One of the striking features of the Iranian protests of late December and early January was the focus on the country’s foreign policy. Protesters often took a swipe at Iran’s regional policy of supporting non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. This was encapsulated by the slogan, “neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I will sacrifice my life for Iran”.
The Western mainstream media’s amplification of these slogans has led to widespread expectations that any major political shift in Iran will inevitably alter the country’s foreign policy. For instance, the mildly dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has pontificated that in the event of political change the “neither Gaza nor Lebanon” slogan could become Iran’s foreign policy.
Much of this analysis is based on wishful thinking and a profound misunderstanding of the conceptual foundations of Iranian foreign policy. Iranian regional policy is much more about securing national interest than pursuing ideological or emotional causes. By extension, the Iranian foreign policy establishment is sufficiently resilient to withstand even major internal political disruptions.
At any rate, by all credible accounts Iran is set to maintain – and potentially even intensify – its regional policy of supporting non-state actors and where necessary reinforcing it by limited direct interventions. Neither internal protests nor pressure by the Trump administration is likely to change Iran’s approach to regional diplomacy and conflict management.
It has been widely reported that one reason the protestors were chanting against foreign policy is its supposedly high cost. Thus, slogans like “Leave Syria alone, think about us instead” are framed as highlighting a supposed imbalance between the Islamic Republic’s ambitious foreign policy and tough economic conditions at home.
This supposedly striking imbalance between foreign policy commitments and Iran’s economic limitations is widely identified by many Western and Arab commentators as Iran’s greatest vulnerability. For instance, former US envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, argues that Iranians are “mad as hell” about their foreign policy, a supposed vulnerability which Ross argues the US should maximally exploit.
However, these same commentators cannot put an exact figure on what Iran actually spends on its friends and allies in the region. For example, no one knows how much Iran really gives to its closest ally, namely Lebanese Hezbollah. Estimates vary widely, with the highest estimates (not surprisingly from Israeli sources) capping it at $800 million a year.
Other Israeli sources are more vague about Iran’s total spending in the Middle East, casually claiming that the Islamic Republic spends “billions” on its allies and operations across the region. Even if we accept these figures at face value, they are still a fraction of Iran’s total GDP, which is well in excess of $400 billion.
Moreover, Iran’s defence budget, although increasing of late, is still one of the smallest in the region, and a fraction of what Saudi Arabia and the UAE spend on defence. Furthermore, even by comparison to Western nations, Iran’s spending on overseas influence building is relatively modest. For example, the United Kingdom, which admittedly has a GDP roughly six times bigger than Iran’s, spends £13 billion on foreign aid alone, money which UK officials openly admit is used to further the “national interest”, as opposed to helping poor countries.
The key point is that countries with sophisticated and ambitious foreign policies try to spend as much as they can afford (and sometimes more) to shore up their global or regional standing. Drawing a connection between foreign spending and domestic woes is not necessarily the best way to understand the motivation and requirements of these states. To press the point further, there is plenty of poverty and inequality in the UK, but that doesn’t stop the British government from spending generously on defence, intelligence and overseas aid.
A cost-effective policy
When analysing the Islamic Republic’s regional policy, particularly Iran’s outreach to resistance groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, it is easy to over-focus on the ideological, aspirational and emotional dimensions of this policy, notably Iran’s purported desire to spread its “revolution” and to advance its stated goal of destroying Israel.
But as some analysts have pointed out, Iran’s support for non-state actors brings in a wide range of security benefits for the Islamic Republic. Indeed, Iran’s interventionist regional policy is a central feature of the Islamic Republic’s national security doctrine which calls for the acquisition and consolidation of strategic depth.
The concept of “strategic depth” explains Iran’s attitude to the Syrian conflict. As Iranian strategists have often pointed out, if Iran didn’t fight its adversaries in Syria it may be forced to fight them within Iranian borders. From this perspective, even if we accept at face value the highest estimates (from dubious sources) on Iran’s spending in Syria, it still qualifies as a cost-effective policy if it meets the objective of preventing war much closer to home.
The key question of course is what effect (if any) will clamour for political change have on the country’s foreign policy. In terms of public opinion, the absence of reliable opinion polling means we cannot accurately gauge the demographic strength and nuances behind foreign policy related slogans.
However, even if we accept that the protesters who decried Iranian foreign policy represent a significant segment of Iranian public opinion, that still will not directly affect the complex calculus underpinning Iran’s defence, security and regional policies.
But assuming that protests resume at some point in the future, and that they gain sufficient momentum to trigger political changes (for instance by radically disrupting the balance of power between reformists, conservatives and centrists), even under those conditions Iran’s foreign policy will not necessarily change, and even if it does it won’t change beyond recognition.
The Islamic Republic’s national security community is sufficiently distant from the political establishment to withstand major political shifts. The only exception of course is so-called regime-change scenarios, which can only come about either through a US led military invasion or a massive uprising which topples the Islamic Republic. Both scenarios are highly unlikely.
Absent a radical shift in attitudes, and underlying worldview, Iran is set to maintain its interventionist regional policy which it views as foremost a defensive strategy aimed at deterring and balancing foes like the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.