Iran Analysis Quarterly

Volume 1 No. 4 – Fall (September-November) 2004

A Publication of the Iranian Studies Group at MIT


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the Iranian Studies Group.



Mahdi Ahouie is a Ph.D. candidate in International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies- University of Geneva, Switzerland. He received his DEA from the University of Geneva in 2003 focusing on Iran’s policy towards the Middle East. He previously studied at Shahid Beheshti University-Institute for Asian and African Studies, Tehran (Iran).






Mahdi Ahouie

Ph.D. Candidate

The Graduate Institute of International Studies, University of Geneva.


     The outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 brought about a series of major shifts in the political and military arrangements in the whole region of the Middle East. Iran, as a very close ally of the West, cut off all of its ties with the United States and subsequently, turned into a deep hostility against all the US allies in the region notably Israel. The revolutionary Iran then began to play the role of a leader in raising and motivating the anti-Israeli sentiments in the Muslim world.

Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s power assets have been deployed in defense of regional autonomy from the West. Iran is now playing the more assertive role expected of a regional middle power in the Middle East.[i] In better words, the Islamic Republic has defined its international identity on the basis of an Islamic/Middle Eastern orientation whereas for the Shah, Iranian nationalism and alliance with the West were of more significance.

     The task of this paper is threefold: first, to describe the main leading factions and concepts in Revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy; second, to present a brief analysis of the Iranian Middle Eastern strategy in the first crucial decade of the Revolution; and third, to discuss the evolutions of Tehran’s approach towards the peace process since the early 1990s.

     Iran’s foreign policy was dramatically reversed following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. After World War II, Iranian leaders considered their country to be part of the Western alliance system. The Shah actively cultivated relations with the United States, both as a means of protecting his country from perceived political pressure emanating from the Soviet Union and as a matter of genuine ideological conviction.[1]

     The Revolution, which was laden with anti-imperialist rhetoric, brought new leaders to power who disapproved of Iran’s relationship with the United States and to a lesser extent, with the Soviet Union. The new leaders were convinced that Washington had tried to maintain the Shah in power, despite the mass demonstration calling for his downfall, and were deeply suspicious of American intentions towards their revolution. These leaders believed that the United States was plotting to restore the Shah to power and were unresponsive to persistent efforts by American diplomats to persuade them that the United States had no ill intentions towards the new regime.[ii]

    The more radical revolutionaries were determined to eradicate all traces of American influence from Iran. Fearing that the provisional government was seeking an accommodation with the United States, some of the radicals precipitated the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Subsequently, they exploited the protracted hostage crisis between Tehran and Washington to achieve their objective of terminating normal relations with the United States.[iii] The severing of ties with the United States was regarded not only as essential for expunging American influence from the country but also was considered a prerequisite for implementing their revolutionary foreign policy ideology.[iv] This new ideology consisted of two concepts: export of revolution and independence from both the East and the West (a form of non-alignment policy translated in the famous slogan: Neither East, Nor West, Only the Islamic Republic). By the time the hostage crisis was finally resolved in January 1981, these ideas were embraced by the entire political elite.

Since 1979 two extreme views have been in contention in the formulation of Iran’s foreign policy: on the one hand were those who advocate exporting revolution solely through education and example. This group has mainly dominated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while on the other side of the spectrum, those who favour active assistance to non-state revolutionary groups have been mostly dominant in the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps and other revolutionary and paramilitary institutions.  

     Because the supporters of an activist approach include some prominent political leaders, the latter have been able to exercise influence over certain areas of foreign relations. This has been especially true with respect to policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon, and the Palestinian issue. However, regardless of their differences, both revolutionary types of leaders agree on the need for a fresh approach to the foreign relations of the new regime. Considering the pervasive image of the Shah's regime as dependent on American power, Iranian revolutionary leaders found a non-alignment strategy to be a suitable alternative not only for their domestic image but also for their international reputation. Thus, non-alignment serves the national and international needs of the Islamic Republic.

*    *    *

     Long before Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers came to power in Iran, they had already set in motion their Islamic ideology and a powerful propaganda campaign against the spread of Jewish influence and especially ‘Zionism’ in the region and in the world. Thus during his exile Ayatollah Khomeini supported all struggle against Israel throughout the world and forged relationship with Palestinian groups, from left to right and from Islamic to Marxist. The Ayatollah accused the Shah of allowing Israel an open hand in Islamic Iran, having military and security ties with Israel, buying arms from the ‘Zionists’ and selling them oil. The relationship between Iran and Israel was an important issue during Khomeini’s struggle against the Shah.[v] Following the success of the Islamic Revolution, strong emphasis was placed on transforming Iran into a fully Islamic society cutting off ties with Israel including economic, political and social exchanges.

     One of the very first acts of the revolutionary government was to denounce the relations with Tel Aviv and to turn over the former Israeli mission in Tehran to the Palestine Liberation Organization.[vi] All trade with Israel was banned, especially the sale of oil. Iranian leaders contended that Israel’s existence was illegitimate, because it came about as a result of the destruction of Palestine. Therefore, Iran advocated eradicating Israel and reconstituting Palestine. Even those Arabs who advocated compromise with Israel, such as Anwar Sadat of Egypt, were excoriated as traitors.

     In my point of view, the Islamic Republic’s attitude towards Israel should not be seen merely in the context of revolutionary or post-revolutionary doctrine: in fact, ‘anti-Zionist’ activism on the part of the Iranian clergy preceded the establishment of the state of Israel, long before Khomeinism appeared as a coherent ideology.[vii] The threat of a possible loss of Muslim land and the unique role and status of Jerusalem as a religious symbol of Sunni and Shia alike helped to facilitate political and communal interaction between the clerical leadership of Iran and Palestine in 1930s and 1940s.[viii]              

     Hostility to Zionism and Israel thus played a vital role as an instrument of Iranian revolutionary mobilization. Anti-Zionism and hostility to Israel as a state must also be set against the background of the extensive collaboration between the Shah and Israel over three decades. During the period of mass mobilization against the regime, it was therefore not difficult to evoke the image of Israel as an insidious ally of the Shah as well as to emphasize its perceived role in helping to suppress Iran’s internal opposition, both religious and secular. The power of such images was not merely rhetorical; it was rooted in the realty of intimate Iranian-Israeli politico-strategic relations as ‘partners in oppression’, as partners in trade (by the end of the Shah’s regime, Israel was receiving 75% of its oil from Iran and Iran was the largest foreign consumer of Israeli arms)[ix], as active collaborators in support of the Kurdish insurgency against Iraq, and as common enemies of such movement as Arab nationalism/Islamic radicalism, etc.[x] The instrumentality of hostility to Israel and Zionism in the struggle against the Shah should thus not be understood as in any way disingenuous. On the contrary, the persistence of anti-Israeli sentiments as a continuing element of Iranian internal and external activism indicated the deep resonance of such slogans, continuing up to the present.

     For Ayatollah Khomeini, the defeat and ‘removal’ of Israel was integral to the ultimate success of the Islamic movement, regionally and, ultimately, globally. As an externally inauthentic manifestation in the area, and the ‘illegitimate offspring’ of superpower arrogance and hegemonism, Israel would have to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated before the Iranian revolution itself could run its full course.  In raw ideological terms, the Khomeinist world-view does not appear to allow much space for the prospect of coexistence between Iran as the prototypical Islamic state and the Islamic movement as a whole on the one hand, and Israel as a separate Jewish polity on the other. Although there is little to suggest that Khomeini’s view of the struggle with Israel was anything but sincere[xi], Iran’s subsequent readiness to deal with Israel over arms for hostages in 1985-6 also suggest that non-ideological and strategic factors can play a role among some sectors of the Iranian leadership in determining policy when necessary.[xii] However, the transactions of 1985-6 did not crystallize into any such general policy and rather, remained largely furtive, intermittent, and opportunistic. There is no evidence of any erosion in the doctrinal impediments to a truly ‘balanced’ Iranian relationship with Israel. The early Iranian-Israeli exchanges may now be seen just as temporary aberrations rather than any significant shift in Iran’s post-revolutionary hard-line foreign policy.[xiii]

     Iran’s hostility to Israel continued after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini as strongly as in the Khomeini era. The Iranian disapproval of the political resolution on the Arab-Israeli conflict is based on this fundamental assumption that Israel has basically no right to exist and that its destruction is a desideratum.

     It could be argued that Iran’s success in its proxy war via Islamic groups in Lebanon and Palestine has rendered a strategy of direct confrontation with Israel both unwise and unnecessary and has preserved a careful measure of deniability for Iranian-inspired actions. The paradox, however, is that Iran does not seek such deniability, nor does it disguise its deep animosity towards Israel. The ‘war by proxy’ therefore has less to do with any perceived need to mask Iran’s anti-Israeli commitment and more to do with its realization that there is not much else that can be effectively done to oppose Israel by force.

     The Iranian position on a political resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is based on a number of fundamental assumptions. The most deep-rooted of these is that Israel is intrinsically uninterested in any true peace because it is tyrannical and usurping by its very nature, and will not or cannot contemplate making any real political or territorial concessions to the Palestinian-Arab side. Concessions offered to Israel, such as recognition or peaceful coexistence, are therefore not merely a betrayal of Arab-Muslim historical rights in Palestine but are also illusory and self-defeating, since they only reinforce Israeli intransigence and bellicosity. But even were Israel to reconcile itself to a compromise based on the partition of Palestine, this would not resolve the problem of the Palestinian refugees evicted from their homeland in 1948. A political solution that addressed only the problem of the territories occupied in 1967 would condemn the majority of the Palestinian people who live outside these territories to a perpetual refugee existence.[xiv] In broad terms, therefore, the Islamic republic have been always opposed to any political resolution that precludes the restitution of Palestine to its rightful owners and the right of the refugees to return to their homeland.

Iran has been critical of the peace process from the start and especially so under Ayatollah Khomeini. It strongly condemned all the initiatives in 1980s for reducing the tension including the Fahad initiative, the Reagan Plan, and the Fez-2 resolution. Iran’s responses to these efforts are instructive as case studies of its reactions to the developments in the peace process. Its ideological condemnation of all three initiatives was robust and unequivocal.

When in 1985 the PLO reached an agreement with Jordan and accepted UN Resolution 242, thereby recognizing Israel, Iran declared that no organization had the right to give away from “even an inch of the Islamic land of Palestine” and accused the PLO of accepting the UN resolution as a prelude to surrender to Israel.[xv] Breaking with the PLO, Iran primarily sought to maintain and develop its ties among the forces most closely associated with its ideological and political trend such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Organisation, and of course, Hezbollah. The outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in Gaza and the West Bank[xvi] in December 1987 appeared to wrest the initiative from Syria – the Iranian ally – and restored much of the PLO’s ability to project itself as a central player in the arena.[xvii] The very unpleasant end of war with Iraq and the death of ayatollah Khomeini within the next two years also weakened the Iranian position and temporarily lessened its influence in the course of the peace process at this time. However, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the coming to power of a Democratic administration in the White House at the beginning of the 1990s, brought about a series of very important changes in the Middle East under which Iran was also highly influenced and a new stage in the life of the Islamic Republic known as the “post-Khomeini era” emerged.


*    *    *

Iran opposed the Madrid peace conference as an attempt to get Arab acceptance of Israel without its conceding Palestinian rights, and to impose Arab submission to Israel.[xviii] The leader of the Islamic Republic denounced it as a plot sponsored by the “Great Satan”, the main advocate of the Zionist regime. According to Ayatollah Khamenei, “The usurper and racist regime ruling over occupied Palestine must be destroyed and eliminated” and a Palestinian government in all of Palestine was the only solution. The Iranian leader located the Palestine issue in the larger struggle of Islam and the USA[xix].

Iran held a rejectionist conference in support of the Islamic Revolution in Palestine in Tehran 19-22 October 1991 which fortuitously coincided with the opening of the Madrid conference.[xx] It was attended by 400 delegates from 60 countries. Iranian leader declared that a PLO that sold out Palestinian rights was not representative of the Palestinians and the conference was supposed to create a rejectionist/Islamist substitute for it. Since many of the main radical Palestinian leaders did not attend, this obviously failed. The conference did, however, discuss the idea of a fund to support the Intifada and an Islamic army to join it, as well as ways to ensure continuance of the economic boycott of Israel.[xxi]

The Palestine issue appeared, however, to remain an issue in the intra-Iranian power struggle. These internal disputes, however, failed to produce a more assertive Iranian policy. Indeed, feeling under siege, Iran increasingly watered down its opposition to the peace process. It adopted from 1995 onward a more moderate policy, though it was happy to see the general slow-down of the process after Netanyahu’s election. The time-president Rafsanjani, however, announced that, while Iran disapproved of the peace process, it “would not disrupt it or break relations with Arab states”[xxii], a policy obviously more compromising than the first hard-line approaches at the beginning aimed at disrupting the peace talks.

Iran, however, did continue to champion and fund the Palestinian Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which carried out several terrorist attacks in Israel and arguably contributed to the election of the Netanyahu government.[xxiii] Iran may, as its critics claimed, have been satisfied at the setback this delivered to the peace process.

Iranian policy seemed torn between ideological opposition to the peace agreement and the need to preserve its alliance with Syria and avoid international and regional isolation. The fact that Iran could actually do little, beyond rhetoric and some financial aid to Islamist groups, as long as Syria was unready to jettison the peace process, encouraged it to restrain its verbal opposition.

Following President Khatami's arrival in office as the new president of the country in August 1997, Israel issued a statement expressing its hope that the new Iranian leader would "open a new page" in relations marked for the past 18 years by Tehran's virulent anti-Israeli stance.[xxiv] But as time passed, it became clear that he has but a little room for manoeuvre in leading the foreign policy. His authority is overly limited the foreign policies of the country are mainly decided upon by the leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. As a result, there has been no major shift in Iran’s general policies towards the Middle East peace process unless the Khatami administration has managed to establish closer ties with Arafat and the Palestinian authority within the past few years. However, the alliance with Syria under Bashar Al-Asad is as strong as the past while Tehran still continues its supports for Hezbollah and the Palestinian rejectionist groups.

Israel started its withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000. At the same time, Barak called Hezbollah for a cease-fire “to build up trust for withdrawal from south Lebanon”, though such a request was immediately rejected by the Iranian officials as a “plot”.[xxv] Iran also announced that it regarded the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as “an admission of both military and political defeats” caused by the operations of the Islamic resistance.[xxvi] Iranian ambassador to Syria emphasised that Hezbollah would continue its operation after the renewal of the peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. He also stated Hezbollah would continue its political and security role inside Lebanon even if its military role was to be restricted under a peace settlement.[xxvii]

In the meantime, President Khatami, in the first official visit to Syria by an Iranian president, hailed Hezbollah as an “ideological and humanitarian movement” that was trying “to liberate Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation” and “to protect the unity and independence of Lebanese territories”.[xxviii] Khatami also met in Damascus with leaders of major militant Palestinian factions opposed to the peace process and pledged support for them.[xxix] Syria and Iran called in a statement for an end to Israeli occupation of Arab territories, including an unconditional troop pullout from southern Lebanon. Iran also emphasised on the right of the Palestinian refugees who are living outside Palestine – mostly in Syria, to come back to their homeland and to participate in the decision making for the future of Palestine. Iranian ambassador to the UN announced that under such condition, Iran would not oppose any democratic process which is supported by all Palestinians inside and outside Palestine.[xxx] At the same time, President Khatami also stated the Iran should not impose its solutions on the peace process.[xxxi]

In the summer 2000, the Clinton administration, in its last days in office, tied a take a considerable step towards a comprehensive peace agreement between PLO and the Barak government. The Iranian government, then, cautiously turned down its rhetorical campaign in order to weight the new situation.[xxxii] At the same time, Syria also started a new round of talks with Israel in hope of solving the Golan problem. The Islamic Republic gave its close ally its full support in these negotiations and even when in one of his speeches, Ayatollah Khamenei attacked the “betrayers to the Palestinian nation” and this was later interpreted as to be criticizing Syria, the spokesman of the Iranian foreign ministry immediately made it clear that the Ayatollah had had no intention of criticizing Syria and stressed “ the Syrians are not meant to deal over the undeniable rights of the Palestinian nation in their talks with Israel and thus, we consider it as to be different from other peace negotiations in the Middle East”.[xxxiii]

But all the hopes for a peace were vanished when a large bloodshed was triggered by right-wing Israeli opposition Likud party leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Islamic holy site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, in East Jerusalem on September 28 of the same year. Hundreds of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs were killed or wounded in a couple of weeks of clashes in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. Subsequently, Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the “brutalities” committed by Israeli security forces against Palestinians, noting that “peace with Israel is but a mirage”.[xxxiv]

In sum, following the collapse of the Camp David and Sharm Al-Sheikh talks and beginning of the second Intifada in the Palestinian territories which coincided with fall of the “moderates” in Israel and coming to power of the radical government of Ariel Sharon changed the whole arrangement in the peace process and made room for extremist fictions to manoeuvre in the both sides of the conflict and in Tehran, as well.

*    *    *

Following the beginning of the second Intifada (Al-Aqsa) in the occupied territories, Iranian leader insisted that new conditions were ripe for the Palestinians to abandon peace process with Israel and for a new era to be found in the region.

The Islamic Republic, then hosted the second “Support for the Palestinian Intifada” conference in Tehran in April 2001, attended by a big delegation from the Palestinian parliament as well as other representatives of the pro-Arafat mainstream but also by the radical Islamic groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad. In this conference, Ayatollah Khamenei that the Oslo peace accords caused divisions among the Palestinians, but “this blessed Intifada managed to restore Palestinian unity”. He promised that even if only a part of the Islamic world’s assets is deployed, “we are definitely going to witness the decline and destruction of the Zionist regime”.[xxxv] In much of the rest of his speech, the Ayatollah held up Hezbollah as the model for how to deal with Israel, calling it a “model and blueprint” and saying that the Palestinian uprising resulted from Hezbollah’s efforts to oust the Israelis from Lebanon.[xxxvi]

President Khatami also emphasised on the Palestinian’s rights including self-determination, liberation of Jerusalem, and a free Palestinian homeland. Khatami called for a referendum on the future government of a Palestinian state, and an independent system of government with Jerusalem as its capital. President Khatami said the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on détente but struggle against the world arrogance and hegemonies is among the principles of the Islamic Republic and Tehran has never abandoned the struggle against Israel and support for the Hezbollah as a strategic principle in its foreign policy.

In March 2002, it was alleged that that Iran was engaged in arms transfers to the Arafat government. These news had a wide backlash throughout the world and especially was interpreted as a sign of renewal between Iran and Arafat. President Bush went so far as to say explicitly that: “Iran’s arms shipments and support for terror fuel the fire of conflict in the Middle East, and must stop”. [xxxvii]

 Ayatollah Khamenei immediately rejected President’s Bush’s statements regarding Iranian involvement in Palestinian activities.[xxxviii] He reiterated Iran’s proposal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “There is only one logical solution…All the Palestinian refugees should return from Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, and other Arab countries to their motherland, Palestine. [Only] the people closely connected to it [the homeland] must return; we are not referring to the people who were brought here from afar [i.e. from Europe]. The people who were in Palestine prior to 1948 are the Palestinian nation – the Muslims, the Christians, and the Jews.[xxxix] They should choose the nature of their desired political system…This is democracy. This proposal, based on the soul of democracy and the rules of human rights, is quite logical, and very practical, and therefore I encouraged all Arab and Islamic countries, as well as all other world nations, governments, and global communities to aim for its realisation”. [xl]

     In March 2002, President Khatami announced for the first time that Iran would accept any agreement reached between the Palestinians and Israel. He emphasized that “any step aimed at attending a true and just peace in the Middle East is a positive one”.[xli] Khatami’s comments reflected a new approach among some of the Iran leaders who believe that in the future, Iran should not act against any agreements reached between the Palestinian Authority and the Arab countries and Israel.

Iran’s reaction towards the American peace plan “Road Map” was also very cautious at the beginning. In Tehran, spokesman of Iran's Foreign Ministry underlined that the Road Map or any other project or initiative can't give fruits as long as Ariel Sharon and the "Israeli Zionist governments are practicing the expansionist policy."[xlii] Iran seems to have fully understood how critical the situation in the region is after the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

     Welcoming the new Palestinian Prime Minister’s efforts, President Mohammad Khatami, during a trip to Beirut, insisted that Iran wanted to “avoid any escalation of tension in the region”[xliii], a conciliatory message well received in Washington. Iran tried not to oppose the Road Map in an explicit way that it had rejected other initiatives before while it is blaming Israel for no being committed to any peace settlement.[xliv] However, as the Road Map has came to a deadlock and the whole peace process has dramatically been threatened by Sharon’s hard-line policies and at the same time, the United States seems to have been distracted by the current crisis in Iraq, the Iranian leaders have once again increased their rhetoric opposition towards the peace process.


*    *    *

Peace Process has been a minefield for the Iranian diplomacy, not only because it threatened to subsume its regional ally Syria in a Western-oriented peace agreement with Israel, but also because it was Iran which was left out of the calculations and the unfolding post-1990 regional order. Although, generally speaking, Tehran could see the problems with the proposed peace process, it was nonetheless rather concerned that the emergence of new agendas between Israel and the Arab states and the Palestinians had left no room for Iranian involvement except in opposition to the whole process.[xlv] This role Iran readily adopted on the grounds that Madrid process was US-inspired (i.e. that Washington had a hidden agenda) and that it was designed to rob the Palestinians of their rights in favour of Israel’s regional ambitions and aspirations. Tehran’s overtly Islamic profile, furthermore, necessitated it opposing the peace process on religious grounds. The destruction of Israel had been at the forefront of Iran’s propaganda since the beginning of the revolution.

In a glance, the Islamic Republic’s behaviour towards the peace process can be analysed as to have passed through three distinct stages:

From the beginning of the revolution to the death of Ayatollah Khomeini: in this period, the Islamic Republic adopted a very hard-line and extremist policy towards any efforts for maintaining peace with “the Zionist regime”. This attitude got root from the basic goal of “annihilation of Israel” as an illegitimate and faked regime based on aggression and religious racism.

The second stage begins with the end of the war with Iraq and coming to power of the dual leadership of Rafsanjani-Khamenei in the beginning of the 1990s. Rafsanjani, then engaged in economic reconstruction of the country, needed to exercise a more moderate foreign policy by which he could break Iran’s international isolation and absorb foreign investments. Rafsanjani made a considerable change in the Iranian Middle Eastern behaviour by stating officially that despite Iran had no trust in the peace process, it would, however, “take no actions to try to stop the peace talks”.

Khatami’s election in the late 1990s as the president brought about a breakthrough in the Iranian foreign behaviour. The Khatami administration adopted that Iran will “accept any outcome that is acceptable to the Palestinians and to the Israel’s neighbours”. Iran, thus, has apparently tried to rebuild its relation with the Arafat government and has implicitly recognized it as the main representative of the Palestinians in the peace talks. Nevertheless, the Khatami administration insists on the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland as precondition for a lasting peace and suggested a referendum with participation of all those refugees to decide the future of Palestine.

To conclude, despite all reduction in rhetoric and some changes in behaviour, I do not believe that the Iran has ever given up its very basic strategy of eternal enmity with Israel. The search for “annihilation of the Jewish states” has become of the identity and characteristics of the Islamic Republic that no reform in the external manifestations of foreign policy or temporary shifts in the foreign behaviour can avoid or erase it. But whether or not a lasting peace settlement in the Middle East could ever be maintained without Iran’s effective participation, is still an open question.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the Iranian Studies Group.





Copyright © 2004 Iranian Studies Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[1] Mark J. Gaziorowski has done a comprehensive study on the origins of America’s close collaboration with the Shah regime. In his book, (US Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building A Client State in Iran, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991) Gaziorowski examines the cliency relationship that existed between the United States and Iran during the reign of the late shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and assesses the effects of this relationship on Iran's domestic politics.

[i] By regional middle power I mean a state which may rank as no more than a middle power in the global system but which is a key actor in its regional system.

[ii] Abdureza Houshang Mahdavi, Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Pahlavi Era (In Persian), Tehran: Nashre Alborz, 1996, pp.499-503.

[iii] For more on this topic, see Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter With Iran, New York, Random House, 1985.

[iv] Henry Paolucci, Iran, Israel, and the United States, New York, Griffon House Publications, 1991, pp.207-240.

[v] Ibid, p.44.

[vi] Ibid, p.45.

[vii] Hussein J. Agha and Ahmad S. Khalidi, Syria and Iran: Rivalry and Cooperation, London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1995, p.33. Also see Khair el-Din Haseeb (ed.), Arab-Iranian Relations, Beirut, Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1998.


[viii] Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran and the Question of Palestine: A documentary History (in Persian), Tehran: Daftar Nashr Farhang Islami, 1376 (1997), pp.163-171.

[ix] For more details on Iranian-Israeli economic cooperation and arms deals, see Houshang Mahdavi, op. cit. pp.283-295; and 378-395; and 440-459.

[x] For an extended discussion on the subject of Iranian-Israeli relations under the Shah, see Sohrab Sobhani, The Pragmatic Entente: Israeli-Iranian Relations 1948-1988, New York: Praeger, 1989.

[xi] Some researchers suspects Iran’s struggle with Israel was a real one. Behrouz Souresrafil, for example, in his book “Khomeini and Israel” argues that such a hostility between Iran and Israel after the revolution was nothing but a carefully planned scenario that was meant to turn out in favor of the both states.

[xii] In the spring of 1985 Iranian emissaries approached Israel claiming to be moderates with a desire to move their country towards the West. The Israelis passed their Iranian contacts to Washington. Reagan was informed of these initiatives. National Security Council (NSC) consultant Michael Ledeen was sent to meet Manuchehr Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms merchant, and mid-level officials linked to Majlis speaker Rafsanjani. The Iranians asked to buy arms and promised to arrange the release of American hostages in exchange. Despite its own arms embargo against Iran, the US government gave permission to Israel to send 504 TOW antitank missiles to Iran in August and September 1985. In response, some of the American hostages in Lebanon were freed. The entire scheme, of course, collapsed when it was leaked to the press, allegedly by a disgruntled Iranian faction via Syrian and Lebanese intermediaries. Its unraveling caused considerable political trouble in the United States. Matters were further complicated because the Americans used excess money from Iran’s payments to obtain arms for the US-backed Nicaraguan Guerrillas, the Contras. In Israel, however, the consequences were minimal. In the foreign arena, Israel lost little in Iran, if only because there was so little left to lose; and the war the pitted two of its enemies against each other grounded on any way, to Israel’s silent satisfaction, for nearly two more years. (I have picked up this brief from Barry Rubin, “US Policy and the Middle East, 1985-1988: The Impact of the Iran-Contra Affair” in Robert O. Freedman (ed.), The Middle East From the Iran Contra Affair to Intifada, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991, p.75. For more details on the Iranian-Israeli arms deal see David Schoenbaum, The United States and the State of Israel, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993 (Translated into Persian by: Mohammad-Reza Maleki, Tehran: Institute for Political and International Studies, 1381, pp.577-594). Also see National Security Archive, The Chronology: The Documented Day-by-Day Account of the Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Contras, New York: Warner Books, 1987. Also Peter Kornblud and Malcolm Byrne (eds.), The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, New York: The New Press, 1993.

[xiii] David Schoenbaum, op. cit. p.594.

[xiv] Several Iranian officials have stated such a fact in different opportunities since the 1980s so far. For example, I can refer to the former Foreign Minister Velayati saying in an interview with “Salaam” newspaper that : “When others talk about liberating Palestine they mean the ‘annexed’ territories of 1967, we mean all Palestinian Land…Iran is the only country which is opposed to the basic existence of Israel”. Salaam, 6 February 1996.

[xv] At the 19th session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) convened in Algiers in November 1988, Arafat and the Fatah leadership pushed through a series of resolutions establishing an independent Palestinian state and accepting Israel’s right to exist by a belated adoption of the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine. The PNC also put forward a peace plan based on a qualified acceptance of Resolution 242, the withdrawal of Israel from all territories occupied in the 1967 war, the dismantlement of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, and the establishment of Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. (For more details, see Janet and John Wallach, Arafat: la Poudre et la Paix, Paris: Bagard Editions, 1996, Chapter 17.)

[xvi][xvi] In December 1987, a collective Palestinian popular uprising erupted against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza areas. This period of violence is known as the Intifada, or "shaking off." At first a spontaneous outburst instigated by false rumours and incitement by Muslim clerics, the Intifada quickly developed into a well-organised rebellion orchestrated by the PLO from its headquarters in Tunis. Masses of civilians attacked Israeli troops with stones, axes, Molotov cocktails, hand grenades, and firearms supplied by the Fatah, killing and wounding soldiers and civilians. Israeli troops, trained for combat with opposing armies, were not well prepared to fight this kind of war. The original outbreak was a misunderstanding seized upon as a pretext. On December 6, 1987, an Israeli was stabbed to death while shopping in Gaza. The next day, four residents of the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza were killed in a traffic accident. Rumours spread that the four had been killed by Israelis as a deliberate act of revenge. Mass rioting broke out in Jabalya on the morning of December 9, during which a 17-year-old threw a Molotov cocktail at an army patrol and was killed by an IDF soldier. His death became the trigger for large-scale riots that engulfed the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. Once the violence started, each incident provided rumour material to keep the violence going. Accumulated frustrations of the Palestinians, largely the result of their own leader's policies, were vented against the Israelis. As the Intifada ran its course from 1987 to 1993, the level of violence and the degree to which it was organized and coordinated by the PLO only increased.

[xvii] In fact, the outbreak of Intifada as a local Palestinian initiative provided the PLO with quite a suitable opportunity to recover its damaged status after the departure from Lebanon in 1982 and to maintain control over the course of events in Palestine that it was long looking for.

[xviii]Op. tic. 15 May 1991.

[xix] The Islamic Republic has been highly interested in Islamization of the Arab-Israeli conflict by which Iran might naturally find more room for manoeuvre in that conflict. For example, the time Foreign Minister Velayati declared that the Palestinian struggle went wrong from the start when it was based on something other than Islam. “The people are prepared to lay down their lives for Islam, but they are less prepared to die for nationalism” (Op. tic. 5 October 1991)

[xx] BBC SWB, 3 October 1991.

[xxi] Op. tic. 22, 23 October 1991.

[xxii] Ehteshami, op. cit. p.189.

[xxiii] Hala Jaber, op. cit. p.175.

[xxiv] See:

[xxv] Foreign Minister Kharrazi stated in this regard: “They [Israelis] have no other way but to withdraw. In fact they have started implementing this withdrawal in practice, but probably it will be accompanied by a series of plots and military aggressions”. IRNA, Beirut, June 18, 1999.

[xxvi] “Kayhan” and “Jomhouri Islami”, two hard-line conservative dailies in Tehran called the Israeli withdrawal a “lesson” for Arafat to learn how to fight with Israel. (Kayhan, 29 Khordad 1379; jomhouri Islami, 13 Mordad 1379)

[xxvii] Interview with Hussein Sheikh Al-Islam, the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), Special Dispatch Series- No. 39, July 9, 1999.

[xxviii] The Associated Press, Damascus, May 15, 1999.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Interview with the former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Hadi Nejad Husseinian, Middle East Insight, Washington D.C., June 17, 1998.

[xxxi] Online NewsHour website:, January 26, 1998.

[xxxii] On the informal side, however, some opposing voices were heard. Kayahn, a conservative daily in Tehran quoted Abujahad, the Hamas representative in Iran, as saying “Arafat sold Palestine for cheap”. The conservative figures continued to condemn Arafat as a “betrayer”. (Kayhan, 21 Shahrivar 1378)

[xxxiii] Al-zaman, 21 December 1999: as quoted in Gozaresh Rouz, Tehran: 2 Day 1378.

[xxxiv] Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Palestine File: 2000.

[xxxv] BBC News, 24 April 2001. (

[xxxvi] IRNA, 24 April 2001.

[xxxvii] Pacific News Service, op. cit.

[xxxviii] MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, No. 365, April 10, 2002.

[xxxix] For the first time, President Khatami suggested in his speech at the annual summit of the United Nations General assembly in 1999 that a referendum would be the best solution for solving the Palestinian problem. Later, as mentioned above, Ayatollah Khamenei also appeared to give his support for such a plan. Briefly, by suggesting a referendum Palestine, Iran implies its opposition to the idea of two separated Israeli and Palestinian states together. Iran suggests there should be only one state in which Muslims, Jews and Christians live together in a sort of confederation system (like what existed in the former Yugoslavia, for instance). But on the other hand, according to the Iranian leaders, only those Jews who had been staying in Palestine prior to 1948 would be eligible to attend the referendum, a proposal which obviously ignores the majority of the Israeli Jews and subsequently makes the result of such a referendum clear before taking place, not to mention that the plan includes the return of all the Palestinian refugees to their homeland and counts on their votes as well. In my point of view, the so-called “Referendum Plan” is nothing but a polite version of the idea of “annihilation of Israel”.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] Haaretz Newspaper, as quoted at: http//

[xlii], 5/13/2003

[xliii] The Economist, 2 June 2003.

[xliv] Ex President Rafsanjani, however, in a meeting with the Iranian ambassadors in August 2003, argued that “the Road Map is unlikely to bear any fruit in the end”, but he did not suggest derailing the plan any way. ( Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcast, 17 August 2003.)

[xlv] Also problematic for Iran was the way in which the peace process was sucking in Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbours and thus adding to Tehran’s sense of isolation and loss of influence in the Persian Gulf sub-region. This sense of diminishing control has been heightened since 1993 with many Gulf states opening direct channels of communications and trade talks with Israel and their willingness to bring the process (at the multilateral and bilateral levels) to the Gulf itself (note Oman’s hosting of the multilateral talks on water in April 1994 which included Israel, the visit of the late Prime Minister Rabin to Muscat in December 1994 and the establishment of direct trade links between the Jewish state and Oman in September 1995, and Qatar’s increasingly overt contacts with Israeli business and political leaders, and Former Prime Minister Peres’ high-level visit to Oman and Qatar in early April 1996).President Khatami was determined to not attend the OIC summit in Qatar in the fall 2000 had not the Qatar government closed the Israeli trade office in Doha. Ayatollah Khamenei also recently suggested: “The Islamic world should seriously consider severing all political and economic relations with the Zionist regime. Such moves would be cherished by their people, and those governments that would adopt them will be supported by their people.” (MEMRI, No. 365, April 10, 2002).