Iran’s foreign policy: Between pragmatism and ideology

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Geopolitics appears to be entering into a new phase in the Middle East region. Although Iran’s role on geopolitical issues, more specifically on the fate of Syria, increased steadily during Obama administration, it seems that Trump will reverse policies adopted by the previous administration. This appears to be aimed at reducing Iranian influence in the region.

Furthermore, in case a conservative candidate wins the presidential elections scheduled to be held in May, 2017, Iran’s isolation will probably go to the next level. Yet Iran continues to have considerable influence in the region. Its place in world politics are relative to the following factors as they shape the country’s foreign policy

- Geopolitical situation: Iran’s energy reserves and its location on strategic points for the transportation
- The country’s ideology: Shiite expansionism and Persian nationalism
- Heterogeneous ethnic structure: Iran tries to keep pressure on ethnic groups, especially Azeri minorities that are 20 percent of total population. This population is perceived as the main threat to the unity of the country.

Shiite ideology has important place within Iranian Foreign Policy conception. Although, it emerged as its radical form after the revolution, but Shiite geopolitics has existed since the formation of Safavids during 16th century. The percentage of Shiite people in Iran is about 90 percent of the population (CIA Factbook).

Shiite expansionism

Shiite Sectarian project became a central position shaping its foreign policy after the revolution. Iran tried to expand its ideology across Islamic countries, a process which came to be known as Shiite expansionism.

Furthermore, Iran tried to build strong relations with Shiite minorities of other countries. So, the foundations of cold relations between Sunni Gulf countries and Iran began with these attempts. Even now, these countries see threat for their territorial integrity of Iran’s Shiite expansionism policies.

After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the sectarian element has gained importance and Shiite ideology has influenced almost all decisions of Iranian policymakers. After coming power with revolution, new regime defined itself as a supporter and security provider for all “Muslim People”, but practically seems to be applied for only Shiite groups.

Furthermore, New Islamic regime has begun to follow “regime export” policy to increase its influence in the region. Additionally, it should be noted that Persian nationalism has significant role in Iran’s foreign policy. Thus, to be evaluated foreign policy of Islamic Republic of Iran, Shiite sectarian and Persian nationalism should be taken into account together.

An Iranian woman crosses a street in the capital Tehran on April 23, 2017. (AFP)
An Iranian woman crosses a street in the capital Tehran on April 23, 2017. (AFP)

Strategic partner

Post-World War II period, Soviet threat forced Western powers to make close ties with Turkey. Turkey has been defined as a strategic partner of the Western powers against Soviet threat and so it played its role successfully against regional threats. This “strategic partnership” attitude of West regarding Turkey has been continuing till today.

After disintegration of Soviet Union, Turkey’s importance for the west remained unchangeable while the direction shifted to other threats. Furthermore, Gulf countries are also valuable partners of the US-led Western alliance.

Just like other regional actors, Iran also has been seeking to gain influence in the region, with Islam as the dominant religion and Shiism as dominant sect. However, when geopolitical interests clash with the commitments to “Islamic solidarity”, Tehran almost always selects its interests rather than religion.

Thus, Iran’s attitudes toward Assad regime and other Shiite minority groups in the region are far from Iran’s ideology-based perception of current regional issues. Instead, Iran looks to regional issues pragmatically and uses ideology as a tool to reach its goals. It seems obvious in Iran’s attitude toward Azerbaijan, in which the most part of society has Shiite identity.

Azeri relations with Iran are often tense. During the Nagorno-Karabakh war Iran supported Armenia and accused Azerbaijan of increasing separatism among Azeri minority of Iran, which makes up to 25 million population of Iran. Thus, we come to the result that in Iran’s foreign policy, pragmatism is the dominant philosophy rather than ideology.

Furthermore, motivations related to Persian nationalism are witnessed more than reactions based on religious sensitivity. Shiite ideology just serves to consolidate groups with Shiite identity under Iran’s leadership to serve as a tool to make Iran an influential actor in the region.
Bayram Aliyev- Faculty Member of Political Science Department at the Western University of Azerbaijan. He can be reached via his LinkedIn address: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bayrama.