CRS Report I: Iran’s Policy Motivators

The following are excerpts from a recently published report by Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, on Iran’s foreign and defense policies.


Iran’s Policy Motivators

Iran’s foreign and defense policies are products of overlapping, and sometimes contradictory, motivations. In describing the tension between some of these motivations, one expert has said that Iran faces constant decisions about whether it is a “nation or a cause.” Iranian leaders appear to constantly weigh the relative imperatives of their revolutionary and religious ideology against the demands of Iran’s national interests. Some of these factors are discussed below.


Threat Perception

Iran’s leaders are apparently motivated, at least to some extent, by the perception of threat to their regime and their national interests posed by the United States and its allies.

  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i has repeatedly stated that the United States has never accepted the Islamic revolution and seeks to overturn it through support for domestic opposition to the regime, imposition of economic sanctions, and support for Iran’s regional adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. He frequently warns that improved relations with the United States will open Iran to “cultural influence”—Western social behavior that he asserts does not comport with Iran’s societal and Islamic values.
  • Iran’s political and military leaders assert that the U.S. maintenance of a large military presence in the Persian Gulf region and in other countries around Iran reflects U.S. “hostility” and intent to attack Iran if Iran pursues policies the United States finds inimical.
  • Some Iranian official and semi-official media have asserted that the United States not only supports Sunni Arab regimes and movements that oppose Iran, but that the United States has created or empowered radical Sunni Islamist extremist factions such as the Islamic State organization.



The ideology of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution continues to influence Iran’s foreign policy. The revolution overthrew a secular authoritarian leader, the Shah of Iran, who the leaders of the revolution asserted had suppressed Islam and its clergy. A clerical regime was established in which ultimate power is invested in a “Supreme Leader” who melds political and religious authority.

  • In the early years after the revolution, Iran attempted to “export” its revolution to nearby Muslim states. In the late 1990s, Iran abandoned that goal because promoting it succeeded only in producing resistance to Iran in the region.
  • Iran’s leaders assert that the political and economic structures of the Middle East are heavily weighted against “oppressed” peoples and in favor of the United States and its allies, particularly Israel. Iranian leaders generally describe as “oppressed” peoples: the Palestinians, who do not have a state of their own, and Shiite Muslims, who are underrepresented and economically disadvantaged minorities in many countries of the region.
  • Iran claims that the region’s politics and economics have been distorted by Western intervention and economic domination that must be brought to an end. Iranian officials claim that the creation of Israel is a manifestation of Western intervention that deprived the Palestinians of legitimate rights.
  • Iran claims its ideology is non-sectarian, and that it supports movements that are both Sunni and Shiite—rebutting critics who say that Iran pursues only sectarian policies and supports Shiite movements exclusively. Iran cites its support for Sunni groups such as Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad—Shiqaqi Faction, as evidence that it is not pursuing a sectarian agenda. Iran also cites its support for a secular and Sunni Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command (PFLP-GC), as a demonstration that it will even work with non-Islamist groups to promote the rights of the Palestinians.


National Interests

Iran’s national interests usually dovetail but sometimes conflict with Iran’s ideology.

  • Iran’s leaders, stressing Iran’s well-developed civilization and historic independence, claim a right to be recognized as a major power in the region. They often contrast Iran’s history with that of the six Persian Gulf monarchy states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman) that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), several of which gained independence in the early 1970s. To this extent, many of Iran’s foreign policy assertions and actions are similar to those undertaken by the former Shah of Iran and Iranian dynasties prior to that.
  • Iran has sometimes tempered its commitment to aid other Shiites to promote its geopolitical interests. For example, it has supported mostly Christian-inhabited Armenia, rather than Shiite-inhabited Azerbaijan, in part to thwart cross-border Azeri nationalism among Iran’s large Azeri minority. Iran also has generally refrained from backing Islamist movements in the Central Asian countries, reportedly in part to avoid offending Russia, its most important arms and technology supplier and an ally in support of Syrian President Bashar Al Asad.
  • Even though Iranian leaders accuse U.S. allies of contributing to U.S. efforts to structure the Middle East to the advantage of the United States and Israel, Iranian officials have sought to engage with and benefit from transactions with U.S. allies to try to thwart international sanctions.


Factional Interests and Competition

Iran’s foreign policy often appears to reflect differing approaches and outlooks among key players and interest groups.

  • According to Iran’s constitution and in practice, Iran’s Supreme Leader has final say over all major foreign policy decisions. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, Supreme Leader since 1989, consistently expresses deep-seated mistrust of U.S. intentions toward Iran and insists that Iran’s foreign policy be adapted accordingly. His consistent refrain, and the title of his book widely available in Iran, is “I am a revolutionary, not a diplomat.”7 Leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a military and internal security institution created after the Islamic revolution, consistently express support for Khamene’i and ideology-based foreign policy decisions.
  • Khamene’i tacitly backed the JCPOA, but he has stated on several occasions since that neither Iran’s foreign policy nor its opposition to U.S. policy in the region will change as a result of the JCPOA. IRGC senior commanders have echoed Khamene’i’s comments.
  • More moderate Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, argue that Iran should not have any “permanent enemies.” They maintain that a pragmatic foreign policy has resulted in easing of international sanctions under the JCPOA, increased worldwide attention to Iran’s views, and consideration of new projects that could position Iran as a trade and transportation hub in the region. Differentiating himself from Khamene’i and other hardliners, Rouhani has said that the JCPOA is “a beginning for creating an atmosphere of friendship and cooperation with various countries.”8 The pragmatists generally draw support from Iran’s youth and intellectuals, who say they want greater integration with the international community and who helped pro-Rouhani candidates achieve gains in the February 26, 2016, Majles elections.
  • Some Iranian figures, including the elected president during 1997-2005, Mohammad Khatemi, are considered reformists. Reformists have tended to focus more on promoting domestic loosening of social and political restrictions than on a dramatically altered foreign policy. The reformists have, to date, been unable to achieve significant domestic or foreign policy change.


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