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Iran: Foreign Policy Follows New Course

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the 20 years since the Islamic Revolution, Iran's foreign policy has moved from seeking to export a revolutionary ideology to the pragmatic pursuit of its national and economic interests.

Just a decade ago, Iran was isolated and at odds with virtually every country in its region and in the international community. Arab states feared its radical brand of Islamic government enough to help Baghdad battle Tehran for eight years. European nations, along with the United States, accused Tehran of backing international terrorist groups and sought to isolate it.

But today many analysts say that Tehran is actively pursuing d�tente with most of the world and has been largely welcomed back into the international community. The biggest exception is Tehran's relationship with Washington, which remains frozen despite signs that some parties in both camps are ready for better ties.

Gary Sick, an expert on Iranian relations at Columbia University in New York and a member of the U.S. National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter, says the evolution of the Islamic Republic's foreign policy from ideology to pragmatism began in the final years of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war as Tehran sought international support to broker an end to the fighting.

"It really began changing at the time of the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the negotiation of UN Resolution 598 that ended the Iran-Iraq War. This set off a huge debate internally in Iran about whether they should rely only on themselves and fight on forever against Iraq or whether there was an international solution ... and that was the turning point on Iran going from a position of total isolation to saying there are occasions when it is in our best interest as an Islamic state to work with the international community."

Sick says that then-Iranian President Ali-Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani started the process of moving Iran away from the highly ideological tone of the early revolution. The process strengthened with the election of moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

Tehran has mended its relations with the Arab world to the point that today it chairs the Islamic Conference Organization, which groups 55 Arab and Muslim countries. Tehran has yet to sign a peace treaty with Iraq, but has established sufficient ties to exchange prisoners-of-war and permit Iranian pilgrims to visit Shiite shrines in southern Iraq.

Many observers once expected Iran to actively promote Islamic revolutions in the new states of Central Asia. But analysts say that Tehran's relations with the region's secular governments today seem more guided by economic than ideological concerns.

Gary Sick said: "Instead of taking an ideological approach that would put them at odds with all these new governments, Iran has pursued its own interests in attempting to develop working relationships with them even where they clearly disagree. The new states to the north are not particularly Islamic, they are not even particularly sympathetic to Islam and they continue to fight Islamic movements within their own societies [but] Iran (has) chosen to overlook that."

Iran's primary aim now appears to be to exploit its strategic position between the Middle East and Central Asia and to become the region's chief trade route. A key factor is Caspian Sea energy, which Tehran hopes will move to market at least partially through Iran. Such a route is attractive to some regional governments but is opposed by Washington, which maintains Iran under sanctions.

Iran was once expected to try to rival Turkey for influence in Central Asia but that has not happened. Tehran's relations with Turkey itself, however, remain problematic. Iran objects to Turkey's secular form of government and its military alliance with Israel. But in a sign of pragmatism, trade between Iran and Turkey continues to grow.

Looking westward, Iran has increasingly sought in recent years to patch up relations with the European Union. European fears of terrorism were fueled as recently as 1992 by the assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin, which Germany said was ordered by the highest levels of the Iranian government. But the election of Khatami and a statement by the Iranian government last year that it will not carry out an Islamic death sentence on British writer Salman Rushdie have warmed relations. Last year saw a stream of ministers and other dignitaries from EU states visiting Tehran as both sides stated their desire for better economic ties.

But as Iran's links with most countries have improved dramatically over the past 20 years, relations between Iran and the U.S. remain much the same. Washington broke off diplomatic ties after militants took its embassy staff in Tehran hostage in 1979 to protest the admission of the deposed Shah into the United States for medical treatment.

Since Khatami's election, there have been signs that Iran's moderates are ready to improve relations with Washington. Early last year, Khatami called for greater cultural exchanges between the two sides and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright responded by urging development of a road map to better relations. But the overtures were derailed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who later called Albright's offer, to quote, a political gimmick.

Many analysts say that relations between Iran and the United States are moving in a positive direction. But they say progress will be slow and uncertain because strong conservative elements on both sides oppose change.

Gary Sick explained: "You have a parallel problem on both sides. On the Iranian side you have people who are committed revolutionaries who believe that the whole purpose of the revolution was to cut away any ties with the United States ... In the US, because of the hostage crisis and the politics of hostility the US has pursued especially over the last five or six years, there is a very strong sense particularly in the Congress ... of opposition to any kind of opening to Iran."

Sick says that by the standards of many revolutions, Iran's Islamic Revolution has matured surprisingly quickly in its foreign policies toward most states. Twenty years after the French Revolution, he observes, Napoleon Bonaparte was waging war throughout Europe. Since Khomeini's death in 1989, no such figure to carry the Islamic revolution abroad by force has emerged and Iran's interests now have turned to regional leadership and retaking its place in the world community instead.

(This concludes the three-part series on the 20th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.)