Since 1973 and the first oil shock, the center of gravity of Middle Eastern politics has been gradually shifting—from the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab-Israeli conflict toward the Persian Gulf and Iran. That process was accelerated in 1979 by the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which dramatically reduced the likelihood of another Arab-Israeli war, and the nearly simultaneous climax of the Iranian revolution, which replaced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with a radical theocratic regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Iran has long harbored ambitions to become the superpower of the Persian Gulf. That prospect is not as improbable today as in the past. In recent years, despite the severe constraints imposed by a chaotic internal situation, Iran has managed a complex and dangerous set of international relationships with boldness, sangfroid and a considerable measure of success.
Americans are prone to evaluate developments in Tehran from the perspective of U.S. concerns, particularly after the revelation of U.S. arms sales. The world as seen from Tehran, however, constitutes sets of interlocking circles of threats and interests in which the United States is important but far from paramount.
The most important circle of attention is the constantly shifting balance of power within the revolution itself. Second, and only slightly less important, is the war with Iraq. Every aspect of the war has both practical and ideological implications for the survival of the regime; it is the object of the most intense controversy and debate. Third is oil policy—production, pricing and distribution—which is intimately associated with Iran’s role in OPEC. For the most part, oil policy has not been a subject of political contention. Responsibility for management of the petroleum industry has been delegated to technicians who are essentially nonpolitical and nonideological. Iranian strategy in OPEC is apparently set by a small group of technocrats and political leaders at the very top of the power structure whose decisions, at least to date, have not been subject to serious public debate.
The fourth and fifth circles center on the two superpowers and their respective European allies, with the Soviet Union of more immediate and active concern than the United States. Sixth is Iran’s relations with the regional states of the Persian Gulf and Middle East, including Syria and Libya. These two states occupy a special role as important (though not entirely reliable) allies in the Arab camp. Finally there is the collection of more distant states or entities, such as the United Nations, the Islamic Conference, the Nonaligned Movement, Japan, China, Vietnam and African states, that may be important to Iran on certain issues but tend to be marginal players in Iran’s core concerns.
All of these circles overlap and interact. This analysis will focus on the domestic interests, which establish the baseline for all Iranian foreign policy behavior, including its war strategy; on relations with the two superpowers; and on Iran’s relations with its regional neighbors.
The one cardinal rule that the United States has learned—or should have learned—from its eight years of experience with revolutionary Iran, is that Iranian foreign policy is produced and conditioned by the hard imperatives of domestic politics in Tehran. The supreme goal of Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates is to assure the continuation of theocratic rule and to preserve the legitimacy of the new regime. They are playing for the highest of stakes—their own survival—a fact that focuses the mind wonderfully.
The first momentous encounter between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran—the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the imprisonment of its occupants for 444 days—is best understood not in foreign policy terms but rather, as Khomeini designated it, as the "second Iranian revolution." The event was exploited by Khomeini to rid himself of troublesome secular elements within his own government and to mobilize mass support for a radical transformation of the political structure and leadership of the country. In retrospect, it is apparent that the rhythm of the hostage crisis was attributable more to internal developments in Tehran than to anything the United States and the international community did or did not do.
The original hostage crisis provided compelling evidence of a leadership prepared to take extraordinary international risks in pursuit of its own domestic agenda. Khomeini demonstrated a cool and calculated ability to manipulate events for his own benefit and to function purposefully in the midst of political and economic tumult. The leadership in Tehran also displayed an appreciation for damage limitation, as when it quietly squelched calls for a hostage trial and expelled a hostage who was seriously ill in order to avoid probable U.S. retaliation. Moreover, when the crisis had served its purpose and the institutions of a suitably theocratic government were firmly in place, Tehran negotiated the safe release of the hostages on terms that cost the regime dearly, relinquishing its original demands for a U.S. apology and return of the shah’s assets.
In short, the leadership in Tehran showed itself to be exquisitely sensitive to its own internal priorities, immensely stubborn and tenacious in the face of nearly universal reproach, flexible and calculating in minimizing tactical damage to its own interests, and thoroughly pragmatic—even nonideological—when it determined that the game was no longer worth the candle.
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