With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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“Iran has to take a decision whether it wants to be a nation or a cause,” Henry Kissinger, former national security advisor and secretary of state, told David Ignatius of The Washington Post in 2006, emphasizing the tension between Iran’s national interests and the revolutionary ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979. As with other sapient Kissingerian pronouncements, the nation/cause dichotomy has since become a platitude in Washington, but to what extent is the security policy of the Islamic Republic a function of its revolutionary ideology?
While revolutionary ideology and the concept of “exportation of the revolution” indisputably was the primary driver in Iran’s security policy in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, and to some extent is still relied upon by certain institutions and individuals, a survey of five key indicators demonstrates remarkable continuity in Iran’s security policy since the early 1960s: Support for foreign militias, opposition to military presence of outside powers in the Gulf region, expeditionary warfare, and nuclear and missile programs were prominent features of Iran’s security policy under the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as well as under the Islamic Republic. These constants must therefore be seen as behavioral attributes of the modern Iranian state rather than a function of the revolutionary ideology of the Islamic Republic.
Under the aegis of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force, Lebanese Hezbollah, Shia Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, and Yemeni militias but at times also select Sunni armed groups such as the Tajiks of Afghanistan, and lately certain factions of the Pashtun Taliban, further Iran’s national security objectives while obfuscating Iranian involvement in foreign conflicts.
The Islamic Republic’s preference for using partners, proxies, and covert campaigns to intervene in regional affairs is often explained by invoking “limitations in its conventional military capabilities and a desire to maintain plausible deniability.” However, the historical roots of Iran’s support for foreign militias can be traced back to Tehran’s support for the Kurdish insurgency in Iraq in the 1960s and 70s, a time when Iran boasted of considerable conventional military capabilities.
Determined to coerce Iraq to accede to Iran’s definition of the border between the two countries along the Arvandroud/Shatt al-Arab waterway, yet unwilling to engage in a conventional war, Pahlavi provided limited but persistent support to Kurdish rebels. As the rebellion dragged on, an ever greater number of Iranian military advisors and intelligence officers in Kurdish garb operated in Iraqi Kurdistan. At times Iranian officers were aided by the Israeli Mossad and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. By 1974 Iranian planes and troops were increasingly involved in border incidents with Iraqi troops and were close to fighting directly with Iraqi forces. It was only after the signing of the March 1975 Algiers Accord that Iran effectively ceased its support for the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq.
Opposition to the military presence of extra-regional powers in the Gulf is another constant in Iran’s security policy. In his September 22, 2019 address commemorating the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “The Persian Gulf region’s security stems from within [the region], … Presence of outside forces in the region can be problematic.” Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York a few days later, Rouhani presented Iran’s “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” to secure “the maintenance of peace and stability in the Persian Gulf.” Rouhani’s proposal was largely ignored by Iran’s Arab neighbors, who hold the Islamic Republic responsible for various acts of sabotage in the Gulf of Oman since May 2019 and for the September 14, 2019 drone and cruise missile strikes against oil installations in Saudi Arabia.
Rouhani’s statement and peace initiative were echoes of the words and initiatives of the shah almost five decades ago. Receiving foreign journalists on January 16, 1972, Pahlavi said: “We have declared before that we would not want to see any foreign presence in the Gulf, England, the United States, or China – our policy hasn’t changed.” He continued: “I think the United States realizes it can’t be an international gendarme and that world stability should be assured by countries that can assume this responsibility in different regions.” The shah also offered a security arrangement of his own to littoral states of the Gulf, which was largely ignored by Arab neighbors, who had witnessed Iran’s military occupation of the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa islands on November 30, 1971.
While the shah advised the United States not to act as “an international gendarme,” he did not hesitate to take the responsibility of regional policing upon his own shoulders, which is the third constant in Iran’s security policy in modern times: expeditionary warfare.
Since 2003, the Islamic Republic has been involved in regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen with varying levels of military intervention. Iran’s intervention in Syria served the objective of securing the survival of the Assad regime, and thereby also maintaining the supply line from Iran to Lebanese Hezbollah. In Iraq, Iran deployed military advisors and some conventional ground forces to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In Yemen, Iran provides military support to the Houthis against the Saudi-led coalition.
The Islamic Republic’s present day expeditionary warfare is reminiscent of Iran’s participation in suppression of the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman (1972-79), and in a more limited fashion, in South Yemen (1972-75).
Gradually dominated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf and supported by the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the Dhofar Rebellion and the risk of collapse of the Omani monarchy were perceived by the shah as a threat to the entire region. The first Iranian shipment of military supplies arrived in Oman in August 1972 following a request in June from Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Small units of Iranian special forces began arriving at the end of 1972 and at the height of the conflict over 4,000 Iranian soldiers were serving in Dhofar. According to one estimate, at least 15,000 Iranian soldiers, sailors, and airmen were deployed to Oman between 1972 and 1979 with over 700 reportedly killed in combat. British, Iranian, Jordanian, Pakistani, and other allies secured the sultan’s throne, just as the Islamic Republic’s intervention in Syria secured the survival of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran’s controversial nuclear program is the fourth constant. Following the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic abandoned the nuclear program, which started in 1957, due to financial constraints and the hostility of revolutionary leaders to the policies of the previous regime. Later in the 1980s, the Islamic Republic restarted the nuclear program, partially to salvage the exorbitant investments already made and in part with an eye on the Iraqi invasion of Iran and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions. Less than forthcoming about its nuclear activities in the 1980s, the Islamic Republic has since been suspected of harboring nuclear ambitions of its own, much like the Pahlavi regime, which officially did not pursue a nuclear weapon strategy.
In his autobiographical “Mission for My Country,” the shah claimed Iran’s nuclear program was “for a future of prosperity and peace, not of war and devastation.” Iranian Foreign Minister Ardeshir Zahedi signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in July 1968, and the Iranian Parliament ratified it in February 1970. However, Iran’s official position was at times undermined by the shah’s public statements in the wake of India’s first nuclear test in May 1974. In a 1975 assessment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a CIA report concludes: “The Shah would like to move toward a position where he could eventually produce nuclear weapons on short notice if he believes it necessary.”
Finally, there appears to be a greater degree of continuity than change in Iran’s attempts at achieving self-sufficiency regarding cruise and ballistic missiles. The official historiography of the Islamic Republic consistently condemns the shah’s arms procurements from the United States, which made Iran dependent on foreign powers. Accordingly, this narrative traces the roots of Iran’s missile program to the eight-year war with Iraq (1980-1988), when Iran was incapable of retaliating in kind to Iraq’s systematic use of ballistic missiles against major population centers in Iran.
In reality, the Pahlavi regime established a modern indigenous arms industry. In order to reduce Iran’s total dependence on foreign suppliers for sophisticated weapons systems, the shah desired to coproduce late-model weaponry in Iran under license, mostly in conjunction with U.S. firms. In the face of U.S. denial of his request for Lance short-range surface-to-surface missiles, which Washington had already sold to Turkey in the spring of 1977, the shah approached Israel for the joint development of a ballistic missile capable of carrying conventional and nuclear warheads.
Thus, it is difficult to maintain the argument that an ideological cause is the main driver of the Islamic Republic’s security policy. More often than not, survival supersedes ideology, and the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic find themselves adhering to the constants in security policy of a predecessor they vilify.
is a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is the author of Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Demise of the Clergy and the Rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (2020).
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