Iran and the “War on Terror”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

Hostility between Iran on the one hand and the United States, as well as several of its allies (especially Israel), on the other is something that began long before the “War on Terror.” Shortly after the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran sought to export its brand of revolution through supporting Shia radicals in the Arab Gulf states as well as Lebanon, and (after Iraq attacked it in 1980) by attempting to oust Saddam Hussein and replace his secular Arab nationalist regime with an Islamic revolutionary one. None of these efforts resulted in a Shia radical regime coming to power anywhere else, as the Iranian revolutionaries hoped when they first came to power. Tehran, though, has continued to provide varying degrees of support to radical Islamic forces, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Sunni radical regime that rose to power in Sudan in 1989, and Hamas in the Israeli occupied Arab territories.

Yet in addition to this revolutionary, ideological aspect of Iranian foreign policy, the Islamic Republic has also displayed a pragmatic, realpolitik aspect — especially after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, when Tehran had to face the challenges posed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the fierce conflict that emerged between Orthodox Christian Armenia and Shia Azerbaijan, Iran favored the former. Tehran also worked with Moscow to resolve the 1992-97 Tajik civil war on terms more favorable to the ex-communists backed by Moscow and not the “democratic Islamic” opposition. Tehran also worked with Moscow from the time the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996 until after 9/11 in supporting the Northern Alliance to prevent the Taliban from taking over all of Afghanistan. Tehran even cooperated with Washington in the initial stages of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001. Iran, of course, is also a major petroleum exporter; just as before the 1979 Revolution, it has been willing to sell oil to almost any country. (The United States, of course, does not import Iranian oil, but this is due to U.S. —and not Iranian — government regulations.)

Ayatollah Khomeini’s ambition was that the Iranian Revolution would spark an Islamic revolutionary wave that would spread across the entire Muslim World and even beyond. In his vision, Iran would be at the center of wave; adherence to either the Sunni or the Shia branches of Islam would be far less important than adherence to Iranian revolutionary Islam or to an inferior “American” Islam (which, Khomeini claimed, the government of Saudi Arabia practiced). But however much Sunni radicals may have been inspired by the Iranian Revolution to attempt Islamic revolution elsewhere, it soon became clear that they did not acknowledge the Iranian ayatollahs or Iran as having any authority over them. Indeed, with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s in neighboring Afghanistan, it became clear that radical Sunni Islamists could not only be anti-Western, but also anti-Shia and anti-Iranian. Indeed, the Taliban (and later al-Qaeda) espoused an Islamic revolutionary ideology that competed with Tehran’s. Further, the spread of this competing Sunni radical Islamic revolutionary ideology would not only challenge Iran’s claim to lead the transnational Islamic revolutionary movement, but could even threaten Iran itself if the Sunni radicals acted upon their anti-Shia pronouncements.

Yet, despite the anti-Iranian and anti-Shia statements and even actions of the Sunni radicals, Iran has clearly not yet felt threatened enough by them to come asking the United States for help against their common foe. In fact, since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of Iran in 2005, Iranian foreign policy has been much more belligerent toward the Untied States and Israel than under the previous president, Mohammed Khatami.

Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has defied not just America, but also the UN Security Council on the nuclear issue (Tehran claims to be working on an exclusively peaceful nuclear program, while Washington — as well as others — fears that it is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons). As mentioned previously, Iran is also supporting (to varying degrees) various Shia groups in Iraq, Hezbollah, Hamas, and even the Taliban. Some claim that Tehran is also supporting the Houthis (a Shia opposition group in Yemen), but it is not clear that it is actually doing so. Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s “Bolivarian socialist” leader, Hugo Chavez, have also declared great plans to work together in order to defy the United States. Yet, at the same time, Ahmadinejad has continued the pragmatic aspect of Iranian foreign policy through cooperating in various ways with other governments. Indeed, while many countries have nominally agreed to the U.S. government’s call for economic sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue, corporations in many of them continue to do business with Iran. Finally, and most curiously, Hamid Karzai — the president of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan — has admitted to receiving “bags” of money from Tehran.

Iran’s actions, then, are confusing. It supports Shia radicals and even some Sunni radicals elsewhere, but also works with and even supports some of America’s allies. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran supports groups that oppose each other. What is the Iranian government attempting to accomplish through such a policy?

This is not a question that can be answered definitively by outside observers — or perhaps even by the Iranian leadership itself. Instead of one integrated foreign policy, Tehran may be pursuing many different foreign policies toward different countries, or even different groups within a specific country. Perhaps this is the result of a pragmatic effort to work with whoever is willing to work with Tehran. Or perhaps the pursuit of divergent foreign policies is the result of infighting among various interest groups within the Islamic Republic (Iran would not be the only country to experience this phenomenon.). But if there is an overall coherence to Iranian foreign policy, and Tehran deliberately pursues contradictory aims and supports opposing parties, then two overarching explanations of Tehran’s foreign-policy aims are possible.

The first explanation is that Tehran is pursuing an extraordinarily Machiavellian policy that aims to win over and control not only the region’s various radical Islamic groups but also Tehran’s ideological antagonists as well as America’s Muslim allies in the region (especially in Afghanistan and Iraq) through aiding them all — with the ultimate aim of displacing the United States as the predominant great power in the Middle East.

The second explanation is that Tehran is pursuing far more defensive aims. Its support for Hamas and Hezbollah in particular are aimed at competing with Al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni movements in projecting a “positive” revolutionary image of Iran to the Arab world in particular. The message Iran is attempting to convey is this: “Since Iran supports the ‘just cause’ of both Hamas and Hezbollah, Sunni radicals should not attack Iran or Iranian interests — and Sunni Arabs should not support those groups that do.” At the same time, Iran is working with or supporting its ideological opponents, and even some U.S. allies, in order to give them an incentive not to undertake or support actions harmful to Tehran.

Which of these explanations is correct? The answer to this question will become much clearer as the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan. After the United States leaves Iraq, will the various Shia groups there be grateful to Iran for how much it helped each of them? Or will they be resentful that Tehran didn’t support them even more and that it supported its rivals as well? After the United States leaves Afghanistan, will the Taliban be grateful to Iran for its recent support? Or will the Taliban revert to its pre-9/11 policy of targeting Iran and Iranian interests—this time with the aid of the arms, money or whatever else it recently received from Tehran? And if Iran does indeed find itself increasingly at odds with various Islamic radical actors, will Hamas and Hezbollah be willing or able to help Iran against them?

The answers to these questions are not at all clear, even to Tehran. The situation that Iran is in now, though, is reminiscent of the situation that China was in the late 196’s and early 1970s. While the United States was heavily involved in Indochina, Beijing had hostile relations with both Washington (its ideological foe) and Moscow (its erstwhile ideological ally). China appears to have genuinely feared both. But as it became clear that the United States would withdraw from Indochina (and then actually did so), Beijing came to regard Washington not only as less of a threat than, but also as a potential ally against Moscow.

Just as the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina intensified the Sino-Soviet competition, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan may well serve to intensify the competition between Iran on the one hand and al-Qaeda, the Taliban, other Sunni radical groups, and perhaps even some Shia radical groups on the other. There is no guarantee, of course, that this will happen. But with the United States withdrawing from these two countries and appearing to become weaker, it becomes more likely that radical Islamic actors will focus more and more on their internecine struggle for leadership of the transnational Islamic radical movement.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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