In recent months, the United States has repeatedly accused Iran of interfering in its neighbors’ affairs—and Iran has repeatedly denied such claims. It might seem counterintuitive for Tehran to foment unrest on its eastern and western borders, but that is exactly what Washington accuses it of doing.

Some observers argue that because Iranian diplomats played a helpful role in the November–December 2001 meeting in Bonn that created a framework for a post-Taliban government, and because in April 2004 Iranian diplomats came to Iraq in an effort to reduce tensions there, it does not make sense for Iran to work against U.S. efforts now. If anything, the American elimination of the Taliban—with which Iran almost went to war in late 1998—and Saddam Hussein, whose 1980–88 war left some 200,000 Iranians dead, has greatly benefited Iran and contributed to its security.

In theory, Iran and the United States have similar interests in Afghanistan and Iraq. In practice, however, Iranian policy is based on a number of motives that are at odds with those of the United States, and, therefore, what is irrational from an American perspective is rational from an Iranian one. Furthermore, institutions and officials with sometimes conflicting interests have formal and informal roles in Iran’s foreign policy process. The interaction of motives and actors seems chaotic, but understanding how this system works can help explain present Iranian actions and predict future ones.


Motives and Actors

Exporting its Islamic revolution was the dominant focus of Iranian foreign policy in the 1980s, with Tehran supporting Shia movements in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon. Revolutionary Islam continues to underpin the country’s foreign policy; Article 3 of the Iranian constitution still states that in order to attain its objectives the country’s foreign policy must be based on “Islamic criteria, fraternal commitment to all Muslims, and unsparing support to the freedom fighters of the world.” And, according to Article 154 of the constitution, “[Iran] supports the rightful struggle of the oppressed people against their oppressors anywhere in the world.”

By 1988, Tehran had recognized that this attitude had alienated it from the international community. Radicalism slowly gave way to pragmatism, geopolitics, and economics; factors such as nationalism and ethnicity also influenced policy. This meant that in the 1990s Iran improved relations with its neighbors across the Persian Gulf, did not make a substantive effort to influence political developments in Central Asia, and sided with Moscow in the Chechen conflict.

An exception to this pragmatic attitude is Iran’s continuing support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Even this can be considered pragmatic, if only from an Iranian perspective, because by supporting these groups Iran demonstrates commitment to an issue that has a regional appeal, rather than a Shia-specific one. Moreover, this issue appears to concern only the United States and Israel—two countries with which Iran does not have diplomatic relations.

The top actor in the foreign policy process is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who under Article 110 of the constitution delineates state policies and is supreme commander of the armed forces. He appoints the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, and the top commanders of the armed forces. The political-ideological bureaus in the military are linked with the leadership.

The 38-member Expediency Council advises the Supreme Leader and makes recommendations on state policies. Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989 to 1997, heads this body.

The country’s top foreign policy body is the Supreme National Security Council, which is chaired by the moderate president Mohammad Khatami. The IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) theoretically report to this council, but in reality they have a great deal of autonomy and deal with the more sensitive aspects of foreign policy. Their political rivals are the Foreign and Defense Ministries, which are more closely allied with the president.

It is noteworthy that when a delegation of Iraqi opposition figures, including Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, visited Iran in January 2003, it did not meet with anyone from President Khatami’s office or from the Foreign Ministry. Brandeis University professor Kanan Makiya, who was in that delegation, told the New York Times, “We’re not involved with the Khatami group. They have absolutely no say over Iraqi affairs.”

Institutions that are not directly part of the government also sway the foreign policy process. Informally, the foundations that were created partly through the post-revolution expropriation of the assets of the monarchy and wealthy Iranians are influential. The foundations get many state benefits, but they are not accountable to the elected government. The Imam Reza Shrine Foundation (Astan-i Qods-i Razavi), based in the northeastern city of Mashhad, could affect Iran’s relationship with Afghanistan. The foundation controls the most important religious shrine in Iran, from which it derives its power and wealth. Over the last 25 years the income from pilgrims and donors has turned the foundation into a multimillion dollar enterprise; it runs auto plants, agricultural businesses, and many other enterprises, and it is worth an estimated $15 billion. The head of the foundation, Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, is a member of the aforementioned Expediency Council, as well as the Assembly of Experts, which supervises the Supreme Leader’s performance.

Individuals also influence the foreign policy process. In a February 2003 meeting with Afghan pilgrims to Mecca, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri said that the United States created the Taliban so it would have an excuse to enter Afghanistan. He urged Afghans to stand up to Western aggression and promised that Iran would help them regain control of their fates. Reyshahri is the Supreme Leader’s representative and supervisor of hajj pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, serves on the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, and is head of the important Shahzadeh Abdolazim Shrine Foundation.

All these institutional factors are relatively easy to trace. It is more difficult to determine whether individuals like Vaez-Tabasi and Reyshahri are acting in an official capacity or as private citizens. Confusing the situation even more is the complicated network of intermarriage and seminary education that links the clerics who run the country. Such informal networks are not confined to Iran’s clerical classes. Other networks are based on military service during the Iran-Iraq war, international university education, and regional origins.

Overshadowing this obscure mix of formal and informal institutional and individual connections is domestic factional politics, ranging from isolationist to interventionist. Traditional conservatives oppose exporting the revolution because it has the potential to harm trade and the bazaar. The left, on the other hand, initially identified the country’s foreign policy interests with opposition to the United States. Centrists identified with Hashemi-Rafsanjani eschewed these approaches and hinted at the possibility of relations with the United States.


From Theory to Practice

The most important implication of the above is that the general direction of Iranian foreign policy can be determined by studying Supreme Leader Khamenei’s statements, which means understanding that Iran’s leadership fears the United States more than it had feared the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. On the eve of Operation Enduring Freedom (in September 2001), Supreme Leader Khamenei said, “We shall not offer any assistance to America and its allies in their attack on Afghanistan.” As the crowd chanted “Death to America,” Khamenei asked how the United States could seek Iranian assistance in attacking Afghanistan when “you [Americans] are the ones who have always inflicted blows on Iran’s interests.” And Khamenei warned, in a May 2004 discussion about events in Iraq, “America’s threat today is not directed against just one or two countries in this region. The threat is directed against all of us. . . . They intend to devour the entire region.”

It is possible that Tehran hopes to benefit from the difficult situation the United States faces in Iraq. Hashemi-Rafsanjani has used the “quagmire” metaphor often in this context. Even before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, he said, in a December 2002 meeting with officers of the IRGC, that because the United States does not have experience with the Iraqi military it “will get caught in a quagmire.” Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in an April 2003 sermon, “They are in a quagmire.” And a year later he said, “Americans have a bumpy road ahead of them. . . . They are really in a quagmire.” He continued, “The day they set foot in Baghdad, I said that they had entered a quagmire and that from then onwards, the policy of extricating themselves from the quagmire had to be implemented.”

It is noteworthy that the Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been leading an insurrection against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, met with Hashemi-Rafsanjani and IRGC officials during a June 2003 visit to Iran. Khatami refused to meet al-Sadr during that visit, and al-Sadr rebuffed Iranian Foreign Ministry officials who visited Iraq in mid-April 2004. Hashemi-Rafsanjani appeared to be trying to exploit this relationship when he told Al-Arabiyah television on May 5, “What we said regarding the Americans’ fall in the Iraq quagmire is a fact being admitted by the U.S. leaders themselves.” He continued, “If the United States makes an official decision to put the future of Iraq in the hands of the Iraqis, Iran can extend help at whatever level. This is because we have capabilities, friendships, and good relations with the Iraqi people.”

Iranian actions can seem to cancel each other out. In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran is using inflammatory propaganda in its radio broadcasts to undermine U.S. reconstruction and security efforts. Its special operations personnel reportedly are active in both countries. At the same time, Iran has pledged more than $500 million in aid for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, and it already has sent business delegations to Baghdad. When one recognizes that different agencies have different agendas as a result of weak coordination or outright competition, the situation makes more sense.

Appearances to the contrary, Iranian foreign policy making is a rational process. However, it does not lend itself to the modeling favored by political scientists. The best way to understand Tehran’s actions and to predict what it will do in the future is to know how the system operates and to be thoroughly familiar with the individuals within the system.

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