Imam Khomeini’s Viewpoints on Iranian Foreign Policy

Monday, May 26, 2008

Seyed Javad Mir-Khalili 

Since foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran follows suit with Islamic values and ideals, Imam Khomeini, as founder of this form of government, has designed theoretical bases and special principles for its foreign policy approach. Since his viewpoints are of special importance in this regard, here we would try to discuss some of the most important principles and goals of the Iranian foreign policy from the viewpoint of Imam Khomeini by drawing upon his own words and writings.


Foreign policy has always been a controversial field, but its importance in determining destiny of a nation and its value as a means of realizing territorial integrity as well as international credit of the government and promoting its political, economic and cultural agenda has remained largely unexplored. Even other Muslim countries of the Middle East have just come to know the true meaning of foreign policy.

This concept is rooted in the early years after the advent of Islam. At that time, Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) tried to use the principle of lenience toward non-Muslim communities in order to attract them or, at least, reduce their hostilities toward Muslims and that principle had become one of the most important components of foreign policy of the Islamic system. In fact, his goal was to convey the message of God to all nations.

Foreign policies adopted by all countries interact with their environment and this is a focus of attention for policymakers and political analysts of those countries. Imam Khomeini, as a jurist whose political viewpoints are based on jurisprudential principles, has expressed his viewpoints about foreign policy, in general, and foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in particular. He maintained that foreign policy should be based on ideology; that is, foreign policy means external policy of Muslim countries in the face of countries which are located beyond borders of the Islamic country.

Now, we will study various stages of foreign policy in the history of Iran.

Stages of Iranian foreign policy

In fact, there are three totally different periods in the Iranian foreign policy as follows:

1.    Classic period: In that period, the modern international relations among countries were lacking and every country regulated its ties to neighboring states according to domestic factors as well as special principles of governance. Within that framework, they sometimes went further and established ties with neighbors of their neighbors. This period continued until the end of Qajar reign.

2.    Period of undermined independence: This period practically started in the middle of Qajar rule when Iranian elites came to know the modern Western nations. It was a turning point which changed the attitudes of Iranian policymakers as to foreign relations. In that period, the modern requirements and concepts including mutual rights of all countries and their legal consequences were accepted by Iran.

3.    Period of independence: This began after victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Of course, geopolitical situation of Iran has been influential in the formulation of its modern foreign policy.
In the heat of the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian nation which was inspired by the ideas and theories of the late Imam Khomeini chanted two axial slogans of the revolution, that is, “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic”, and “No East, No West, Islamic Republic”. Those principles, which were rooted in religious ideas of Imam Khomeini helped Iran to get out of the closed circle of bipolar world system and move toward new horizons to realize its national dignity, national interests, human rights, as well as mutual respect based on the Islamic teachings.

In fact, that trend set the goals of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy which aimed to establish an Islamic society based on pure Mohammedan Islam, to oppose Israel and the West, especially the United States, and to defend all Muslims and liberation movements of the world.

Fundaments of Iranian foreign policy from viewpoint of Imam Khomeini

One of the main features of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy was reliance on scientific and narrative fundaments. Since Imam Khomeini was a religious leader with political ideas inspired by Islam, he has delineated principles on the basis of the main sources of Islam, including the Book and Sunna. In fact, the Iranian foreign policy is structured after the religious rules.

Therefore, moral and rational values form the fundaments of the Imam’s foreign policy principles. Of course, it should be noted that Islam and religion cannot be limited to ethics and moral rules.

Stressing on the moral nature of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini says, “The objective of this revolution has been to promote Islam, Islamic ethics, human ethics as well as raising humans on the basis of human criteria.”

Elsewhere he has said, “There is no reason why the Islamic government of Iran should sit at the same table with another government which has no belief in Islam and human ethics.”

It should be noted that the basis for defending the rights of the oppressed as a foreign policy principle lies in Quranic verses.

Imam Khomeini also based his notion for helping the oppressed on this adage of Imam Ali (AS) who says, “Help the oppressed and fight the oppressors.”

Islamic government’s foreign policy principles from viewpoint of Imam Khomeini

Principles of foreign policy set a framework of behavior for executives of the Islamic system and abidance by that framework differentiates the system from other modalities of government. In fact, the Islamic government tries to achieve its goals by observing certain principles.

The foreign policy principles delineated by Imam Khomeini, can be considered as an official source for making political decisions by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even the new leader of the Islamic Revolution has frequently noted that the main political line followed by the Islamic system is the same line that has been delineated by the late Imam Khomeini.

In fact, unique features of Imam Khomeini like being a jurist, valor, his uncompromising nature, steadfastness, and mysticism had highlighted his role as a powerful leader which helped him to make decisive decisions with regard to domestic and foreign affairs.

Now, we review principles of foreign policy as envisaged by Imam Khomeini:

1.    Principle of exporting the revolution: Exporting the revolution was a focus of attention for Imam Khomeini which means to export the experiences gained through the Islamic Revolution to other countries. From Imam Khomeini’s viewpoint, exporting the revolution was tantamount to spread of Islam.

The Imam maintained that, “by exporting the revolution, we would be, in fact, exporting true Islam and commands of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in order to put an end to hegemony of world oppressors.”

From his standpoint, to overcome difficulties, we must stand in the face of all powers and export human values from this place to other places in the world. In fact, exporting the revolution was a cultural undertaking.

Explaining about exporting the Islamic Revolution of Iran, Rouhollah Ramezani says, “Exporting the revolution is a fundamental principle in foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran and like the Islamic Revolution, it is reflection of dynamism in the Iranian domestic policies.”

In fact, the main goal of the Iranian foreign policy has been to promote the revolutionary Islam since the beginning of the new government. This goal was rooted in a duty which has been required from Muslims by Quran in order to realize and propagate the divine message throughout the world. Rouhollah Ramezani has reflected on Imam Khomeini’s call for exporting the revolution as having its roots in his ideology and political culture of Iran and adds, “We must energetically export our revolution to the world and discard the idea that we are not able to export the revolution. Islam makes no distinction among Islamic countries. We support all the oppressed. All superpowers and big powers have risen to annihilate us. If we remained in a limited location, we would have certainly to face defeat.”

Of course, to dispel misunderstandings about exporting the revolution, he says, “The fact that we want to export our revolution, does not mean that we want to conquer other countries. All countries should remain in their own places. We want to transfer Iran’s experience in cutting off the hands of superpowers from their natural resources to all nations and governments. This is the true meaning of exporting the revolution which means that all nations and governments should wok to get rid of the problems which are currently nagging them.”

Therefore, we reach the conclusion that from Imam Khomeini’s viewpoint, exporting the revolution is the same as exporting the pure Mohammedan Islam which is among missions and commitments of the Islamic government. As a result, supporting the oppressed nations as well as the global rule of Islam becomes meaningful within this framework.

2.    Principle of “no domination”: Another foreign policy principle advocated by Imam Khomeini was negation of all forms of hegemony and domination. He maintained that living under domination was worth nothing, but it is a free and independent life that is valuable. In view of the Quranic verse, “God does not like to see infidels dominating the faithful”, Imam Khomeini maintains, “Our logic is that of Islam. We mean that you must not be under domination of others. You should not accept hegemony. We don’t want to be dominated.”

3.    Defending the integrity of Islam and Muslims: He maintained that Islam was the source of Iran’s foreign policy agenda, adding, “We are getting ready to defend Islam, Muslim countries and independence of Muslim countries. Our agenda is that of Islam. We seek unity of Muslims; unity of Muslim countries….”

Elsewhere, he considers defending all Muslims as obligatory and says, “Country, in our viewpoint, is not restricted to Iran. We consider all Muslim countries as our own. It should be this way. We must defend all Muslims.”

4.    Principle of mutual respect and non-interference in other countries’ affairs: The Imam maintained that Islam cared for all humanity. “We follow Islam and care for humanity. We are not averse to any nation. Islam had come for all nations, for all peoples…. We announce that we do not aim to invade any Muslim or non-Muslim nation.”

Elsewhere he says, “The Iranian nation does not allow any country to interfere in its internal affairs and defends its freedom and independence while treating all countries in kind.”

He frequently pointed to this principle (good relations with other countries) in Iran’s foreign policy. When the American correspondent of Time magazine asked him about the general foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Imam Khomeini answered, “Our Islamic Republic will be friendly toward all nations and respects them provided that they mutually respected us.”

5.    Principle of negating oppression and supporting the oppressed: Relying on demeanor of prophets, Imam Khomeini maintained that the Islamic ummah followed a school of thought which believed that “nobody should do injustice or accept injustice”.

In his address to ambassadors on February 11, 1981, Imam Khomeini said, “We will neither do injustice, nor accept it.”

In fact, Imam Khomeini expected nations to oppose the oppressors and superpowers. He maintained that compromise with tyranny and oppression was against the teachings of prophets. “We want to implement these two ideas in the world under the leadership of the prophet of Islam: neither do injustice, nor accept it….”

6.    No East, No West principle: This principle, which was one of the main slogans chanted by people during the revolution, was taken from the words of Imam Khomeini who had frequently pointed to it.

“The Iranian nation wants to stand on its own feet without reliance on either West, or East and depend on its own religious and national riches.”

Elsewhere he says, “The fact that our youth chant ‘No East, No West’, it means that none of them should interfere in Iran and this is totally right and logical.”

In fact, he sought to establish a free and independent Islamic government free from inclination to either West, or East in order to assure balance of power in this part of the world.

Foreign policy goals from viewpoint of Imam Khomeini

1.    Independence: Despite international pressures and domestic crisis, this concept did not lead to isolation of Iran. Imam Khomeini constantly stressed on the true rights of the Iranian nation and evaluated all kinds of relations as positive or negative in view of their impact on Iran’s independence.

In fact, political independence is one of those principles which guarantee dignity of the Islamic society. Imam Khomeini considered theoretical and cultural factors as the main factors impairing nations’ independence and maintained that intellectual and theoretical dependence on big powers was the worst form of dependence of nations which gives rise to other forms of dependence.

In his viewpoint, the main way of obtaining intellectual independence was to know our own dignitaries and capacities and maintained that the worst catastrophe for our nation was to think that the West is the origin of everything and we must take everything we need from them.

When talking about independence in foreign policy, we mean independence in policymaking, decision-making, and implementation of those decisions in political, cultural, economic, and defense fields. Although, at the first glance, it seems that political independence is more important, Imam Khomeini maintained that cultural independence was even more consequential.

Therefore, in order to achieve independence, we must attain intellectual self-reliance. The Imam maintained, “The basis is firm belief in these two things: believing in weakness and inability or believing in power and ability. If our nation believed that it could, we would be able to face big powers. That belief would enable us to stand in the face of big powers.”

Of course, he paid attention to economic dependence, which would lead to political dependence and recommended that economic independence should be also achieved. With regard to economic independence, he said, “In addition to material and spiritual benefits that your work brings to you, your country will also become independent.”

Responding to a correspondent who asked Imam Khomeini about foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially with regard to big powers, he said, “The policy of the Islamic government is to protect independence and freedom of the nation, government and country. Independence will be followed by mutual respect and there is no difference between superpowers and other countries in this respect.”

Finally, the Imam believed that political, social, and economic independence as well as security of the country hinged on existence of powerful military and police forces which formed the pillars of every country’s independence.  

2.    Unity of the Islamic ummah: He believed that unity among Muslims and the oppressed and other Islamic nations was the key to resolution of their problems and asked leaders of Muslim countries to withstand their foreign enemies. He said, “O Muslims of the world and the oppressed people who are wronged by oppressors! Stand up and become united to defend Islam and your destiny and do not fear the ballyhoo of powerful countries….”

3.    Helping liberation movements: From the viewpoint of Imam Khomeini, the oppressed should become united to get rid of corruption and avail of a noble life. He believed that they should restrict the power of the oppressors and know that Iran’s policy was based on supporting them. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will stand by all of you and stand by all Muslims of the world and all the oppressed of the world.”

With regard to helping liberation movements, he said, “The liberated nation of Iran totally supports the oppressed nations of the world against those whose logic is nothing but cannons and tanks and whose motto is spearhead. We support all liberation movements throughout the world that are struggling for the sake of God and for the sake of truth and freedom.”

Elsewhere, he said about supporting those movements that “Once more, I declare my support for all liberation movements of the world and hope that they would triumph in their struggle for the realization of a liberal society. I hope that the Islamic government would help them in due time.”

4.    Good relations, tolerance, and friendly ties: In this regard, Imam Khomeini said, “We would be tolerant toward all states and we will never incline toward violence….” He even combined peaceful coexistence with other people of the world with the life among nations and noted, “We want peace.

We want to be in peace with all people of the world. We want to coexist with the whole world. We want to live among people of the world.”

5.    Relations based on Islamic and human principles: Reminding that establishing human relations with any part of the world would be of no objection and Iran would stand by good nations, Imam Khomeini said, “Relations among nations should be based on spiritual matters. In this regard, geographical distance means nothing and there may be neighboring countries with no spiritual relation between them. Therefore, other forms of relations could not be helpful under these circumstances. Our relations with all countries will be based on the principles of Islam.”


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