Throughout the 1970s, Iran was concerned with dangers that emanated from both the region and the Soviet Union.
Engaged in a strategic, economic, and political alliance with the West, Iran was trapped in its image as a US surrogate. This impression served to thwart Iran’s championship of Third World goals and objectives. At the same time, there was growing criticism in the United States of the shah’s military build-up and human rights abuses. Overall:
by the time of the revolution, Iran’s foreign policy orientation and its over-activism were resented at home and created serious tensions in its relationship with both its allies and its enemies.
The Islamic revolution changed this situation. The spread of revolutionary Islam became the stated goal of Iran’s foreign policy. This entailed focusing on the interests of the Islamic community rather than nationalistic concerns. From the outset this led to disagreement.
Two groups emerged.
- One group, influenced by a Third World variant of socialist ideas was intensely anti-Western, especially anti-American. it wanted better ties with the Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc, and Third World countries and favored the export of revolution.
- A second group was more concerned about the Soviet/communist threat. This faction wanted to maintain some relationship with the West to preclude Soviet aggression. It favored the export of revolution by example rather than force.
Both factions believed that the export of revolution would ensure Iran’s security through a process of surrounding the territory by a cohort of like minded states.
These themes were played out in the transitional government of Prime Minister Bazargan when the competition was among three principal forces: Islamic nationalists, secular nationalists, and a variety of leftist groups.
After the consolidation of Islamic rule, these conflicts occurred within the Islamic leadership itself. While Bazargan, himself, pursued a nonaligned policy based on avoiding dependence on any one great power and maintaining good relations with neighboring states, after the occupation of the US embassy and the hostage taking, it became impossible to maintain reasonable relations with the United States.
From the November 4, 1979, hostage taking until the September 1980 outbreak of the war with Iraq, Iran’s foreign policy was dominated by three issues:
- the hostage taking
- the internal power struggle
- and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The hostage crisis dictated that
foreign policy consisted of extreme anti-Americanism and an all-out call for Islamic revolution on the Iranian model throughout the Muslim world.
While mainly driven by rhetoric and rarely by action, it was clear that Iran’s geopolitical position could no longer be useful to the United States.
The period of cliency had ended.
Photo by Orlygur Hnefill