Some claims are repeated unchallenged so often that they end up becoming part of the conventional wisdom. Such is the case with the assertion that the Iranian constitution mandates the export of the country’s Islamic revolution and bestows on the Islamic Republic the responsibility to protect all Shia Muslims in the world regardless of citizenship.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made such claims in his speech in the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament (EP) on February 22. Before that, he claimed the same thing in the Munich Security Conference and on many other occasions.
In the EP, Ana Gomes, a centre-left Portuguese member of the Committee, challenged Al-Jubeir to produce evidence of his claims by pointing to a specific article of the Iranian constitution calling for the export the Islamic revolution to other countries. The Saudi minister skipped the question.
The truth of the matter is that there was no way for him to answer it, because there is no such an article in the Iranian constitution.
The closest the constitution gets to the idea of the export of revolution is in the preamble, which says that “the Constitution, having regard to the Islamic contents of the Iranian Revolution, which was a movement for the victory of all the oppressed over the arrogant, provides a basis for the continuation of that revolution both inside and outside the country.”
This language is abstract and vague enough to qualify more as a declaration of principles than a concrete injunction that the government must export the Iranian political system. This is exactly the purpose of constitutional preambles. The spirit and the language of this part are reminiscent of other revolutions with universalist aspirations, such as the French and the Russian.
The foundations of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic are laid down in chapter X (articles 152 to 155). Al-Jubeir conveniently omits to mention article 154, which says that the “Islamic Republic of Iran completely abstains from any kind of intervention in the internal affairs of other nations.” It also says that it “supports the struggles of the dispossessed for their rights against the oppressors anywhere in the world.” But that, again, is so vague that it could as well be interpreted as no more than moral-political support for various “anti-imperialist” movements.
Nor does Al-Jubeir’s allegation that Iran considers all the Shias in the world are under its protection hold water either. The constitution refers several times to “mostafazin” (downtrodden), but nowhere does it suggest that it is limited to the Shia. How would then one explain the fact that the Islamic Republic has established ties not only with Sunni Islamist movements like Hamas, but also leftist regimes in Latin America, like Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia? Moreover, the constitution does recognise the notion of the citizenship of the nation-state of Iran (Chapter III on the Rights of the People). The language of the article 11 calling Muslims a “single nation” is at most a symbolic aspiration, which in practical terms means merely prioritizing friendly relations with Muslim nations.
More important than the letter of the Iranian constitution is the fact that since its establishment the Islamic Republic had to balance expansive revolutionary-ideological goals with the practical foreign policy demands of a nation-state. The relative importance of ideology has varied depending on time and place. The exporting zeal was highest in the immediate aftermath of the revolution in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, but even then it was tempered by occasional bouts of pragmatism. Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision to release the American hostages on the day of the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 or to end the war with Iraq in 1988 are two examples. In the 1990s, under the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, revolutionary fervor started ceding ground to the imperatives of post-war reconstruction, which led to the relative normalization of relations with Europe and Persian Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, which had been only a decade earlier targets of inflammatory Iranian rhetoric.
Furthermore, when it comes to the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Iranian policy was almost entirely pragmatic. Iran leaned toward Armenia in its war with Shiite Azerbaijan over fears of anti-Iranian Azerbaijani irredentism. In the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan, Iran helped to broker an agreement between the post-Soviet secular ruler Emomali Rahmon and the Islamist opposition to end the country’s civil war in early 1990s. When Rahmon reneged on the agreement and banned the Islamist party of Renaissance, the Tajik Islamists criticized Tehran for failing to uphold the deal it helped to forge. And in Azerbaijan, Iran prioritized relations with official Baku over defense of Shiite Islamists persecuted by that country’s autocratic regime. So much for the export of Islamic revolution in practice.
But isn’t Al-Jubeir right to point out Iran’s support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Islamist militias in the Middle East as evidence of its policy of exporting Islamic revolution? Hardly. Although there might be ideological complicity—certainly in the case of the Lebanese Hezbollah—the main reason for Iran’s support of these organizations is deterrence, not ideology. Since Iran has no external security guarantor, it relies on friendly forces to deter its regional rivals from aggressive actions against it. But as Iran’s staunch support for Syria’s secular dictator Bashar al-Assad shows, this has very little to do with the promotion of Islamism. National interest, based on Iran’s self-perception as a preeminent power in the Persian Gulf region, plays a much bigger role in shaping Tehran’s choices than revolutionary zeal. Israel/Palestine is an exception, since staunch opposition to Zionism is one of the few remaining ideological hot-button issues that allows the regime to claim faithfulness to the revolutionary heritage.
Although the constitution of the Islamic Republic does contain some language that could be construed as endorsing its universalist claims, it would be far-fetched to conclude that it mandates the government to export Islamic revolution. Iran’s foreign policy since 1979 shows a dynamic interplay between national interest and revolutionary goals, with the former overall gaining the upper hand more often than the latter. To present Iran as a dogmatic revolutionary power hell-bent on the export of its system of government, as Saudi officials do, serves to perpetuate a regional order based on the exclusion of Iran, which is both unrealistic and destabilizing in the long run.