Small Wars Journal

Islamic Republic of Iran’s Strategic Culture and National Security Analysis

Sat, 01/18/2020 - 4:59am

Islamic Republic of Iran’s Strategic Culture and National Security Analysis

Euan Findlater

Executive Summary

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has a strategic culture that is a confluence of and contestation between history, ideology, religion and modernity. Together, these influences shape Iranian national security outlook, setting, and implementation. The ultimate strategic goals and objectives of Iran are to:

  • Safeguard the IRI regime, national sovereignty, security, and prosperity, as well as revolutionary ideals, by diffusing and defeating both internal and external threats.
  • Enhance IRI’s role and influence as a genuine regional and global power in keeping with Iran’s size, capabilities and historical experience.
  • Achieve IRI’s comprehensive and sustainable long-term development culturally, politically, economically and militarily through the balancing of resources and strategic limitations and by improving geopolitical calculations, stature and engagement.

To achieve these ends, Iran currently acts on a strategic spectrum from historical nationalism, religion and political ideology to modernisation, moderation and pragmatism.

Influences, Motivations and Factors

There are three main categories of influences that drive Iranian decision-making. Firstly, historical and contemporary experiences play a major part in shaping, supporting and promoting national security ideas. These experiences coincide with the second main influence, material and structural factors, such as geography, resources, economics and political structures that provide Iran with both opportunities and limitations in terms of national security. The last category is conceptual factors, which include: ideology, nationalism, religion, threat perception and self-image.

Experiential: Historical and Contemporary

Iran has experienced an array of important changes in its history, which continue to resonate today. Some major events include: Iran’s Persian roots, the Islamic Revolution, Reform and Enlightenment after the 1979 Revolution, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the “Arab Spring” that started in 2010, and contemporary issues such as extremism and the nuclear deal with the United States. These experiences have instilled certain national security notions in the IRI. First of all, Islam has become indivisible with politics, creating a political-theocracy national structure and policy-making that has historically acted on nationalistic and Islamist objectives. Secondly, the need to protect borders, to reaffirm security needs and to increase stability rises from the historical and contemporary experience of Iran being marginalized, isolated and attacked throughout history, particularly by outside actors. Furthermore, these notions coincide with the fact that Iran sees both domestic and regional instability as major security concerns, especially the Anti-Islamist and Anti-Iranian campaign that is being led by the United States and Israel.

These experiences and the focus on supranationalist and ideological policies have recently been challenged with the rise of modernization.

Modernization has affected the social and political dynamics of Iran to an extent that foreign policy objectives have begun to resemble pragmatism and moderation, focusing on geopolitical and economic objectives rather than ideological or nationalistic goals. Subsequently, Iran’s security policies are rationally assessed in terms of resource availability and strategic limitations in order to optimize Iranian power and influence. Such pragmatism can be exemplified in the fact that Iran is willing to engage in nuclear talks in order to gain economic relief from sanctions.

In all, Iran’s current strategic culture and security policies can be seen vacillating between ideological nationalism and geopolitical pragmatism.

Material and Structural: Geography, Resources, and Economics

Geographically, Iran can be classed as a “pivot” due to its influential position as the second largest country in the Middle East that impacts the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as the key waters of the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea. Consequently, Iran has a fundamental geopolitical influence in the world in terms of politics, religion, culture and economics. This position, however, provides both opportunities and limitations.

Limitations lie in the fact that the region it is in is experiencing a lot of instability, stemming from extremism, social and political revolutions, historical tensions and meddling from outside powers.

On the other hand, Iran’s position also has opportunities in terms of hard and soft power. Economically, Iran is one of the largest sources of oil and natural gas in the world. Furthermore, its location allows it to be a vital exportation hub for domestic and regional consumption. In terms of hard power, Iran also has a substantial conventional and asymmetric military capability that continues to show influence in the Middle East. At the same time, its location provides Iran a significant ability to project cultural, political and ideological influence.

Material and Structural: Political Structure and Decision-making Actors

Iran’s decision-making structure is a modern republic with legislative, executive and judicial branches, which is enveloped by a clerical system led by the Supreme Leader who is appointed by the Assembly of Experts – a modern political theocracy. The IRI structure can be summarised by complexity and consensus. It is complex because of the myriad of factions, institutional and non-institutional actors, family ties, personal and religious relationships, overlapping authority and a mixture of competing political, cultural, and religious ideas. At the same time, consensus is emphasised and required throughout the decision-making process. Consensus is enforced through informal and formal means and is required to avoid political disintegration and to achieve basic functionality. The major actors that have power in Iran’s National Security debate and implementation include: the Supreme Leader and his Deep State, The Supreme Council for National Security, the President and his State Government, the Military and Intelligence Institutions, Factions and Personal Relationships.

The Supreme Leader (currently Ali Kahmenei) is the absolute authority in Iran. As head-of-state, commander-in-chief, top ideologue, head of the media, the Supreme Leader has control in all aspects of Iranian decision-making. The current Supreme Leader has built a superstructure of ideology, security, intelligence, government and economy in Iran, which is referred to as the “deep state.” The deep state is composed of personal and ideological loyalist followers of the Supreme Leader. These followers are represented directly and indirectly in all of Iran’s institutions including the government, universities, business corporations, religious communities and the military. All of these followers are devoutly committed to the Supreme Leader and the survival of his regime and deep state.

The Supreme Council for National Security formulates all of Iran’s security policies. Sitting on the council are the heads of all the major institutions, the President, and the Supreme Leader. The council is recognition of the need for consensus among Iran’s policy-making structure and exemplifies how consensus is delivered through either an institution or the Supreme Leader, who has the final veto power to all decisions made by the council.

The President (currently Hassan Rouhani) is the formal leader in Iran’s day-to-day decision-making, similar to any modern-day democratic President; he is the face of the Iranian state and is the chair of the Supreme Council for National Security. Iran’s government includes the parliament, which has the power to approve all international agreements, contracts, and treaties; the judiciary; the Guardian Council, which is picked by the Supreme Leader and has a veto power on all of parliament’s decisions; and the expediency council, that consults the Supreme Leader and arbitrates between the parliament and the Guardian Council.

The military and intelligence services are composed primarily of the Iranaian State Army (Artesh), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). While MOIS is in charge of intelligence, the Artesh are the regular military of the state and are comparable to modern Western armies, the IRGC, on the other hand, are loyal to the Supreme Leader, protect the regime’s security and the Islamic Revolution’s ideological character, and are an integral part militarily, ideologically, and economically in the deep state.

Factions and personal relationships also have significant say in Iranian strategic culture. Personal relationships are arguably one of the most vital factors in decision-making, as those who are close to the Supreme Leader and the decision-makers mentioned above will have a role in shaping security policies. These personal relationships contribute to the outcome of political factions in Iran. These factions are fluid and consist of nationalists, isolationists, hardliners, moderates, reformists, pragmatists and internationalists.

Conceptual: Ideology, Self-Image and Threat Perception

Politics, ideology and religion are indivisible in Iran and are a source of contestation between decision-making actors. Shi’ism, the official religion of Iran, fashions the worldview of Iranians and has formed the country’s political structure as a political theocracy. As a political theocracy, authority and decision-making are directly connected with religion and personal religious ties. At the same time, Shi’ism provides a profound sense of nationalist pride that the IRI regime uses to legitimize and increase power domestically, regionally and internationally. Ethnocentrism and fear of outside influence are two other main ideological factors in Iranian strategic outlook. Iranian political elites believe that the East is culturally and spiritually superior to the West, and that Iranian religious democracy is purer and better than Western liberal democracy. This ethnocentrism combines with a xenophobic tendency that highlights the oppression of Iran and Islam by the West, specifically the United States and Israel. Therefore, Iran sees Western intervention and domination in the Middle East as a direct and existential security threat.

Iranian self-image in terms of national security and being a great power can be summed up in Article 152 of its constitution: “The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based upon the rejection of all forms of domination, both the exertion of it and submission to it, the preservation of the independence of the country in all respects and its territorial integrity, the defense of the rights of all Muslims, non-alignment with respect to the hegemonic superpowers, and the maintenance of mutually peaceful relations with all non-belligerent States.”[i]

Threats to Iranian security are existential, domestic, regional and transnational.

Existential threats are two-fold: internally or externally forced regime change; and cultural, ideological, and political contamination from outside influence.

Domestic threats come from internal ideological and political divisions, including ethnic, religious and cultural differences. These divisions contribute to instability and the potential to undermine the regime through social upheavals, political faction conflicts and terrorism.

Regional threats arise from the volatile context of the Middle East, where instability, social unrest, civil wars, extremism, toppled rulers, corrupt institutions, ethnic, sectarian and religious strife, regional rivalry and outside meddling all play a part. One of the main differences that separate Iran in the region is that it is the only non-Arab nation. Furthermore, along with historical reasons, contemporary threats from regional actors include the fact that Iran falls behind its main competitors, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and Jordan, in military expenditure. In the region, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are seen as the leading threats, Afghanistan is an emerging threat, and Israel is a constant threat.

Transnational or international threats are mainly perceived coming from the West. The Iranian regime believes that the West wants to overthrow the current regime and to stop the Islamic Revolution through overt economic (sanctions), diplomatic (rhetoric and support of Sunni Arab regimes that oppose Iran) and military pressure (the U.S. push into the Gulf and intervention in the Middle East), as well as covert undermining of Iranian culture (Arab Spring). Iran feels constantly threatened directly and existentially by this Anti-Iranian and Anti-Islamic campaign led by the U.S. and Israel.    

Strategic Limitations

  • Alliances & rivalries with other states are unstable and, in terms of alliances, they are for the most part, not mutually beneficial.
  • Iran’s economy is not as big as its foreign policy goals need it to be, creating a substantial strategic imbalance between ends and means.
  • Dispersed and hierarchical internal decision-making emphasises overlap, contradiction and complexity that increases the potential of undermining Iran’s real or perceived power as a functional international nation state.
  • Iran’s political and ideological aims are often in contention, which negatively impacts security decision-making and highlights the internal dividedness of Iran.
  • Iran has no public grand strategic document for internal and external consumption, which adds to the ambiguity, tension, and oscillation between different outlooks on foreign and security policies. Better cohesion, direction and international cooperation could be achieved if a national security strategy was developed.


Iran’s strategic culture and national security outlook is at a critical juncture, where historical nationalism, religion and political ideology are being challenged by modernisation, moderation and pragmatism. As a result, current Iranian national security policies can be analysed as working like a pendulum between supranationalist and realist tendencies. Nevertheless, as long as the current regime is in power, Iran’s decision-making structure, strategic goals and foreign policy behaviour will remain very much the same. Iran will still want to become a genuine great power, as a leader in the Middle East, who also has significant influence on the global stage. This power will come through a comprehensive and sustainable long-term development of Iran’s economy, political system, military and culture. At the same time, a thorough balancing of resources and strategic limitations will help improve geopolitical calculations, stature and engagement. Furthermore, Iran will continue to safeguard, above all else, its regime, its national sovereignty, its domestic and external security, and its economic and ideological prosperity.

Works Cited

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Akbar Ganji, The Latter-Day Sultan - Power and Politics in Iran, 87 Foreign Aff. 45 (2008) Provided by: University of Glasgow Library 

Akbar Ganji, Who Is Ali Khamenei: The Worldview of Iran's Supreme Leader, 92 Foreign Aff. 24 (2013) Provided by: University of Glasgow Library 

Alex Vatanka, How Deep Is Iran's State: The Battle over Khamenei's Successor, 96 Foreign Aff. 155 (2017) Provided by: University of Glasgow Library

Beehner, Lionel. "Iran's Multifaceted Foreign Policy." Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed November 09, 2018.

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Provided by: University of Glasgow Library

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Kaplan, Robert. "The Iranian Pivot." In The Revenge of Geography. Random House International, 2012.

Katzman, Kenneth. Iran's Foreign and Defence Policies. Congressional Research Service. Accessed November 9, 2018.

Kayhan Barzegar & Abdolrasool Divsallar. Political Rationality in Iranian Foreign Policy, The Washington Quarterly, 40:1, 39-53, DOI: 10.1080/0163660X.2017.1302738 (2017) Provided by: University of Glasgow Library

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Sanam Vakil; Hossein Rassam, Iran's Next Supreme Leader: The Islamic Republic after Khamenei, 96 Foreign Aff.v76 (2017) 
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End Note

[i] Iran. Iran (Islamic Republic Of)'s Constitution of 1979 with Amendments through 1989. Accessed November 9, 2018.

Categories: Iran - Middle East - Persian Gulf

About the Author(s)

Euan Findlater is a postgraduate student at the University of Glasgow studying Global Security.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 7:38am

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