom, the Special Court-Clergy, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee or the Supreme Leader Office, considered the executive branch of Khamenei.
A second dynamic that should be taken into account to understand the central position of Khamenei in the foreign policy decision-making process is the constitutional amendment promoted by Khamenei and Rafsanjani in 1989. According to the Articles 157 and 175, now the Supreme Leader has, respectively, the right to appoint the Head of the Judiciary and to dismiss the President of the Islamic Republic. Moreover, and related to the foreign affairs field, Ali Khamenei has the right to select to representatives in the Supreme National Security Council as well as the Supreme Leader has the right to ratify any decision taken in this institution. Consequently, although his initial position was weak, Khamenei managed to consolidate his religious legitimacy and his personal will in the foreign affairs decision-making process.
Regarding the constitutional framework, the 1989 amendment promoted the Supreme Council for National Security as the key institution where foreign policy decision should be taken. In that sense, the head of the legislative (the speaker of the Majles), the head of the judiciary and the head of the executive (the president), as well as the chief of the Supreme Command Council of the Armed Forces, two representatives nominated by the Supreme Leader, the ministers of foreign affairs, interior and information, and finally, the highest ranking officials from the Armed Forces and the Islamic Revolution’s Guards Corps. Moreover, the decisions taken under that council are effective only after the confirmation of the leader.
Finally, the third element that has enabled Khamenei to be granted with power regarding military and social control has been the direct control over the IRGC command. The two main priorities of this group are the defense of the Shia Ayatollah clergy at home, and the export of the Islamic Revolution abroad throughout the Quds militia, which is conceived a coercive instrument of the Iranian foreign policy. Moreover, because the IRGC is granted with the direct support of the Supreme Leader, the military organization has become progressively autonomous from the government, the political factions (despite their ideological approaches with the hard line political groups) and the clerical circles. Furthermore, since the arrival to power of Ali Khamenei in 1989, the Supreme Leader Office has strengthened its ties with the IRGC command, instructing the revolutionary guards in the principles of martyrdom, the glorification of the Ashura, and the absolute respect of the Velayat-e faqih.
Despite that the Supreme Leader holds an enormous control of the Iranian foreign policy and we could appreciate certain degree of continuity in its policies it should be important not to underestimate the degree of autonomy that the President of Iran holds, and the factual capacity of the IRGC to challenge the head of the executive and its foreign policy decisions. In that sense, my research will highlight how foreign policy decisions were taken during the administrations of Rafsanjani first, Khatami then and finally Ahmadinejad, to observe who was the promoter of foreign policy initiatives and which challenges found on its path to fulfill them.