In the fall of 1985, R.K. Ramazani, a historian at the University of Virginia, urged in an article in Foreign Policy that the United States “bury the hatchet” with Iran and seek a reconciliation with the Islamic Republic. He emphasized, of course, the strategic importance of improving relations with a country of over 45 million people that borders on the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey. More important, he detected a new and more pragmatic direction in Iran’s foreign policy. This moderating trend, he believed, provided the opening for an American initiative. He felt that exploiting this opening should be a matter of some urgency. “America’s failure to temper its containment policy [toward Iran],” he wrote, “could destroy any chance for exploring any opportunity for reconciliation that may already exist.”1

Ironically, at the very time Mr. Ramazani was making his plea, the Reagan administration was taking the first tentative steps to establish contact with Iranian officials. That initiative, we now know, turned out very badly. While there is much to be said in favor of talks between the US and Iran, the Reagan administration’s approach to Iran was ineptly handled. Aside from the domestic effects of this much publicized affair, the bungled initiative suggests, at the very least, a misreading of the play of politics in Iran itself.

It is on the Iranian side of this equation that Mr. Ramazani’s book, which elaborates the argument of his Foreign Policy article, is particularly useful. He provides an account of the ideology, practice, and evolution of Iran’s foreign policy since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. He believes this policy must be seen in its regional setting, and examines the reaction of the neighboring states and the countries of the Middle East to the Iranian revolution. Hence the “challenge and response” of his book’s subtitle.

The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic, from the beginning, displayed a mixture of revolutionary zeal and pragmatic calculation. It dramatically reversed some of the foreign policies pursued under the Shah and continued others. Iran broke off relations with Israel and South Africa. Relations with the United States grew strained and then cracked after American hostages were taken in November 1979. A mood of national and Islamic assertiveness and a strong reaction against foreign influence led most Western businessmen and technicians to leave the country.

Clerics associated with Iran’s religious leaders toured the Persian Gulf states preaching revolution and Khomeini’s message of Islamic militancy. To the consternation of the foreign ministry, one senior cleric, Ayatollah Sadeq Ruhani, revived the Iranian claim to Bahrain and warned its ruler he would have him overthrown if he did not treat his people with more consideration. Iran’s first president, Abolhasan Bani-Sadr, predicted the conservative regimes of the Gulf would be “swept away like dust in the wind” once their peoples followed the Iranian example.

Iraq’s invasion of Iran greatly exacerbated this radical temper. When he sent his divisions into Iran in September 1980, the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, believed he could stimulate the overthrow of the revolutionary government, seize Iranian territory, and establish Iraqi primacy in the Gulf region. This proved to be a colossal blunder. The invasion allowed Ayatollah Khomeini and his lieutenants to unite a deeply divided country against a foreign enemy, to rebuild the badly weakened armed forces, and to expand the Revolutionary Guards considerably. The Guards today constitute one of the pillars of the regime’s authority.

The war also exacerbated Iran’s relations with the Arab states of the Gulf, who felt called upon to extend material, financial, and diplomatic support to Iraq. It pushed Iran to cement ties with two radical Arab states, Libya and Syria. Syria remains Iran’s most important Arab ally. The war also reinforced the inclination of some elements of the Iranian regime to attempt to subvert the Gulf states. Iran, in the first of what was to become a string of similar allegations, was accused of supporting a plot to overthrow the government of Bahrain in December 1981.

Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, Iran dispatched a contingent of several hundred Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon to help fight the Israelis. It used its presence in Lebanon and its connection with the Shi’ite community there in a number of ways. Circumstantial evidence linked Iran to the bombing of the American embassy and American and French military barracks in Beirut in 1982 and 1983. Iran used Islamic propaganda and a network of sympathetic clerics to extend the Iranian presence from the Bekáa Valley southward to areas up to now dominated by Nabih Berri’s more moderate Amal Shi’ite movement.

Iran’s new rulers gradually evolved an ideology that served as both the rationale and impetus for their ambitious foreign policy. A central feature of this ideology, which Mr. Ramazani describes in one of his many excellent chapters, is the concept of Iran as a “redeemer state,” the champion of the world’s mustaz’afin, or disinherited classes, in their struggle against the mustakberin, the powerful classes or the oppressor states. Iran, according to the prime minister, Mir-Hussein Musavi, is destined to spread justice throughout the world and make possible “the liberation of mankind.” The Iranian nation must grow in power and resolution, Ayatollah Khomeini has said, “until it has vouchsafed Islam to the entire world.”


This struggle of the disinherited against the powerful and the exploiters is aimed at the United States and the Soviet Union, and at great power domination of the Islamic world. The slogan “neither East nor West” implies not merely neutrality between the superpowers but the creation of an Islamic movement powerful enough to stand up to them both. Iran’s revolution itself, Iran’s leaders believe, will not be secure until Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states throw off American protection and have regimes that, like Iran’s, are nonmonarchical, populist, Islamic, and dominated by the clerical establishment.

This world view helps to explain Iran’s commitment to exporting revolution. Against Iraq, in Khomeini’s view, Iran is involved in a defensive war with an idolatrous regime that poses a threat to Islam itself. Elsewhere, the export of the revolution is to be achieved, Ramazani writes, not by the sword but by example, propaganda, and the creation of institutions that can promote Iran’s Islamic vision.

Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, has energetically supported the idea that the hajj, the great annual pilgrimage that last year brought some two million pilgrims to Mecca, must serve a political rather than a primarily religious purpose. It is to be used, he has said, to forge Islamic unity, to oppose the great powers, and to permit Muslims “to express their grievances against their ruthless oppressors,” that is, against their own leaders. In 1983 Iranian pilgrims in Mecca participated in demonstrations that appeared to be directed as much against the Saudi state as against the US and the Soviet Union. Ayatollah Khomeini responded to Saudi protests by advising Saudi leaders themselves to use the hajj for political purposes so that they “would have no need for America, AWACS planes, or other superpowers.” Iran has also created institutions such as the World Congress of Friday Leaders, to promote Islamic unity. Ayatollah Khomeini told delegates to the 1984 congress to return to their countries and “call upon the people to rebel as Iran did.”

Ramazani stresses, however, that all this reflects only one aspect of Iran’s postrevolution foreign policy. First, behind the revolutionary rhetoric, one can discern the continuity of Iran’s traditional security concerns, for example in the Persian Gulf. The government of the Ayatollah, like the government of the Shah, seeks to underwrite Iranian security in the Gulf by securing recognition for Iran’s primacy in the region, by maintaining control of vital sea lanes, and by preserving a military edge. “The Shah used to insist on the preservation of Iran’s expanding ‘security perimeter,’ ” Ramazani writes, “and the Khomeini regime insists on spreading Iran’s ‘security umbrella.’ ” Between 70 and 80 percent of Iran’s imports continue to come from Western Europe and Japan. Relations with the Soviet Union are “correct” but the clerics share the traditional Iranian suspicion of the USSR. In February 1985, presumably on the strength of information about Soviet agents working in Iran provided by Vladimir Kuzichkin, a Soviet agent who had defected to England, the government arrested the leaders and over one thousand members of the Tudeh (Communist) party, and later expelled eighteen Soviet diplomats from the country.

Second, Iran has shown a streak of pragmatism and good sense even in periods when the radical strain seemed strongest at Tehran. Thus both Iran and Saudi Arabia acted to prevent the expansion of the Iran-Iraq war to neighboring states: “The mutual restraint between Saudi Arabia and Iran reflected the fact that the ideological conflict between the two countries was tempered significantly by a perceived mutuality of interest.”

Third, external pressures and internal difficulties, especially during the last two and a half years, led officials to blunt the more radical features of Iran’s foreign policy. Despite leaks in the arms embargo imposed by the US, Iran had considerable difficulty in obtaining the weapons it needed for its war with Iraq. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, adopted what Mr. Ramazani aptly describes as a policy of “containment…by conciliation, disapprobation, and deterrence” toward Iran.

At home, the war with Iraq, along with falling oil prices and general disorganization, greatly exacerbated economic problems and fed public dissatisfaction. Already in 1984, the government, facing a shortage of foreign exchange, sharply curtailed imports. Its problems grew more severe in 1986 when oil revenues probably amounted to only $6 billion, or half the previous year’s level. Food rations have been tightened, gasoline rationing has been introduced, and factories have been shut or put on short shifts for a lack of spare parts and raw materials.


Iranian air defenses have proved more vulnerable to Iraqi aerial bombing, which inflicted severe damage on refinery and oil export facilities in 1986. This development explains Iran’s recent eagerness to obtain spare parts for its Hawk missiles, even if from the “Great Satan.”

Signs of war weariness and public dissaffection have also been evident. Antigovernment demonstrations broke out in working-class districts of Tehran in April 1985, partly to protest the government’s inability to protect civilian areas from Iraqi aerial bombing. This summer, representatives of the cabinet and of the influential Association of the Seminary Teachers of Qum separately urged Khomeini to seek a nonmilitary solution to the war. He turned both groups down. In August, the former prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, now in the opposition but allowed a limited degree of freedom, issued an open letter to Khomeini. He described Khomeini’s insistence on prosecuting the war against Iraq as a formula for the destruction of the country’s youth and its economy.2

Such internal and external difficulties explain the government’s attempt beginning some two years ago, and in the face of opposition from hard-line elements, to break out of its diplomatic isolation. In October 1984, Khomeini gave this attempt his blessing, and said failure to establish normal relations with foreign states could mean “defeat, annihilation, and burial.” The West German minister was told in a visit to Tehran in 1984 that Iran desired expanded relations with the West. Iran sought to distance itself from terrorist acts in the Middle East. It refused to cooperate with the hijackers who in December 1984 flew a Kuwaiti aircraft to Tehran and demanded the release of political prisoners in Kuwaiti jails. It used its good offices to help secure the release of Americans taken hostage after the hijacking of a TWA flight to Beirut in June 1985. Earlier this year, Iran offered to resume shipments of natural gas to the Soviet Union, which were halted over a price dispute in 1979. The government resolved a longstanding financial claim with France; and in OPEC it has made common cause on oil policy with its old rival, Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Ramazani has such developments in mind when he speaks of an “emerging realism” in Iranian foreign policy. In a passage that succinctly expresses the central thesis of his book, he writes:

With respect to every major issue, including the war with Iraq, Iranian policy has consistently contained elements of self-restraint, pragmatism, and even, occasionally, helpfulness. The revolutionary regime’s bark has been worse than its bite, its rhetoric more strident than its actions, its declared policies more belligerent than its intentions.

This catches nicely the mixture of ideology and pragmatism, bravado and realism, that has characterized Iranian foreign policy over the last three years. Despite the easing of relations between Iran and some of the Western European states, Mr. Ramazani, I think, minimizes the difficulties, on the Iranian side, of opening a dialogue with the US; for the “Great Satan” remains a special case. Moreover, having so forcefully delineated the ideological underpinnings of Iranian foreign policy, Mr. Ramazani might have said more on the strains arising from the gap between Iranian ideology and practice. Khomeini remains highly suspicious of America. There are elements hostile to the US among the senior clerics and in the Revolutionary Guards and the Revolutionary Committees. However pressed by war and economic difficulties, the government cannot afford to alienate constituencies in these powerful organizations. For seven years the public has been fed a steady diet of anti-American rhetoric. Any sudden reversal of policy would sorely test the government’s credibility.

Khomeini and his lieutenants believe the influence they have gained among Shi’ites in Lebanon and Muslims elsewhere derives from Iran’s uncompromising stand against Israel and the US; and thus while the general drift of Iran’s recent foreign policy is unmistakable—a point Ramazani argues with eloquence—the road to improved foreign relations, especially with the US, will be rocky and erratic. Nevertheless, he has written with sparkling clarity on a difficult subject, and with both passion and objectivity on an issue which, for both Iranians and Americans, is still laden with much emotional baggage. The book went to press before revelations of American arms transfers to Iran captured the headlines. But it provides the perspective from which one can make better sense of recent developments.

The Reagan administration has variously described its Iran initiative as an attempt to establish contact with “moderates” in the Khomeini regime; to put the US in a better position to deal with the post-Khomeini period; to counter Soviet influence in Tehran; to persuade Iran to refrain from supporting terrorism and to assist in regaining US hostages; and to help end the Iran-Iraq war. Several difficulties undermine these explanations. Saudi and Israeli arms dealers appear to have been central both in initiating contacts between the Iranians and Americans, and, along with an Iranian arms dealer, in acting as intermediaries between them—not promising auspices for serious negotiations on matters apart from arms sales. Most of these men, notwithstanding their claims to the contrary, were concerned primarily with personal profit, yet the US had to rely on them for insight into the politics of the Iranian leadership and its aims in entering discussions. It was these men who presumably led McFarlane to make his ill-judged trip to Tehran. If the US wanted a dialogue with Iranians, it might more reasonably have worked through Pakistan or Turkey, or its European allies, some of whom maintain excellent relations with the Islamic Republic. The exchange of arms for hostages came to dominate the relationship and at some stage the arms sales took on the added and wholly extraneous purpose of funneling money to the contras in Nicaragua.

Administration officials have also displayed more confusion than clarity regarding the “moderates” with whom they claimed to be in contact on the Iranian side. Mr. McFarlane has sometimes spoken as if these “moderates” were dissidents within the regime, risking their lives to make contacts with Americans, and preparing themselves for the post-Khomeini power struggle.

If such dissidents did exist, it would be the height of irresponsibility to speak of them so often and so publicly. The landscape of the Iranian revolution is strewn (sometimes literally) with the bodies of men who were believed to be friends of the US. Nor does it make sense to talk as if the United States has the means to inject itself into domestic Iranian politics and to influence the shape of the power structure that would emerge after Khomeini.

Shipments of arms could not regularly come into Iran without the knowledge and concurrence of a number of senior officials, nor could large amounts of funds to pay for them go out. Thus, whether in arms sales or in talks about other matters, American officials were dealing with the Iranian government. Within this government, of course, there are men with a variety of political views. If the US is to deal with Iran, it must have a more informed idea of the nature of this government, the role and inclinations of the people within it, the manner in which it works and makes decisions, and its relations to Ayatollah Khomeini. This calls for close observation of Iranian politics. It requires probing discussions with Iranian officials, if not directly then through reliable intermediaries, rather than arms merchants of questionable motives and dependability. The vexed question of arms sales could then be examined with respect to America’s broader goals, Iran’s ultimate war aims, Iraq’s continuing access to sophisticated weapons, and the increasing tendency of the Baghdad regime to use its arms to bomb civilian and economic targets in Iran.

When the arms transfer story first became known, it was apparent that not only the American press, and particularly television, but American officials themselves had not been paying much attention to Iran for a number of years. Now, with national attention concentrated on the domestic repercussions of the Iranian arms deal and the contra connection. Iran once again appears virtually forgotten. Yet developments in Iran bear watching, for there has been considerable if guarded discussion in Iran about the wisdom, or desirability, of contacts with the US. And the outcome of that debate is relevant to US interests.

In Iran, with its controlled press, the story of the arms shipments has not aroused much furor. Iranian officials have persistently denied that they sought official contact with the US, that they held any high level negotiations with American representatives, or even that they bought arms directly from the US. The denials are even more vehement with regard to Israel; for while the US is only the “Great Satan,” Israel does not theoretically have the right to exist. Iran’s leaders have simply sought to portray the entire affair as a victory for Iran. McFarlane’s visit to Iran, and President Reagan’s radio-TV address, in which he described the Iranian revolution as a fact of history, have been treated as a recognition of the importance of Iran and its revolution.

Ayatollah Khomeini described Mr. McFarlane as a kind of humble pleader at the Iranian court: “They want to ask forgiveness and our nation does not want to accept,” he said in a speech on November 20. “All the big states are in a race to establish relations” with Iran. He described the White House as a “Black House” whose inhabitants are full of “humility” and “trembling” at the mess they have created. 3

Yet conflicting voices are emerging from Tehran. The prime minister ruled out any negotiations with the “criminal” US, and senior officials roundly denounced Americans. But the powerful speaker of parliament, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, repeated late in November, and again in December Iran’s offer to use its influence with groups holding American hostages in Lebanon in exchange for access to some $480 million in Iranian funds blocked by the US and to arms purchased and paid for under the Shah but whose delivery was prohibited by presidential order. This suggests the Islamic Republic still wants US arms, although the government is having some difficulty explaining this to its own public. It also suggests Khomeini continues to trust Rafsanjani to negotiate for these arms through intermediaries. Whether he would also permit more extensive discussions remains to be seen.

There have also been signs of disaffection. Even before the McFarlane story broke, in early October, Ayatollah Khomeini created a sensation in Iran by allowing the arrest of Mehdi Hashemi, the head of the Revolutionary Guards unit responsible for supporting liberation movements abroad. Hashemi is also a relative of Khomeini’s probable successor, Ayatollah Hussein-‘Ali Montazeri a long standing proponent of relatively restrained policies at home and agressive ones abroad. (He has favored the private sector in Iran and has argued for less severe treatment of political prisoners.) Hashemi had been effective in helping spread Iranian influence in Lebanon. However, he and his armed groups had considerable autonomy in Lebanon and elsewhere. It seems clear that they did not always follow government policy, and Hashemi’s arrest appears to reflect an attempt by the government to establish firmer control over its own foreign policy, and over ambitious political groups at home.

Hashemi’s arrest may also have been connected with the discussions for exchanging hostages for arms. The story of McFarlane’s visit to Iran was first leaked to Al-Shira’a, a magazine published in Lebanon and close to the radical Shi’ite groups there. While Al-Shira’a has now become famous, no one in the US seems to have noticed that it also published a long defense of Hashemi and described him as a revolutionary opposed by more conservative Iranian elements. “There are now two opposing logics in Iran,” Al-Shira’a wrote, “the logic of the state and the logic of the revolution.”4 The editor later claimed that the report on McFarlane’s mission had been deliberately leaked to him by Ayatollah Montazeri’s office, because of his “personal links with the Montazeris,” and that he ran the story “within the context of Iran’s current power struggle.”5 Al Shira’a’s account served the interests of the Hashemi faction in the Montazeri camp, although there is no evidence that Montazeri himself was involved in the leak. Hashemi’s arrest and his “confession” to various crimes on television in December are clear indications that the Hashemi faction is out of favor. Care has been taken to dissociate Montazeri from Hashemi; and while Hashemi’s humiliation hurt Montazeri, his position as Khomeini’s deputy and successor has not been affected.

On the same day that Rafsanjani first discussed the details of McFarlane’s trip to Iran, just after the revelations in Al-Shira’a, another cleric, Ayatollah Musavi Khoeniha, implicitly denounced the very idea of negotiations with the US. Khoeniha, now prosecutor-general, was the mentor to the “Students of the Imam’s Line” who seized the hostages at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. Describing the struggle against the US as “the foundation of the revolution,” Khoeniha accused the US of wanting to weaken Iran’s revolutionary will. “We should never surrender to America,” he said, “never be deceived by America…[never] consider it our friend or forget our enmity for America.”6

The “Students of the Imam’s Line” themselves, who had not been heard from for some time, reappeared when they issued a declaration indirectly critical of contacts with the United States. Mehdi Bazargan, the perennial gadfly, made an open statement demanding that the full story of these contacts be told to the Iranian people. In mid-November, eight deputies of parliament submitted a question asking the minister of foreign affairs to provide details on any contacts with the United States. One of the signers, Jalal ad-Din Farsi, formerly had a reputation for pro-Soviet proclivities.

Ayatollah Khomeini moved quickly to crush this move by the deputies. On November 20 he sharply criticized them, saying they were encouraging division and schism. He clearly wished to avoid the divisive debates that would have occurred if the deputies’ question had been discussed. However, if the opponents of any sort of dialogue with the United States have been silenced, they have not yet been reconciled. We may not have heard the last of such rumbles, and their real effects are yet to be understood.

The greatest mistake of all would be to interpret prematurely the different messages coming out of Tehran as reflecting a clear-cut contest between pro-US “moderates” and rabid anti-American revolutionaries. The situation is considerably more complex. Although individual clerics and officials around Khomeini have been identified, more or less, with consistent policies on domestic and foreign questions, there is much shifting and maneuvering among the top leaders. A group of pragmatists around Rafsanjani are on the ascendant, but these and other leaders must tailor their policies to powerful and conflicting domestic constituencies, to the exigencies of war and a faltering economy, to the rival claims of others in the leadership, and, in the person of Khomeini, to a demanding and unbending taskmaster. These conditions offer opportunities, as the Europeans have realized, for trade and other contacts with Iran. However, if anything has become clear, it is that exploration of future relations with Iran will require an approach that is subtle, cautious, and informed—as opposed to the ill-conceived secret arms traffic of the past year.

—December 17, 1986.

This Issue

January 15, 1987