Khamenei’s Bellicose Tendencies in Iranian Foreign Policy

ByDr. Yahya Bouzidi

During his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Tehran summit on July 19, 2022, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed his support for and solidarity with Russia in its war against Ukraine. Khamenei expressed the view that the war is a necessary step because, he claimed, the opposing side would have begun the conflict sooner or later under various pretexts. This “Khameneist” reading of the Russo-Ukrainian war demonstrates the bellicose tendencies in Iranian foreign policy, which inevitably led to a total deterioration in its relations with neighboring countries. If Iran continues to pursue this antagonistic approach, this will undoubtedly foment tensions and provoke greater security instability in the region.

According to Khamenei, Russia’s war against Ukraine is defensive, with Moscow supposedly seeking to protect itself from NATO, which poses a threat to Russia’s national security through its expansionist strategy and movements closer to its borders. This comes, according to the Iranian supreme leader, as Kyiv’s ruling elite adopts an anti-Russian ideology. Based on this assessment, Russia has every right to launch a military campaign against Ukraine in order to protect itself from an imminent threat. Another interpretation, from the Ukrainian perspective, however, completely contradicts Khamenei’s view. For Ukrainians, they assert that Ukraine is a sovereign state whose government bases its legitimacy on elections, and it is free to form alliances that serve its interests and national security. From this perspective, Ukraine’s turn toward NATO and the European Union is a natural result of its concerns about Russian expansionism, which has been repeatedly threatened in comments by President Vladimir Putin ever since he took power, particularly in his remarks about the necessity of Russia’s return to the international arena, as was the case during the Soviet era. He has proven that these fears are well-founded by expanding Russia’s borders at the expense of neighboring countries. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, a part of Ukraine, in 2014.

Returning to the remarks by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and looking at how they represent Iranian foreign policy, comments of this nature show that Tehran believes that the political and military steps taken by Arab countries, particularly the GCC states, to protect their own national security are nothing less than preparations for war. As a result of this perception, Iran is seeking to amass all possible means of power in order to deter any potential attack on it, or even to conduct a preemptive attack, in order to protect itself. Looking back at recent history, we can see that Iran has always launched attacks on neighboring countries in order to expand at their expense under the guise of “exporting the revolution.” The root cause of weakened regional security and stability in the Middle East is Iran’s extraterritorial behavior. According to Iran’s hostile worldview, it has every right to wage defensive attacks against US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon through proxy groups, as well as to form an alliance with Russia against Washington in order to drive the United States out of Syria, as both Khamenei and Putin stated during the aforementioned meeting. But when other countries work to protect themselves from the very real danger that Iran may pose to them through its confrontational tendencies, these efforts are immediately depicted by Iran as hostile and posing a threat to Iran’s and the region’s security. Alternatively, Iran proposes a security formula in which it has the advantage and dominates the region in order to resurrect ancient Persian imperial glories, just like Putin’s efforts to resurrect the former Soviet Union.

It could be argued that the Iranian leadership’s bellicose tone since the first day of its 1979 revolution stems from its fear of US conspiracies against it. The experience of the coup against former Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in the 1950s, as well as the strategic alliance between the United States and the Pahlavi monarchy, has fueled this fear. However, subsequent developments in the region, particularly those following the Second Gulf War, demonstrated that Iran is engaging in antagonistic behavior and is seeking to dominate and control its neighbors and the region. Jordan’s king stated that Iran’s proxies in Syria launched attacks against Jordan. This may be the latest in a series of attacks waged by Iranian-aligned militia groups on neighboring countries. Expansionism is the hallmark of Iranian foreign policy, as further evidenced by its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, illegally changing the status quo in sovereign nation states, and agreeing to legitimize geopolitical expansion in flagrant violation of international law which renders such geopolitical expansion unlawful. If Iran wants the region to be stable and establish relations based on good neighborliness, it must abandon all manifestations of its bellicose policy, such as establishing and supporting sectarian militias that work to weaken central governments, undermining the security and stability of sovereign nation states, and pushing them toward fragility and collapse. To name only a few such indications, the future of security and stability in Iraq currently depends on an order from the Quds Force Chief Esmail Qaani to commanders of Iraqi militias loyal to Tehran and pro-Iran political factions in the Coordination Framework. These fanatical militias and factions prioritize Iranian interests and have already brought Iraq to the brink of civil war. They are even willing to push their own homeland toward war if Iran deems this useful for its own agenda.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Dr. Yahya Bouzidi
Dr. Yahya Bouzidi
Researcher at the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah)