Since the 1979 establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iranian regime has sought to export its revolutionary ideology in an effort to establish Iranian hegemony in the Islamic world. American diplomat Henry Kissinger has remarked on several occasions that Iran needs to decide “whether it wants to be a nation or a cause.” In fact, the need to spread the Islamic Revolution beyond Iran’s borders is ingrained in the principles of Khomeinism, Iran’s guiding ethos. In the words of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry ‘there is no god but God’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.”
Khomeinism is a radical Shi’a Islamist ideology that fuses religion and governance, utilizing the principle of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist) to endow a learned Islamic jurist with the role of Supreme Leader who holds final religious and political authority over all affairs of state. Under Iran’s revolutionary system, velayat-e faqih is invoked to demand loyalty to and justify the authoritarian role of the Supreme Leader based on divine right.
The other defining principle of Iran’s Khomeinist ideology is a conspiratorial outlook and enmity toward the West, particularly the United States which is still frequently referred to as the Great Satan. Iran has framed its Islamic Revolution as a supranational liberation movement of oppressed Muslims from “arrogant” colonialist powers who seek to subjugate Islam. Article 154 of Iran’s constitution explicitly states that the Islamic Republic “supports the just struggles of the mustad'afun [oppressed] against the mustakbirun [tyrants] in every corner of the globe.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, explained Iran’s sense of grievance toward the U.S. in a June 12, 2017 speech: “Basically, many of our issues with America are not solvable. The reason is that America’s problem with us is us, the Islamic Republic! The problem is this. … The problem of the U.S. is the essence of the Islamic Republic. That a government and a political system comes into being in an important country like Iran and in a rich land called Iran which takes no heed of the yeas and nays of a power like the US and which says yes and no whenever it likes is very difficult for them to tolerate. … How do you want to “resolve” this opposition? Therefore, our problems with the U.S. are insolvable. Their problem is with the essence of the Islamic Republic itself.”
Iran has pursued a two-pronged approach, encompassing hard and soft power strategies, in order to spread its brand of Islamic fundamentalist ideology throughout the Middle East and beyond. In terms of hard power, Iran has offered financial, ideological, and material support for global terrorist proxies loyal to Iran’s supreme leader. Iran’s backing of terrorist movements has helped Iran establish spheres of influence throughout the region, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Palestinian territories. An extensive analysis of Iran’s support for terrorist proxies can be found here, and a timeline of Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism in pursuit of its revolutionary goals can be found here.
This report will focus on Iran’s ideological expansion through soft power means, examining the key institutions and agents driving Iran’s bid for influence around the globe. Iran has established a worldwide network of religious and cultural organizations, including universities, charities, media outlets, and civic organizations oriented towards propagating the regime’s Khomeinist ideology. Iran has thus anchored loyal adherents to the regime’s religious and foreign policy vision in a diverse array of societies, in turn generating funding and a pipeline of recruits supporting its hegemonic military pursuits around the Middle East.