Today, I intend to examine the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Expansionism, which is at the heart of the region’s instability and the core of Iran’s foreign policy.
President Trump’s first overseas trip was to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The trip underscored our commitment to partners in the Middle East. The President reaffirmed our goal of working closely with them and others around the world to combat violent extremism.
As the President said in Riyadh, one of the great challenges of our time is to, “conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.” Defeating terrorism and the corrosive ideology that drives it, the President said, is vital for peace in the Middle East.
As part of this message, President Trump called out Iran for its continued support of terrorism. He condemned the Islamic Republic for fueling the fires of sectarianism and called on all nations of conscience to work together to isolate Iran and deny it terrorist funding.
Since the President’s visit in May, the United States has imposed unprecedented pressure on the Iranian regime to do just this: deny it funding for terrorism.
Our pressure is making the regime’s extremist foreign policy and the ideology that drives it more expensive than ever before. This was long overdue. The regime has spent at least $16 billion supporting proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen over the last several years. It has spent hundreds of millions on the Houthis. It has provided Hizballah almost $700 million annually and gave more than $100 million a year to Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Our maximum pressure campaign is reducing this cash flow and depriving the regime of billions in revenue. Our oil sanctions alone are denying the regime up to $50 billion. Iran’s proxies, including Hizballah, are already complaining of a lack of funding. As our pressure continues, it will become harder for Iran’s proxies to get by. We call on all nations to join us in this effort. It is the right and responsible thing to do, morally and strategically.
Another key objective of our policy is to pressure the regime into changing its destabilizing behavior. We seek comprehensive negotiations that are truly comprehensive. This includes the nuclear file but also Iran’s role in the region, its missile development, support for terrorism, and wrongful detention of dual and foreign nationals, including many American citizens.
Since Iran’s clerics seized power in 1979, the world has sought but failed to address the full scope of these issues. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was insufficiently comprehensive. The Islamic Republic’s destabilizing ballistic missile program, support for terrorism, and wrongful detention of American citizens were not part of the agreement nor were they put on the table after the agreement was concluded. In fact, the ban on Iran’s ballistic missile testing and development was relaxed under the deal. Consequently, Iran’s malign activity not only continued, but in many cases worsened.
After 40 years of trying and falling short, what has been the international community’s response to Iran’s continued malign behavior? It has been to temper its expectations, narrow the scope of its demands, and ultimately play by Iran’s rules. The Iran nuclear deal very much reflected this calculus. This failed approach has only fueled the regime’s expansion across the region, a story one hears repeatedly from countries in the Middle East.
The Trump Administration is challenging this status quo. We are rejecting the defeatist mentality that has creeped into the world’s approach to Iran and tilted the balance in its favor.
We are not only exposing the scale and scope of Iran’s malign activity – and seeking actively to diminish its role in the region and reverse its gains – we are also shedding light on one of the root causes of its extremism, which I will discuss today: its violent revolutionary expansionism.
The Islamic Republic’s never-ending quest to lead the Muslim world has led it to adopt a revolutionary foreign policy that is among the greatest and most overlooked obstacles to peace.
If we hope to realize a more stable Middle East and a brighter future for its people, we must appreciate the Islamic Republic’s ideological commitment to exporting revolution. The world must together press the regime to change this behavior and to play by the rules. There is no more fitting time or place to have this discussion than on the margins of UNGA today.
I want to start this conversation with a historical reference point.
In 1981, two years after Iran’s 1979 revolution and one year after the start of Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khomeini summed up the global aspirations of the newly founded Islamic Republic. As he said then, the Islamic Republic had, “set as [its] goal the world-wide spread of the influence of Islam.” He added that, “we wish to cause the corrupt roots of Zionism, capitalism and Communism to wither throughout the world. We wish…to destroy the systems, which are based on these three foundations, and to promote the Islamic order of the Prophet.”
His mission was an inherently ideological one and his aspirations were truly global.
Soon after the Shah was deposed by a large and diverse cross section of Iranians, the country’s extremist clerics acted quickly to squash dissent and rid Iran of secular parties, traditions, and institutions. Many Iranians disagreed with the clerics’ vision of religious rule but they were dealt with brutally, a harbinger of things to come. Thousands of Iranians were killed or jailed in the period immediately after the revolution. Thousands more fled the country.
Ultimately, clerical rule prevailed in Iran. To Khomeini and his advisors, the only genuine form of acceptable authority was religious authority. All others were viewed as illegitimate.
The Islamic Republic’s early foreign policy vision reflected this view. In 1979, Khomeini made this vision clear. “We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” he said. “Until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.” Non-theocratic societies became targets of Iranian aggression.
In remarks on the eve of Nowruz in 1980, Khomeini underscored that spreading the revolution was at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s founding. “We shall confront the world with our ideology,” he said. “We should try hard to export our revolution to the world.”
With the rise of Islamist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS today, we have grown accustomed to this kind of extremist rhetoric and the global jihadi aspirations of violent Islamists. However, it was unique then. It was the first time in the 20th century – indeed, in contemporary history – that Shia clerics seized political power, violently rid a state of secular institutions, and put in place an Islamic government committed to revolutionary expansionism.
The expansionist view of the revolution’s role in the world was among the Islamic Republic’s most important organizing first principals. Today, it remains one of its most enduring.
The current Supreme Leader, Khamenei, has remained faithful to this vision of revolutionary expansionism. In a 2013 speech to religious leaders, he reaffirmed that the, “final goal cannot be anything less that creating a brilliant Islamic civilization” encompassing many countries.
Under his rule, Iran has maintained its support to terrorist proxies, expanded its funding to Shia militias in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, and continued to organize acts of terrorism globally.
Over the last 40 years, there has been a remarkable consistency to how the Islamic Republic has sought to advance its foreign policy of revolutionary expansionism. It has and continues to view foreign relations as a way of solidifying its revolution at home and extending it abroad.
The Islamic Republic coopts and undermines the structures of the modern state – especially the principle of sovereignty and the tools of diplomacy – to subvert international norms, advance its malign objectives, and export revolution. An irony too many nations overlook at their peril.
This irony did not escape former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In reflecting on it, he noted that, “with Iran’s revolution, an Islamist movement dedicated to overthrowing the Westphalian system gained control over a modern state.” Iran’s clerics asserted the Westphalian privileges afforded to it as a sovereign state, while at the same time making clear that they did not believe in those privileges, would not be bound by them, and ultimately sought to replace them.
Since the 1979 revolution, the leaders of the Islamic Republic have been welcomed into the community of nations. They have taken their seat at the United Nations and today enjoy the privileges of statehood. Yet their revolutionary commitment to tearing this community apart by violating its most fundamental norms endures. This includes the sovereignty of other nations, freedom of navigation, and the principle of using diplomacy over violence.
The best example of this is how the regime leverages and unleashes on the region its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. The IRGC appears on the surface to operate like a traditional military force. It has an air force, navy and special operations branch. It has a traditional command and control structure. It has generals, training facilities, and internal doctrines. Accordingly, it benefits from the privileges afforded to Westphalian states.
Yet look under the hood, and there is very little normal about the IRGC. At its core, it is a corrupt organization designed to protect the revolution at home and advance the regime’s revolutionary ideology abroad. It has institutionalized terror. It fuels regional instability. And it protects the narrow interests of Iran’s corrupt elite. The IRGC exports Iran’s revolution to places like Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Revolutionary expansionism is at its core.
Take for example the IRGC’s decades-long involvement in Lebanon. Since the early 1980s, the IRGC has undermined Lebanese sovereignty to cement Iran’s influence in the Levant. The regime has historically provided Hizballah with as much as 70 percent of its operating budget.
It has poured precision rockets and small arms, and a steady stream of military experts into Lebanon, undermining the integrity of the Lebanese state. Hizballah’s military prowess enables Iran to extend its own borders and target Israelis and Americans. Hizballah has killed more Americans than any terrorist group other than al Qaeda.
We can also look to the IRGC’s role in Yemen. There, the Islamic Republic feigns support for diplomacy, while using the revolutionary tools of the IRGC to undermine peace and security.
As I wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Iran is using Yemen to increase its status as a regional power and extend the borders of its revolution yet again. IRGC military assistance has allowed the Houthis to challenge the authority of the Yemeni government in ways that otherwise would not have been possible. The IRGC provides the Houthis with hundreds of millions of dollars and an arsenal of advanced weaponry. Anti-ship missiles, explosive-laden boats and mines have flowed into Yemen, thanks to Khamenei.
The IRGC’s activities in these two cases are inconsistent with international norms, yet are entirely consistent with the regime’s revolutionary worldview, for which state sovereignty is a pliable concept invoked when useful but otherwise under assault by Iran’s clerics.
This is why Secretary Pompeo took the historic step of designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization in April. This was the first time that the United States had designated a government entity as an FTO – a decision that was long overdue given the IRGC’s unprecedented support for terrorist proxies around the world.
With this designation, the IRGC joins a list that includes many of the same terrorist organizations that it actively sponsors and supports. This includes organizations like Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Kata’ib Hizballah, and al-Ashtar Brigades. All of these organizations are FTOs and all of them benefit from the IRGC’s active patronage. The United States is dispelling the fiction that the IRGC operates like a normal state actor. It does not.
It would be tedious to rehearse all the other ways Iran has violated international norms in the last month, let alone over the last 40 years. Scores of books have documented the regime’s taste for violence and brutality to advance its revolution, which is a hallmark of its ideological roots.
Yet despite the regime’s actions in defiance of our shared values, there is a dangerous culture of inaction within the international community when these norms are violated. Rather than hold Iran to account, the impulse is to paper over their duplicity. Nations look the other way, pretending to believe Foreign Minister Zarif’s version of reality, even when they know it’s false.
To give a recent example: Nations watched video footage of the IRGC Navy handle a limpit mine next to a tanker that was set on fire by the IRGC Navy on June 13. Zarif told the world that the navy was actually coming to the rescue of the crew and was dismantling the mine.
The world believed it, or at least pretended to, even though the claim was absurd. Fewer than five nations in the world condemned Iran by name for the tanker attacks. And yet the video, now public, shows that the IRGC personnel took no safety precautions when approaching or removing the mine, suggesting they knew how it was intended to function and exactly where it was. The procedures the IRGC personnel followed were inconsistent with standard safety practices that any Explosive Ordnance Disposal team would employ when approaching an unknown ordnance. The removal of the mine was an attempt by Tehran to hide its involvement in the attacks. Those who listened with credulity and accepted Zarif’s sophistry weakened the very international norms we are here in New York this week to strengthen.
An even more recent example is Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia. We know based on intelligence and open source analysis that these attacks were conducted by Iran. We are confident in this assessment. The evidence, including the complexity, scope, and impact of the attack, indicates this is the case. Yet Iran, from its President on down, has maintained that the Houthis are responsible. Let me be clear: the attacks were more complex, larger in scale, and more precise than anything the Houthis are capable of executing. Accepting the Iranian version of events undermines international security and conveniently demands nothing of nations in response.
Iran’s diplomats are skilled and understand the importance of appearing to maintain a fidelity to well-established international norms and principles, even while violating them. In 1981, shortly after the revolution, Khomeini lamented the Islamic Republic was not doing enough to refine its image abroad. As he assessed, Iran had been “at near zero in [its] propaganda abroad.” Maintaining a positive image was vital to spreading the revolution. Iran knows the value of strategic messaging and it knows that if it is not playing messaging offense, it is losing.
The international community, including the UN, buys into this routine more often than it challenges it. Take for example a few months ago when the UN appointed the Islamic Republic to a seat on the Commission on the Status of Women. The commission promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment. By the UN’s own standards, Iran has no place on such a body.
In Iran, according to the UN Special Rapporteur Report on Human Rights in Iran, women who do not wear a veil are subject to a prison sentence, flogging or a fine. Iranian women peacefully advocating for their rights are routinely subject to harsh punishments.
Inviting Iran to serve on this Commission was like inviting the arsonist to help put out the fire. It is, however, standard practice now. Rather than challenge the Islamic Republic’s policies, the first instinct is to accommodate and make room. This approach rewards the Islamic Republic’s bad behavior, and invites even more of it.
What would it look like to challenge the Islamic Republic’s record on women’s rights?
Well we saw a recent example just last week when FIFA challenged the regime’s policy of prohibiting women from attending soccer games. Following the tragic self-immolation of an Iranian woman who was protesting the rule, FIFA condemned Iran and the world joined. Amidst mounting pressure, Iran agreed to permit women to attend the next international match. We will have to see if it follows through on this pledge.
This kind of concerted, global pushback against Iran is the exception, not the rule. If we challenged Iran more than we accommodated it, we would see more behavior change.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is the last truly revolutionary regime in the world. Unpacking its ideology provides us with a more accurate understanding of its role in the region today.
Ideology is certainly not the whole story. Iran’s leaders are pragmatic revolutionaries who weigh risks like anyone else. The decisions they end up making are always at the nexus between pragmatism and ideology. There is always room for negotiation, flexibility, and compromise.
However, their ideology, rooted in the strong sense of revolutionary expansionism I have laid out, plays an outsized role in shaping the contours and contexts of their foreign policy.
It helps explain why Iran’s leaders provide weapons to proxies in secret while denying it in public. Or why they orchestrate terrorist attacks abroad then blame western nations as soon as they’re exposed. The regime’s revolutionary expansionism is at odds with the values of nations around the world. It is at odds with the values, aspirations, and principles of the United Nations.
It is now up to Iran’s leaders to decide whether to continue business as usual and invite even more pressure from the United States, or to meet us at the table. We hope pragmatism will prevail in Iran but we are equally prepared to defend our interests if it does not.
Iran’s leaders must change their approach. They must reconcile their revolutionary foreign policy with international principles and norms. The two are fundamentally incompatible.
They should lead their nation in the noble tradition of the leaders who came before them. Historic figures like Cyrus the Great, who Biblical prophets said was destined to save the Jewish people, are nothing like Iran’s current leaders, who call for Israel’s destruction.
Iran’s leaders must abide by rather than subvert the international order. Once they do, then they can take up their place in the community of nations.
However, until then, our pressure will continue. We are raising the costs of Iran’s revolutionary adventures while increasing incentives for pragmatism to prevail. The international community needs to be a part of this effort. Nations around the world need to hold Iran accountable and join us in pressing for behavior change. Silence amounts to complicity.
As I mentioned, the Trump Administration is doing its part.
Our pressure campaign is aimed at changing the regime’s behavior and we have made our demands clear. We want Iran to cease its support to terrorist groups and reject extremism. We want Iran to use diplomacy to meaningfully address and resolve conflicts, not as a slight of hand to fuel and prolong them. We want Iran to respect the sovereignty of all nations, friend or foe. We want Iran to spend less time scheming on how to undermine its international obligations and more time figuring out how to live up to them.
The United States holds every nation to these same standards.
Iran’s aggression over the last several months makes clear that it does not want to be challenged in this way. It means we are doing the right thing. Iran has conditioned us to accept a regular level of violence and lawlessness out of fear of something worse. This practice is known as extortion. The regime seeks to buy our silence by acting like the biggest outlaw regime in the world. They create conflicts through violence, then act as if they are the only ones who can solve them.
The world is tired of living in fear of Iranian aggression, countries in the region certainly are. This is why Israelis and Arabs have come together in historic fashion to demand the world act to hold the regime accountable. They are tired of the violence, and tired of the world believing Iran’s lies. Our efforts are aimed at addressing these concerns so that peace has a chance.
The international community’s efforts should be focused on this, too.
We must all strive to constrain Iranian expansion in place like Lebanon, Syria, the Golan Heights, Iraq and Yemen. The world must come to terms with Iran’s ambitions and counter them, or the Iranian Crescent will soon enough become a full moon.