Since Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid Empire in 625 B.C., Iran has stayed true to its imperial identity. Even the architects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution kept the country's ambitions to build a new empire alive, albeit with an Islamic political spin. In a 2014 essay in Foreign Affairs, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif left no room for doubt about the Islamic republic's aspirations for "a prominent regional and global role." And still today, the leaders of the country constantly remind foreign officials about its claim to cultural exceptionalism. Iran's leaders genuinely believe their state has emerged as one of the world's most powerful countries thanks to its perseverance and steadfastness, an attitude that comes across unmistakably in Iranian foreign policy.
Operating on Two Levels
From the onset of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini put Iran on a collision course with the United States, which he dubbed the "Great Satan." Khomeini set the standard for Iranian politicians, commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and diplomats alike to condemn U.S. foreign policy, especially with regard to their country and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet the strong and often inflammatory rhetoric of Khomeini and of his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is just one component of Iran's two-pronged foreign policy strategy. While the ayatollah and the IRGC issue bellicose statements against Israel, the United States and U.S. allies in the Arab world, the reform-minded government in Tehran takes a more diplomatic approach to international relations.
The two tactics complement each other. On the one hand, maintaining a discourse with foreign powers enables the Islamic republic to coexist with professed ideological rivals such as the United States without provoking an intervention that could jeopardize the clerical political order. On the other, maintaining its conflict with the United States enables Tehran to distinguish itself from what Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council calls "normal" powers "whose influence (is) determined solely by ... economic and military prowess."
Spreading the Revolution
That distinction is essential for Iran. With limited financial and military resources at its disposal, Tehran relies on its feud with Washington to raise its profile and secure allies abroad. One of the country's main objectives for the past four decades has been to export its revolutionary ideology throughout the Middle East. Khomeini's vision for the Islamic republic mandated the expansion of Iran's foreign policy to encompass the entire Arab region. To that end, the clerical leadership and the IRGC forged close ties with nonstate groups across the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Yemen's Houthi movement and Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces.
Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, well aware of Tehran's intentions, took every opportunity to remind the Arabs of the Persian Gulf region that Iraq was their resolute defender. But the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 removed the main hurdle blocking Iran's entry into the Arab region. The night before Houthi rebels captured the Yemeni capital in September 2014, Ali Reda Zankani — an Iranian lawmaker close to the supreme leader — addressed parliament to highlight that Sanaa was "the fourth Arab capital on its way to following the Iranian Revolution." A few months later on the revolution's 36th anniversary, the commander of the IRGC's Quds Force boasted, "We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain to Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa." Zarif confirmed Tehran's enduring commitment to expanding its influence in an essay for The Atlantic in October: "Arab affairs," he wrote, "are Iran's business. ... How can they not be?"
Spreading the Islamic revolution is inherent to its continued success, according to Zankani. And doing so, he says, requires Iran to prepare the Middle East for the transition by seizing on the chaos and corruption among the region's Sunnis, whom he considers dissenters from Islam. To advance its foreign policy agenda, Iran has taken advantage of the tumult that has beset the Middle East since the inception of the Arab uprisings in December 2010. The Islamic revolution's fulfillment is contingent on the continuation of violence, inter-Arab divisions and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Were it not for the turmoil in the Arab world, after all, the Iranian armed forces' chief of staff would have had no pretext for his proclamation in late 2016 that his country needed "distant bases," and that "it may become possible one day to have (naval) bases on the shores of Yemen and Syria." Simply put, Tehran doesn't want peace with its Arab neighbors unless they first recognize its hegemony.
Its objectives have as much to do with history as they do with perpetuating the revolution. Over the millenniums, the country, in its various iterations, has tried to extend its empire across the Arab world. Its failures in that pursuit stand as an affront to Iran's leaders, undermining the cultural and political prestige they ascribe to their state. Consequently, the desire to build an empire in the Middle East still pervades Iranian foreign policy. The Islamic republic sees Syria as the key to this endeavor, a foothold from which it can reach the entire Arab world.
But the burden of Iran's historical interactions with Arab nations in the region has made them wary of Tehran's advances. In fact, a backlash is building in the Middle East against Iran. The Saudi foreign minister, responding to the ballistic missile Houthis fired on Riyadh in November, warned his counterparts in the Arab League that "(s)howing leniency toward Iran will not leave any Arab capital safe" from such assaults. Furthermore, despite its spectacular gains in the Arab region in recent years, Iran's achievements there are tenuous. The war in Syria is drawing close to its end. And while Russia seems to have reached its objective in the country, gaining air and naval facilities there before moving on to help with the reconstruction effort, Iran's project in Syria is still far from complete. The end of the yearslong conflict threatens not only to interfere with Tehran's ambitions in the Middle East but also to reduce its stature as a prominent regional power.
Iran's leaders are operating under the assumption that the established international order is giving way to a multipolar system in which their country can carve out a niche for itself. Their logic, however, is flawed. What Tehran fails to understand is that no regional or global power — not Russia or the United States, let alone Israel — will ever accept the Islamic republic as an equal.