Is Iran Revolutionary?

Assessing the true nature of Tehran's foreign policy

Raheb Homavandi/Reuters

Read critics of President Obama’s framework nuclear deal and you’ll find a lot of talk about Iran’s “revolutionary” foreign policy. Last Friday in The New York Times, David Brooks declared that, “President Obama’s deal with Iran is really a giant gamble on the nature of the Iranian regime. … Do they still fervently believe in their revolution and would they use their postsanctions wealth to export it and destabilize their region?” Last week in The Wall Street Journal, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz warned that, “Iran’s representatives (including its Supreme Leader) continue to profess a revolutionary anti-Western concept of international order.” Last month, in a column arguing for bombing Tehran, Joshua Muravchik warned that, “Iran aims to carry its Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond.”

The more you think about this, the less convincing it is. First, even if you assume that Iran’s foreign policy is “revolutionary,” that doesn’t tell you anything about the wisdom of the framework nuclear deal. The more revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy is, the less desirable it is for Iran to get a nuclear weapon. But both sides in the current debate want to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon; their argument is about whether the framework agreed to in Lausanne makes that prospect more or less likely. Stressing Iran’s revolutionary nature, in other words, doesn’t tell you whether to back the current negotiations. It just tells you the stakes are very high.

Second, there’s something odd about Brooks and Muravchik using “revolutionary” as an epithet. After all, it’s not Ayatollah Khamenei who sent hundreds of thousands of troops to overthrow an Arab regime in hopes of fomenting revolution across the Middle East. The world leader who did that was George W. Bush, with enthusiastic support from Brooks and Muravchik. Since then, neoconservatives have often criticized Obama for not pursuing revolution aggressively enough in Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Russia. Obviously, America’s revolutionary ideology is completely different from Iran’s. But that just underscores the point. Criticizing Iran for exporting tyranny or theocracy or terrorism makes sense. Criticizing it for exporting “revolution,” when you want America to export revolutions of its own, does not.

But most importantly, Iran’s foreign policy—while hardly benign—is a lot less revolutionary than critics like Brooks, Muravchik, and Kissinger suggest. Let’s start with Syria. One can say a lot of nasty things about Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad. But revolutionary it ain’t. Google defines “revolution” as the “forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” That’s what Saudi Arabia and Qatar want: to replace Assad with a Sunni-led government allied with them. It’s what ISIS wants: to erase Syria from the map and replace it with a caliphate. And it’s what Brooks and Muravchik presumably want: to replace Assad with a pro-American democracy.

Iran, by contrast, is backing a dictator who’s been in power for 15 years. It’s not seeking “the forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” That’s what it’s trying to prevent.

Iran’s policy in Iraq isn’t revolutionary either. In 2003, the country that brought revolution to Iraq was the United States. The Bush administration toppled Saddam Hussein and oversaw elections that brought Iraq’s Shiite majority to power. Since then, the U.S. has tried to keep the Shiites in power (since that’s what democracy requires) without letting them so alienate Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds that Iraq falls apart. That’s pretty much what Iran has done too—not because Iran’s leaders care about democracy, but because the Shiites are more pro-Iranian. The revolutionary forces in Iraq today are ISIS, which wants to turn Iraq into a caliphate, and in a far more benign sense, the Kurds, who want to create their own country.

Like the United States, Iran is trying to keep the post-Saddam order together. Although Tehran has at times fomented sectarian strife in Iraq, Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group reminded me that Iran has good relations with the Kurds, whom it has aided in their fight against ISIS. Iran also tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Iraq’s former president, Nouri al-Maliki, not to alienate his country’s Sunnis and thus spark civil war. In fact, the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, author of Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, told me that Iran was “the major restraining force on Maliki all through 2013. They were telling Maliki to back off, that he would drive Sunnis into outright rebellion. … The Obama administration excused [Maliki’s] behavior in outrageous ways. The Americans just wanted to paint Iraq as a success. The Iranians were the ones saying you’re screwing things up.”

Iran’s also not really a revolutionary force in Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, supports the mostly Sunni March 14 faction, which emerged in response to the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Iran certainly wants Hezbollah to exercise influence in the country. But one reason Lebanon has held together in recent years, despite predictions that it would follow Syria into civil war, is that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has pursued a revolutionary agenda there. To the contrary, both appear to have accepted that in order to keep Lebanon from splitting apart, they need to allow the other side’s proxies a seat at the table. In 2013, for instance, Iran and Hezbollah permitted a Saudi-aligned candidate, Tammam Salam, to become Lebanon’s prime minister. “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the U.S. are working to prevent the crisis in Lebanon from exploding,” Hilal Khashan, a political-science professor at the American University of Beirut, told the country’s Daily Star newspaper last fall.

To be fair, Iran’s foreign policy is more revolutionary in Yemen and Israel. In Yemen, Iran is funding and arming Houthi rebels seeking to replace the country’s former president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. But as Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations recently told NPR, “It’s not as if the Houthis were created by Iran, and further, it’s not as if the Houthis are being controlled by Iran. This is a group that is rooted in local Yemeni issues.” Simply backing the Houthi rebels may make Iran’s actions in Yemen technically revolutionary, but Tehran’s role in the conflict is still far less heavy-handed than that of Saudi Arabia, which is bombing its southern neighbor and blockading its ports.

Finally, Iran doesn’t want Israel to exist; that’s pretty revolutionary (not to mention ghastly). But even there, Iran is careful about the means it uses to pursue its revolutionary goals. It backs Hezbollah and, to a lesser degree, Hamas. Yet Iran doesn’t push its terrorist allies to go all out against Israel regardless of the consequences. In Pollack’s words, “we have not seen [the Iranians] pushing Hezbollah to do crazy things.” Iran wants Israel’s leaders to know that, via its proxies, it can bloody the Jewish state. But Iran also restrains those proxies so as not to allow its feud with the most powerful state in the Middle East to get out of hand. In January, for instance, an Israeli strike in Syria reportedly killed an Iranian general and the son of Hezbollah’s former military leader. According to Haaretz, Israel appealed to Iran for restraint, and Hezbollah limited its retaliation, thus keeping the conflict from spiraling out of control.

Iranian leaders may call their foreign policy “revolutionary,” just as American presidents claim U.S. foreign policy is always motivated by a belief in “freedom.” But while Iran certainly wants to reduce America’s influence in the Middle East—at least as long as Iran and the United States remain foes—that effort is guided more by power politics than messianic ideology. And rarely does Tehran act recklessly. It doesn’t topple regimes and start wars when there are less costly ways of achieving its goals. As nuclear negotiations proceed, that’s a principle that the United States—the advice of hawks like Brooks and Muravchik notwithstanding—would do well to follow itself.