Students wave Iranian national flags during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square, Iran, February 10, 2009. Photo Credit: Reuters/Raheb Homavandi
By: Emily Burchfield, Columnist
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which witnessed the overthrow of pro-Western Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s government and the ascendancy of the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini[i]. Beyond the internal transformation this event marked, the revolution radically changed Iran’s activities abroad and its posture toward its regional neighbors, and the United States. The legacies of the Islamic Revolution persist today in Iran’s security policy, visible in its use of proxies, involvement in civil wars in Yemen and Syria, and efforts to expand its influence. However, practical concerns about regime security, economic stressors, and geopolitics have overtaken Iran’s foreign policy, demonstrating how Iran uses ideology to disguise an insecure, realist defense policy[ii]. Looking at Iran’s security strategy in this light can help prevent a cycle of reactive and counterproductive policies in the United States, where anti-Iranian rhetoric has reached a fever pitch.
In the aftermath of the revolution, Khomeini and his Revolutionary Council consolidated and protected their gains by calling a successful referendum to establish an “Islamic Republic” and holding an election for the clerical-dominated Assembly of Experts, which would finalize the constitution that conferred ultimate authority to the religious leader. It was in this period that Khomeini also established the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), separate from the regular armed forces, to protect the Islamic Republic system from foreign interference, uprisings, and coups. Khomeini’s move to create a protective force proved prescient later on in July 1980, when a discovered coup plot launched a purge of the military by the IRGC. Iranian leadership would call on the IRGC again in September when Iraq, fearing revolutionary Iran would inspire a Shia uprising within its own borders, invaded Iran and set off a bloody eight-year conflict[iii].
Once the new regime consolidated in Iran and moved past the initial thrusts of war with Iraq, Tehran initiated undertakings abroad that have been interpreted as attempts to “export the revolution” and pursue Shia Islamic interests. Iran supported Islamist revolutionary groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, among other countries, mobilizing and recruiting Shia communities under IRGC commanders and sowing seeds of unrest. While revolutionary ardor and ideology certainly played a role, at least nominally, in these early affairs, Iran’s establishment of a network of proxies was likely also used to lock in the new regime’s security, tipping the balance of power in its favor by building support or sympathy within neighboring countries to deter acts of aggression[iv].
While Iran still attempts to spread its Shi’ism in the Middle East, Iran today has many more interests than spreading its ideology: domestic unrest over severe economic shortcomings, international isolation due to its human rights abuses and perceived aggressive posture, and public dissatisfaction with Iranian foreign expenditures in Syria and Iraq vocalized by throngs of Iranians in the recent waves of protests[v]. Recent polling data suggests that while the majority of Iranians still support these efforts, 41.8 percent strongly or somewhat agree that the government should spend less money in places like Syria and Iraq[vi]. Nonetheless, Iran values involvement in wars in Syria and Yemen, meddles in Iraqi politics, and supports proxies including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia militias throughout the region. This behavior cannot be explained by ideological or religious fervor alone, but also by the same anxieties about security felt by the new ruling elite in 1979.
Iran uses proxies and inserts itself in foreign wars to project power and to defend its national interests. Proxies provide an economical option for intelligence sharing, assistance with counterintelligence operations, counterterrorism, and power projection[vii]. They allow Iran to assert its influence and thus safeguard its security at little cost to its own people, and avoid a counter intervention by more powerful states, like the United States. Iran’s activities are difficult to counter both militarily, as they employ unconventional warfare to offset their deficiencies in military power; and economically, due to their extensive and murky financing networks. Tehran’s involvement in foreign wars also gives it a seat at the negotiating tables, which offsets its isolation. Its behavior abroad forces engagement.
The Iranian leadership likely sees its activities as defensive and in the interests of national security but cannot say so without conceding its own relative weakness. This could explain why Iran speaks about its behavior in revolutionary, Shia Islamic terms. Unfortunately, Iran’s defensive policies frequently translate into illegal aggression that provokes further anxiety in rival states, creating a security dilemma and a cycle of defensive action and overreaction. This is especially true for the United States, where members of the current Presidential administration have assumed an increasingly hawkish posture against Iran and its proxies and withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)[viii]. While it is the United States’ prerogative to counter illicit activities that threaten its national interests, threatening the Iranian regime’s security in rhetoric could feed into Tehran’s preexisting fears of foreign aggression and existential threats, triggering further “defensive” action.
Forty years on from the Islamic Revolution, Iran is still primarily concerned with security, but faces new challenges to it. Thus, a useful understanding of Iran’s current strategy requires looking beyond its ideological roots in the 1979 Revolution. Iran today deals with an economic crisis, international isolation and pariah status, and power politics. In the face of attack from within and without, Iran pursues regional influence for defensive purposes hiding behind an ideological mask. As a result, Iran continues to overextend itself in the region despite facing significant problems at home. An understanding of the security agenda behind Iran’s regional activities might help policymakers in the United States avoid reactions to Tehran’s fiery rhetoric and regional activities that may provoke more of this behavior from Iran.
[i] Suzanne Maloney and Keian Razipour, “The Iranian Revolution—A Timeline of Events,” Order from Chaos Blog, The Brookings Institution, January 24, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/24/the-iranian-revolution-a-timeline-of-events/.
[ii] Daniel Byman, Shahram Chubin, Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Jerrold Green, “Fundamental Sources of Iranian Foreign and Security Policies,” chap. 2 in Iran’s Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001).
[iii] Maloney and Razipour, “The Iranian Revolution—A Timeline of Events.”
[iv] Byman, Chubin, Ehteshami and Green, Iran’s Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era, 7-8.
[v] Sly, Liz. “Protests threaten Iran’s ascendant role in the Middle East.” The Washington Post. January 5, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/protests-threaten-irans-ascendant-role-in-the-middle-east/2018/01/04/86246e7e-994f-457b-a85b-f1eb76b71998_story.html?utm_term=.51634cb62b64.
[vi] Nancy Gallagher, Ebrahim Mohseni and Clay Ramsay, Iranian Public Opinion After the Protests. College Park: Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), July 2018, https://www.cissm.umd.edu/publications/iranian-public-opinion-after-protests.
[vii] Daniel Byman, “Why Engage in Proxy War? A State’s Perspective,” Lawfare Blog, The Lawfare Institution, May 21, 2018, https://www.lawfareblog.com/why-engage-proxy-war-states-perspective.
[viii] Mike Pompeo, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy” (speech, Washington, DC, May 21, 2018), U.S. Department of State, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/05/282301.htm.