Iran Middle East Political Reform
Issue Brief July 8, 2024

Is Iran an ideological state?

By Mahmood Sariolghalam

In a new Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative issue brief, “Is Iran an ideological state?,” Mahmood Sariolghalam argues that while Islamic fundamentalism did motivate Iran’s international presence in the first decade of the revolution, the Islamic Republic’s motives have transformed. Namely, after the death of its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, on June 3, 1989, the country’s foreign policy maintains a fundamentalist posture but now prioritizes policies to guarantee its political survival.

From 1989 to the present, Sariolghalam argues, core revolutionary elites have applied ideology and religious symbolism to cloak policies to avoid normalization with the United States, pursue an anti-Israeli struggle to reinvigorate confrontation with Washington, and seek leverage vis-à-vis the United States and Israel by nurturing proxies, an extensive missile industry, and a robust nuclear program.

Regime security, Sariolghalam continues, is the core preoccupation of statecraft in Iran. All other essentials of modern governance—such as economic growth, net-zero policies, infrastructure development, research and development at higher-level institutions, civil society, and entertainment—are either downplayed or considered only insofar as they do not interfere with concerns about survival and security. Realpolitik now drives Iran’s foreign policy.

About the author

Mahmood Sariolghalam

Professor of international relations,
Shahid Beheshti University

Mahmood Sariolghalam is an advisory committee member of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative’s Iran Strategy Project. He specializes in the political economy of development, US-Iranian relations, and Iranian foreign policy and political culture. His current research focuses on the political psychology of authoritarianism and conceptual roots of Iranian foreign policy. He has made 639 presentations in 114 countries over the last 28 years, including at the Brookings Institution, Carnegie, Chatham House, and ASERI, among others.

The Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative (SMESI) provides policymakers fresh insights into core US national security interests by leveraging its expertise, networks, and on-the-ground programs to develop unique and holistic assessments on the future of the most pressing strategic, political, and security challenges and opportunities in the Middle East. 

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Image: Photograph by Mahmood Sariolghalam