The Iranian leader sought to export his revolution for 45 years. The regime quickly learned to be pragmatic and to mobilize all kinds of alliances with armed groups to maintain strong pressure on Washington throughout the world.
After the 1979 revolution, the very young Islamic Republic of Iran must start from scratch in terms of foreign policy: the diplomatic corps and the army have emerged bloodless from the change of power, loyalists and revolutionaries clash, sometimes violently. “ The new regime had no foreign policy expertisesummarizes Houchang Hassan Yari, professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. Khomeini is central. All that matters is what he says. »
The leader of the Revolution, as he calls himself, finds a way to channel anger: the United States, guilty of having supported the Shah until the end. Rouhollah Khomeini encourages his supporters to take 52 Americans hostage in their embassy in Tehran. For 444 days, his blackmail worked and the world noted Washington’s powerlessness in the face of the Islamic Republic. On the domestic level, the responsibility for everything that goes wrong can be shifted to this same scapegoat. No need to take responsibility for bad political choices: it’s the fault of the United States and its ally Israel.
The authorities have never stopped threatening these two hated enemies, who are held responsible for all the ills afflicting the people. “ For 45 years, Iranian leaders have constantly talked about destroying what they call the “tumor” that is for them the Zionist entity.notes Houchang Hassan Yari. The current war Gaza is the perfect opportunity. What did they do ? Nothing. »
War, to survive
The regime learned, during its war withIraq from 1980 to 1988, that if war is a precious tool, it must not be fatal. Enthusiastic and ambitious, Ayatollah Khomeini then encouraged the Iraqis to imitate the Iranians and overthrow Saddam Hussein, considered a lackey of the West. The latter takes the initiative and, on the grounds of a border dispute, tries to invade his neighbor to silence him.
“ The war in Iraq put the regime in difficultyconfirms Thierry Kellner, professor at the Free University of Brussels and author of a History of contemporary Iran published by La Découverte. But it also allowed him to strengthen himself. Presented as foreign aggression, this provided an excellent pretext to get rid of all competitors and former allies. This type of regime needs enemies to mobilize the population and marginalize adversaries, accused of collusion. »
For Iran, it is a start, analyzes Pierre Pahlavi, professor at the Canadian Forces College: “ Saddam Hussein is armed by the international community. This fuels the feeling that the world is ganged up against them. » A few years later, Tehran will learn a second lesson by seeing how the United States and its allies put an end to the ambitions of the Iraqi president in Kuwait. “ During the first Gulf Wardeciphers the researcher, they have a front row seat to see that the United States is technologically far ahead. »
A pragmatic diet
When necessary, the Iranian authorities are learning to be more cautious. Notably through leaders intended to embody a form of openness, such as Hachemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997 or Hassan Rouhani, from 2013 to 2021. “ They are not the ones who make the decisionsobserves Houchang Hassan Yari. Before each trip abroad, the President of the Republic meets the guide to receive his diktats. »
For Tehran, it is a way of presenting a more polite face to temporize when the situation becomes tense. After the war with Iraq, Hachemi Rafsanjani resumed dialogue with European leaders. Hassan Rouhani, for his part, rebalances the hawkish speeches of his more radical predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by beginning negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, only the leader of the revolution decides: Rouhollah Khomeini, from 1979 to 1989, then Ali Khamenei since.
And to ensure the survival of the regime, it has its own army, in parallel with that of the country: the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards. A strongly ideologized force which, despite its military failure in the face of Iraq, gained ascendancy over the entire society in the 1990s: “ Their weight is immenseobserves Pierre Pahlavi. It took them ten years to recover from their mistakes in this war. But they invested massively in Parliament, took control of numerous companies, forming a multi-sector conglomerate. »
Khomeini announced after the Revolution a neutral Iran, which would join neither the East nor the West. An Iran defending the oppressed children of Islam, which enshrines this commitment in its Constitution. But an Iran which, ultimately, is opportunely getting closer to Russia and China. It doesn’t matter that Moscow and Beijing oppress Muslim peoples in Chechnya and Xinjiang. “ These issues are not perceived by the Islamic streetanalyzes Pierre Pahlavi. Rather, it is academics who see it as proof of the rationality of an Iranian power capable of being realistic. »
Export the revolution
However, the Iranian authorities have never lost sight of their main international objective. “ The guideline to the outside world is to export the revolution, particularly to the Middle Eastnotes Houchang Hassan Yari. It is about driving out what are called lackeys of the United States and replacing them with believers in Islam. But after the war against Iraq, there are no more means: we need tanks, planes, a nuclear weapon. »
Tehran supports several armed groups which act as allies throughout the region. Hamas, in Palestine, has the advantage of making Sunni Muslims forget that Iran is Shiite. This cause, dear to the heart of the community of believers, provides it with strong publicity. The regime also supports Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. It delivers weapons, logistical and financial aid. To avoid finding yourself on the front line in an open conflict with the United States.
“ The Iranians have understood that they are military and technological dwarfsobserves Pierre Pahlavi. This pushes them to operate asymmetrically, just below the threshold of full-blown war. But their proxies, operating by proxy, are not puppets and also have their own agendas. » Iran thus exhausts its enemies, while being able to decline all responsibility when its friends go too far.
The Revolutionary Guards seek to multiply this type of alliances hostile to Washington throughout the world. And not just by establishing relations with Moscow and Beijing: “ Iran is trying to use all possibilities, in Latin America and Africanotes Thierry Kellner. These are not the main axes. But they should not be underestimated. »
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