An Islamic perspective on non-alignment: Iranian foreign policy in theory and practice

An Islamic perspective on non-alignment: Iranian foreign policy in theory and practice

Sadri, Houman A


Contrary to the expectation of some Western observers,1 the NonAligned Movement (NAM) is still strongly advocated by Third World countries, in general, and by Iran, in particular, in the post-Cold War period. Even during the Cold War, non-alignment was not just about rejecting the superpowers in a bi-polar structure. It was really about providing policy options and a sense of independence for Third World states soon after the de-colonization process. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Third World leaders, especially the Iranian political elite, still support a non-aligned policy and the Non-Aligned Movement in a world with only one superpower. This is evident by recent statements of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani2 and the newly elected President Khatami.3 Despite his accommodating statements regarding the general context of U.S.-Iran relations in a January of 1998 interview with CNN,4 President Khatami stood strong in expressing the independent, anti-hegemonic, and nonaligned foreign policy of the Islamic Republic.5 The fascination with non-alignment as a foreign policy strategy goes back to the early days of the Iranian Revolution, a turning point for Iranian foreign relations which shifted drastically from a close alliance with the United States to a non-aligned stance.

Understanding the nature, role, and scope of non-alignment is salient to any analysis and estimation of current Iranian foreign policy. Despite the significance of non-alignment, this concept has been ignored by most students of Iranian affairs. In one of the most authoritative books on Iranian relations with the superpowers, neither the contributors nor the well-known editors clearly or comprehensively explain what is described as Iranian “neither East nor West” strategy, which is the Iranian version of non-alignment.6 This article will address three basic questions about the non-aligned strategy of the Islamic Republic: Why did Tehran choose a non-aligned policy? What is the Islamic dimension of Iran’s concept of non-alignment? How does this strategy apply to the conduct of the current Iranian government, especially after the election in June of 1997? Before answering these questions, it is necessary to give a brief background about the context of Iranian non-aligned policy.


Following the Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran declared that it would conduct a non-aligned foreign policy– independent from the great powers. Shortly thereafter, Iran abandoned the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO),7 joined the Non-Aligned Movement, and canceled many weapons orders from the West. Iranian leaders believed that non-alignment would meet the foreign policy goals of Revolutionary Iran as a Third World, Islamic state, whereas exclusive ties with any great power would not mesh with Iran’s religion, culture, or history. Moreover, an alliance or alignment would restrict policy options in establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial ties with states from any blocs and with certain Third World states.

During the Cold War years, there was nothing unusual about the Third World states’ declaration to pursue a non-aligned strategy, even if a regime were clearly identified with either ideological bloc. For instance, Saudi Arabia became a member of NAM, even though it had no diplomatic relations with Moscow, and Cuba was a strong proponent of non-alignment, despite its membership in the Eastern camp and distaste for friendly ties with Washington. Moreover, Muslim states that joined the Non-Aligned Movement did not justify their policy based on Islam, but on the political options at the time. This applies to conservative Saudi Arabia as well as to, comparatively, more progressive Egypt. With the exception of Iran, the Muslim states make no direct connection between their non-alignment stance and Islamic heritage. This is especially significant as far as Pakistan and Mauritania are concerned because they are constitutionally and respectively the first and the second Islamic republics in the modern era. Neither one, however, has clearly and directly connected its policy to Islam in the way that has the third Islamic republic, Iran.

Iranian non-aligned strategy, enhanced by Tehran’s independent stance, is a new chapter in the history of an ancient country that gained a different spirit and mission as a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Some experts, though, have discounted the effects of Revolutionary Islam on the new Iranian leaders’ political decisions by emphasizing the element of continuity in geopolitical, historical, and economic components of the policy; they conclude that Tehran’s new strategy is not that original or radical.8 Obviously, Iran was not a founding member of NAM, and Tehran’s strategies in the pre- and post-revolutionary eras have some similarities, particularly due to geopolitics. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic and Imperial Iran are philosophically and structurally different political units, and Tehran’s declaration of non-alignment was a radical move, challenging the regional status quo at the time.


Briefly, revolutionary Iranian leaders had four major policy objectives in declaring non-alignment: (1) to achieve autonomy in foreign policymaking, (2) to avoid a costly involvement in the American-Soviet rivalry, (3) to end Iran’s dependence on one ideological camp, and (4) to improve ties with all states (except Israel and the former South African regime). Most of these goals were rooted in Iranian history, geopolitics, and economy. In fact, the status and condition of Iran under the Shah was the main factor in shaping post-revolutionary foreign policy.

Regime stability dominated the Shah’s domestic and foreign policies from 1953(9) and its pursuit created a vicious cycle: it required an alliance with the United States, which fostered a public image of military and economic vulnerability to non-Muslim foreigners. By emphasizing such images, Ayatollah Khomeini characterized the Shah as an illegitimate, dependent, and weak leader. This eventually weakened the regime both psychologically and politically. In sum, the revolutionary leaders claimed that their decision to follow a nonaligned strategy was taken mainly because dependency (i.e., the trademark of the Shah’s regime) was culturally an anti-Islamic and anti-Iranian notion.


Much is said about Iranian non-alignment, but ambiguities persist regarding Tehran’s definition of this concept. For one ambassador of the Islamic Republic, non-alignment simply meant refusing to join an offensive pact.lo Contrary to this rather passive interpretation of non-alignment, Ayatollah Mossavi Ardabili emphasized the active and conflictual characteristics of nonalignment. He pointed out that Islam encompasses ideas that are at odds with both camps.11 Former Foreign Minister Velayati defined non-alignment as maintaining independence from the two blocs and the consequent negation of foreign sovereignty in all aspects.12

Ayatollah Khomeini, a strong advocate of a non-aligned strategy, did not offer a clear definition either, but referred to a slogan regarding the meaning of non-alignment, “neither East nor West, [only] an Islamic Republic.”13 Obviously, none of the above statements comprehensively defines the concept. Thus, it is necessary to have an analytical definition and discussion of the components of Iranian Islamic non-alignment, in order to examine its unique characteristics.

An Analytical Definition

Focusing on founder Ayatollah Khomeini’s phrase, “neither East nor West, [only] an Islamic Republic,” one notes two parts. The first part negates external elements: the East and the West. It is a denial of formal or informal reliance (i.e., alignment or alliance) on either the East or the West and refers to Iran’s independent position. In this respect, Iranian non-alignment is similar to that of other NAM states.

The second part refers to a specific type of regime: [only] an Islamic Republic. This is the unique aspect of Iranian non-alignment for two reasons. First, Tehran’s definition is not secular like that of other Third World states. Second, it implies a universalization of one type of regime: a republic based on Shia Islamic values (not a monarchy like the Arab Gulf states although they are also NAM members). An examination of Iranian Islamic, legal, and political values will help to better understand this unique approach to non-alignment.

The Sources of Islamic Non-Alignment

An examination of the cultural, ideological, and political context of Revolutionary Iran indicates that there are at least three major sources for this policy: religion, law, and politics.

1. Religious Roots

If one views non-alignment based on the idea of equilibrium or balanced relations (i.e., the equidistance theory), then one might note that the Koran makes several references to the notion of equilibrium.14 Iranian nonalignment, however, is not based on equilibrium, in which one seeks harmony with the environment.15 On the contrary, Iranian Islamic non-alignment is, at least theoretically, not in harmony with its environment and is influenced by three Islamic, particularly Shia, principles: Tawhid (Monotheism), Hakemiyate Ellahi (Divine Sovereignty), and Jihad (Holy War).

Monotheism (Tawhid)

The Iranian non-alignment concept is rooted in monotheism, which is fundamental to understanding Islam.16 Islamic monotheism is in contrast to the concepts of the Trinity17 in Christianity and Dualism18 in Zoroastrianism. In this context, Islam recognizes no middle ground and historically challenged both Christianity and Zoroastrianism, the state religions of the Roman and Persian Empires — the superpowers at the time Islam was a new religion. It is important to note that the first emerging Islamic state in Arabia did not align itself with either superpower at the time and neither did Revolutionary Iran centuries later.

Islamic monotheism refers to one God, one community of believers (Umma)19 and one path of salvation — Islam.20 Accordingly, other religions are unacceptable for a true believer in pursuit of salvation and solution to the spiritual and worldly problems. Similarly, Iranian non-aligned strategy rejects the legitimacy of both Eastern and Western ideologies and models, considering them man-made (not divine), temporary (not permanent), and materialistic (not spiritual) in their nature and approach. Ayatollah Khomeini claimed that both ideological camps operated in an unjust international system based on might and not right. He added that no state is truly independent unless it confronts the hegemonic powers21 and follows Islam.

From this perspective, Revolutionary Iran joined NAM mainly because the non-aligned states reject hegemonic powers. Tehran, however, recognizes that not all NAM states practice what they espouse. Thus, Iranian non-alignment is unlike that of other non-aligned states, and revolutionary Iranian leaders have cast a great deal of doubt, from time to time, upon their strategy.22

Divine Sovereignty (Hakemiyat-e Illahi)

The term Islam means submission to God, the only true sovereign. According to Shia theology, divine sovereignty passed from the Prophet to the Infallible Imams and by extension to the Most Learned Faqih. The latter is the basis of the concept Vilayat-e Faqih. In Revolutionary Iran, divine sovereignty is exercised by the Vilayat-e Faqih (rule of the leading jurisprudent) in the name of God and in the interest of Umma.23 Thus, Iranian non-alignment takes a rather rigid and moralistic stand on sovereignty. One might ask why? In response, some leaders argue that Iranian political chaos and injustice during the Qajars and Pahlavi dynasties were created by the loss of true sovereignty to the non-Muslim foreign powers. Therefore, they cautioned against unchecked ties with the great powers. This does not mean isolationism, but protecting one’s sense of independence and identity while associating and cooperating with others 24

Holy War (Jihad)

Iranian non-alignment is also rooted in the concept Jihad, the meaning of which is not limited to “holy war.”25 Jihad also means confrontation, struggle, or challenge, which refers to its diplomatic, as opposed to military, connotation.

Jihad as a struggle of the powerless against the powerful is a significant aspect of Iranian foreign policy. Jihad glorifies a David verses Goliath type of confrontation, in which one finds both salvation and a deep connection to the mission of Prophet Abraham. In fact, the Iranian Constitution requires the defense of the rights of Muslims anywhere, regardless of nationality, race, and severity of the crisis of the victims.26 This justified Iranian efforts to help Afghans in their struggle against Soviets, Lebanese Shia verses Israelis, and Bosnians against Serbs.

According to Ayatollah Khomeini, there is an inevitable struggle between the Islamic Republic and the hegemonic powers.27 This struggle is not necessarily in the form of a full-fledged war, but rather as an ideological challenge. In this struggle, the revolutionary leaders insist that there is not much difference between the hegemonic powers (whether socialist or capitalist) as far as the policy goals or means are concerned, but there are fundamental differences between them and Iran. Unlike hegemonic powers, the latter does not initiate the usage of violence when challenging other states, although it preserves the right to resort to violence in self-defense.

2. Legal Roots

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran makes several references to the concept of non-alignment.28 While four Constitutional articles address the general direction of foreign policy,29 one focuses on nonalignment.30 According to Article 152, Iranian foreign policy is based on:

a) protecting the independence and territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic

b) practicing non-alignment toward hegemonic states and mutually peaceful ties with non-hegemonic ones

c) rejecting any form of hegemony

d) defending the rights of all Muslims

Therefore, the Iranian Constitution associates three notions with one another: the Islamic Republic, independence, and non-alignment. Based on the notion of the Islamic Republic, Article 56 declares that absolute sovereignty belongs to God who has granted people the right to self-rule which no ruler should deny. Thus, the Constitution rejects the notion of dictatorship and foreign hegemony. Moreover, it relates foreign hegemony to dependence and attempts to end them both.

Citing a few examples regarding foreign advisors, treaties, and military bases illustrates this point. First, although the need for industrialization is recognized by the Constitution which allows the hiring of foreign consultants, Article 82 prohibits hiring foreign advisors unless it is absolutely necessary and then only with the approval of the Parliament (i.e., Majlis). Second, any treaty that promotes foreign hegemony is void.31 Finally, Article 146 explicitly prohibits the establishment of any foreign military bases in Iran, even for peaceful purposes.

3. Political Base

Politically, the non-aligned strategies of Iran and others differ regarding the views of the existing world order, the nature of the policy, and the notion of cultural independence. First, the founders of NAM were political realists who accepted the idea of an ideologically divided world order, based on a balanceof-power system. Thus, their non-aligned strategy was a mechanical solution and a foreign policy option to cope with the international status quo. On the contrary, the founder of the Islamic Republic was a revolutionary idealist who rejected the contemporary world order since he perceived it to be unjust and imposed upon the weaker nations.32 On many occasions, Ayatollah Khomeini stated that there was no difference between the behavior of the superpowers33 since they were both materialistic, repressive in their own ways, and hegemonic toward the Third World.

The second difference is that the founders of NAM did not intend to create a confrontational policy toward the superpowers. In fact, some NAM states, like India, had an instrumental value and acted as a means of communication between the superpowers during some international crises. Contrarily, Iranian non-alignment is, theoretically, an active and quarrelsome policy intended to challenge the great powers, although Tehran has not constantly and consistently confronted them in practice.

Finally, although all NAM states recognize the significance of cultural independence, the founder of the Islamic Republic went one step further in the defense of cultural independence by insisting that the great powers intended to destroy Islam — the core of Iranian cultural and religious identity. In terms of development, the clergy stated that the main problem of Iran had been Gharbzadeqi (or Western infatuation),34 not industrialization, and that these terms are not synonymous.35 Moreover, the problem was a mental dependence of many educated people on non-Islamic values. As early as the Constitutional Revolution, he argued, foreign-educated parliamentarians wrote the Constitution and established the educational and legal institutions based on non-Islamic foreign values.36 For Ayatollah Khomeini, the most fundamental aspect of independence was its cultural dimension, represented by Islam,37 despite some opinions that Revolutionary Iran had aimed equally for political, economic, and cultural independence.38 Even after the Ayatollah’s death, Iranian revolutionary leaders still emphasize cultural independence and see themselves in a struggle against the influence of foreign, especially Western, values.39


The theoretical discussion of Iranian non-aligned strategy implies a moralistic, rigid, and hostile policy, especially towards the great powers. In practice, however, the Iranian Islamic interpretation of non-alignment has been dynamic and has led to three distinct trends in foreign relations, each inspired by a different faction of revolutionary leaders. While all Iranian leadership factions have endorsed non-alignment, they each interpreted it differently according to the changing domestic and international circumstances. This led to three major trends in conducting Iranian non-alignment foreign relations in the first decade of the Revolution: a two-track policy (1979-July 1982), a conflictual policy (July 1982-June 1985), and a conciliatory policy (June 1985-1989).40 An examination of these trends will provide us with hints about the contemporary Iranian foreign policy posture, which will be discussed in the last section of this article.

A Two-Track Policy

The two-track policy began when Bazargan’s government took charge in February of 1979 and ended when Iranian forces moved the War into Iraqi territory in July of 1982. Shifting from a defensive to an offensive position in the Iran-Iraq War led some observers to argue that Tehran was exporting its revolution. Although many Iranian leaders insisted that exporting the revolution would be by word and not by sword,41 there was evidence that the nature of Iranian posture became less cooperative and more conflictual. Consequently, this action signified the start of a conflictual policy period, which will be discussed later.

The two-track non-aligned strategy consisted of one track oriented towards distancing Tehran from Washington and the other towards establishing more cooperative relations with Moscow. To distance itself from the United States, Iran took three major political measures including withdrawing from CENTO, abrogating the 1959 US-Iran Defense Agreement, and canceling many Western military contracts. Although Tehran also revoked Articles 5 and 6 of the 1921 Iran-USSR treaty, some claimed that Moscow benefitted from Tehran’s decision to distance itself from the West while it established closer ties with some Russian allies like Syria and joined NAM. In general, non-alignment during this period was interpreted by many Iranian leaders as primarily a policy to reduce foreign, particularly Western, influence in Iranian affairs — a policy similar to Mossadegh’s Negative Equilibrium.42 Since the Russians did not have a significant presence in pre-revolutionary Iran, they hoped to expand ties with the new regime.

Tehran also began media campaigns against regional pro-Western states although pro-Eastern ones were not immune. Iran was soon blamed for a number of incidents which varied from demonstrations and acts of sabotage to hijacking and even an attempted coup. Considering the freedom that radical idealists enjoyed at the beginning of the revolution, such as operating centers like the Liberation Movement Office,43 it is quite conceivable that some incidents received more than just a blessing from Tehran, despite the denial of top offcials.44

A More Conflictual Policy

In the second phase of its non-aligned strategy, Iranian policy toward the superpowers was more conflictual and uncompromising, particularly regarding the settlement of the war with Iraq.45 Tehran’s demand for the removal of President Saddam Hussein added to earlier suspicions about Iranian intervention in the domestic affairs of others and its attempts to export the revolution. This rigid position put Iran under a spotlight and isolated the country while it was already under domestic economic, political, and military pressures.46 To remedy the pressure, the leadership emphasized self-reliance and interpreted non-alignment as being similar to isolationism.47

Contrary to the earlier period when secular leaders like Bazargan and Bani-Sadr had an impact on the policymaking process, the clergy was in full control of all policymaking institutions after Khamene’i became president.48 With the approval of Ayatollah Khomeini, the more radical clerics put a rigid tone on the Islamic non-alignment posture. The reason for this conflictual posture was that the tone of the policy was set by the more optimistic and idealistic revolutionary leaders who were confident that, despite some difficulties, they had run the country without foreign assistance. They could also see that time was on their side in bringing their new order not only to Iran, but also to the whole region. The radical leaders’ growing sense of confidence was the result of a combination of some domestic and foreign successes which led them to become adamant in conducting their conflictual non-alignment policy towards the great powers and their allies.

A More Conciliatory Policy

The need for a more conciliatory approach in the non-alignment was partially rooted in the failure of Iranian military to capture Basra. The latter is Iraq’s second largest city and main port, populated mostly by Shia and located near the border with Iran. Despite inflicting heavy losses on the Iraqis, Tehran lacked the necessary hardware to break through the Iraqi defensive.49 The Iranian leadership realized that the conflictual non-aligned position had limited the state’s ability to end the war on its own terms.50 The other root of the increasingly cooperative non-aligned posture was Iran’s mounting economic and military hardships that led to increased domestic political pressure. The self-reliance policy had limited success, and Iran had major economic difficulties, such as astronomical inflation, food and medicine shortages, and stagnant salaries. Also, there were severe shortages of military spare parts for the weapon systems, and the infant domestic military industries had reached their qualitative and quantitative limits. Since Tehran could not match Baghdad’s technological edge, it was forced to endure a much higher casualty rate in the War.

From late 1984, the more realistic revolutionary leaders, like Majlis Speaker Hashemi-Rafsanjani, began to emphasize that non-alignment did not mean isolation from the rest of the world and aimed at changing the international image of the Islamic Republic. Iranian foreign policy began showing more conciliatory signs,51 including Tehran’s efforts to resolve the TWA hijacking and to end the radio propaganda war with the Russians.52

Iranian diplomatic actions during this period showed that the emphasis was more on dialogue and less on defiance, although their rhetoric may have suggested otherwise. From 1985, Iran-Eastern bloc ties began to expand again. A year later, diplomatic relations with Western nations significantly improved despite the short-term downturn which occurred during the Salman Rushdie affair. The improvement of ties with the East and the West was an indicator of the realists’ growing influence in policymaking following signs of moderation in Ayatollah Khomeini. Furthermore, the Ayatollah’s death in 1989 and the emergence of Rafsanjani as the main power broker smoothed some of the rough edges of the Islamic non-alignment policy.


Since 1989, Mr. Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s bid for the leadership and ascendence to the Presidency coincided with the rise of more realistic revolutionary leaders to the power centers. For the most part, this translated into a more accommodating non-aligned posture by the Islamic Republic towards both the great and regional powers. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the recent position of the Islamic Republic is the same as was that of Imperial Iran toward the West. Eighteen years after the Revolution, the Islamic Republic neither maintains the same level or intensity of conflict towards the West (especially the United States), nor does it support the Western perspective on all regional issues, as did the Shah’s regime. There are many examples.

Contrary to the Western position, for instance, Tehran disapproves of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process since it forced many Palestinian problems into second priority negotiation issues, and it also meant that Palestinians could not negotiate on equal ground. Similarly, the Islamic Republic supports the rights of the southern Lebanese Shia more than does the West. The issue of human rights is another major point of contention between Iran and the West, especially the issue of the treatment of Iranian political opposition. There are instances in which Tehran officials have been accused of involvement in termination of political opposition in Europe. This behavior of the Islamic Republic resembles that of Imperial Iran. These actions, however, are directed against Iranians, not Westerners.

Since the end of the Cold War, Tehran has further adjusted its nonaligned strategy. As a result, Iran conducted a more prudent and constructive policy during the Gulf War; in the Afghan Civil War following the Russian withdrawal; in the Tajikistan Conflict; and in the Armenia-Azerbaijan War; just to name a few. These examples, which will be discussed later, indicate that the Islamic leaders in charge of setting the policy agenda seem to have learned, or at least know, the limits of the Republic’s capability to project its power and achieve its goals. Thus, the more realistic and pragmatic elements within the leadership are making and implementing policy.

One fundamental question here is: Is a discussion of non-aligned strategy still appropriate with the end of the Cold War in the 1990s? The short answer is affirmative. Although the seeds of NAM were sowed during the hottest period of the Cold War, evidence shows that the Non-Aligned Movement and the strategy of non-alignment have a life of their own in the post-Cold War era. Their Heads-of-State Summits and the lower level meetings are still held as usual and with the same fanfare style of NAM. The main difference is that there is understandably no attention paid to the ideological differences between the great powers, which divided the world across an East-West axis. However, there is much more emphasis on the North-South division of the world, and, in this fashion, NAM is playing the role of a union (of developing countries) versus the management (of the developed countries) at the global level.

The other major question regarding non-alignment is: Is there a possible role for non-aligned strategy in the post-Cold War period? The answer again is affirmative. We should recall that the essence of the non-aligned strategy was to provide a weaker state with more policy options. Using this strategy, many NAM states tried to avoid a costly involvement in the superpowers’ conflicts, and their slogans suggested that they were neither in the Eastern nor the Western camps. This translated into the NAM states’ obtaining some benefits from both camps. With the exception of states like Saudi Arabia and Cuba, most NAM members used this policy. Using non-aligned strategy, many NAM states took advantage of the opportunity provided by the natural conflict of interest among great powers. Today, there are no major ideological conflicts among these powers, but the end of the Cold War has not ended their natural clash of interests.

One can argue that there are now more clashing interests in the increasingly interdependent world than there were during the Cold War. Then, the superpowers focused mainly on security issues, and conflicts between the two camps were relatively few though intense. The quantity and quality of the conflicts were more or less managed by the superpowers in order to avoid the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. Conflicts within each ideological bloc, however, were either resolved in the interest of the community, in order to maintain unity against a global threat, or such disputes were discounted to avoid a fractured alliance.

Now, there is no more global threat, but the previously discounted or ignored disputes or conflicts have come to the surface, causing many regional problems on a variety of issues. The bulk of the conflicts are not limited to security issues anymore, but include cultural, economic, legal, and political problems. The nature of the conflict in the global system has become so complex that it is not limited to two blocs challenging each other. Instead, members who used to be in the same blocs are now challenging one another on a number of fronts. Thus, the world has truly become an anarchical society.53

The examples of significant clashes among developed countries, especially the major powers, include: the growing division between the United States and European governments about the extra territorial impacts of American laws on European companies that invest in Iran and Cuba; the AmericanJapanese controversy over the criminal behavior of U.S. servicemen in Okinawa and the closing of the base issue; the increasing objections of the French government to the Anglo (especially American) movie industry for projecting its culture and language in France; the Canadian, Australian, and New Zealanders’ complaints about the gradual loss of their national identity to the rapidly growing American symbolic presence in their respective countries; the intensified economic competition among multinational corporations of the United States, Japan, and Germany for global and domestic market shares and resources; cases of cross national industrial espionage among the American, European, and Japanese companies; mutual security espionage between close allies like the United States and Israel; Sino-American disputes over the Chinese human rights record, unfair business practices and sales of missiles to Iran; and the growing gap between Washington and Moscow regarding the expansion of NATO, the oil of the Caspian Sea region, ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet republics, and Russian arms/technology sales to Iran and North Korea. Thus, the world is not a peaceful place yet, although the probability of nuclear annihilation has decreased to zero.

Considering that states have no permanent friends or foes (just interests), the above examples imply the obvious conclusion that where there is an interest, there is possibility of conflict. It is the very existence of such conflicts that provide the non-aligned strategy with a window of opportunity. By balancing the interest of one power against another, a smaller state can not only survive but also thrive if the conditions are suitable.

In practice, the above strategy is the essence of the non-alignment policy of the Islamic Republic in this anarchical world. In Iran, the impact of revolutionary Islamic ideology (which gave a unique color to Iranian non-alignment) on foreign policy is still visible, but there is also an appreciation for the good old “realpolitik.” Beyond the consensus among leadership factions regarding certain moral issues (e.g., the support of the Muslims around the world), Iranians are more willing to compromise now than during the early period of the Revolution. For instance, Tehran supported the Islamic movement in Tajikistan (which shares the cultural heritage of Iran), but it also encouraged its client to negotiate instead of fighting hopelessly against the current government. The final result was the July 1997 peace agreement which practically ended the civil war. In the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis in Azerbaijan, Iranians were concerned about the situation of the Azeri Muslims, many of whom are Shia, but Tehran maintained cooperative and working relations with Armenia to end the conflict in a reasonable fashion. Finally, Iran and the Gulf Arab states disagree about the presence of U.S. forces in the region, but they kept cordial relations, especially since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. These are only a few examples indicating pragmatic behavior within the ideological context of the regime.

Beyond its borders, Iran will most probably maintain and expand its mutually beneficial ties with the great European powers, the Commonwealth member states, and Japan. These countries are the major consumers of Iranian fossil fuel, and they are Tehran’s main sources of industrial goods and hard currency. Since the 1979 Revolution, however, Iran has tried to diversify its trade partners as well as its sources of technology in order to avoid over-dependency on any foreign power. Of special significance are the growing Tehran-Moscow and Tehran-Beijing commercial and military relations that were historically restricted in terms of quality and quantity. Considering the earlier mentioned clashes of European, Chinese, and Russian interests with those of the Americans, the Islamic Republic must be counterbalancing its troublesome U.S. relations with its working ties with these powers. In other words, the non-aligned strategy is hard at work since Tehran does not have any exclusive ties with any major power, and the missing relations with the United States is compensated by those of the other great powers.

Among the recent developments, Mr. Mohammed Khatami’s successful bid for the Presidency in June of 1997 is the most significant evidence of moderation among the Iranian masses and confirms that the more moderate elite within the leadership will continue to set the political agenda. The result of this election was unexpected, since a relatively unknown candidate was challenging the influential and charismatic Majlis Speaker, Mr. Nateq Nori, known to represent the more radical factions and leaders. As mentioned earlier, President Khatami will most likely continue the pragmatic trend of conducting foreign relations as his diplomatic signals have indicated so far. The election results also indicate that the new leadership will work to prevent the Islamic Republic from being isolated again, as was the case during the conflictual period of non-alignment. It also means that leaders of the Islamic Republic will pursue a more accommodating non-aligned posture in order to maintain friendly, far reaching, and fruitful ties with most countries, developed and developing (with the exception of Israel) and to neutralize the economic (and, indirectly, military) pressures of Washington on Tehran.

In sum, Iranian non-aligned strategy will continue in the post-Cold War period, although adjustments will be made to make it more applicable to the current global conditions. This policy will be the centerpiece of either the success or failure of Tehran’s attempts to survive and nurture its revolutionary regime, despite all domestic, regional, and international obstacles.

Copyright Association of Third World Studies, Inc. Fall 1999

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