It has also depended on soft power in the form of anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, and revolutionary rhetoric that has found great appeal among the regionʹs populace, whose own leaders have mostly remained silent regarding U.S. or Israeli foreign policies.
However, this soft power on the "Arab street" has massively lost its appeal after Tehran supported Syriaʹs Assad regime during the Arab Spring. Despite occasional efforts at detente, the Islamic Republic remains far from bridging those antagonisms, not least because it still considers them key to the regimeʹs ideological raison dʹetre and hence survival.
As such, Iranʹs regional policies not only aim to defend the countryʹs sovereignty and national security, but are also connected to domestic power considerations. A key example here is the role played by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its foreign-operations arm, the Quds Force, that is active in Iranʹs regional policies (militarily, ideologically, and economically), which supports its domestic standing as a security and political player and broker.
The IRGC has trained a number of foreign militias – a kind of "Shia international" – especially for its involvement in Syria and Iraq. While these international militias are used outside of Iran, there is growing concern that they might be deployed inside the country to quell growing popular dissent. During the 2019 floods for example, the deployment of hundreds of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) from Iraq, Afghan Fatemiyoun Division from Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah, for relief efforts, caused some public outcry.
It was claimed that calling upon foreign militias instead of Iranʹs own hundreds of thousands of military personnel was also to normalise their presence in Iran. During the 2009 Green Movement protests, some Lebanese Hezbollah forces were deployed to suppress political protests, as an ostensible effort to avoid solidarity with protesters.
Janus-faced foreign policy
The bipolar power structure in the Islamic Republic also translates into its foreign policy, sometimes referred to as Janus-faced: on the one hand, the foreign ministry and the administration are involved in foreign affairs, and on the other, the Supreme Leaderʹs office (a quasi-parallel government) and the IRGC are also active in foreign affairs.
Despite occasional confusion as to who calls the shots in Iranʹs foreign policy, it would be safe to assume that it is the latter group – the IRGC and the Supreme Leaderʹs office – which gives the key directives, especially in regional affairs.
However, Iranian foreign policymaking also involves elite consensus. Or as Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution succinctly puts it, "Iranʹs approach to the world has always been an ensemble performance, not a solo act, and the conductorʹs baton remains firmly in Khameneiʹs paranoid grip." That the right hand knows what the left hand does can be seen in the composition of the Supreme National Security Council, which makes strategic decisions on security and defence policy based on consensus, and assembles figures from both camps.
In this constellation, there is a strong element of complementarity and division of labour between those two wings. As economist Karim Sadjadpour aptly put it: "[Qasem] Soleimani [the commander of the Quds Force] serves as Khameneiʹs sword, projecting Iranian hard power in the Middle Eastʹs most violent conflicts. [Mohammad Javad] Zarif [the Iranian foreign minister], in contrast, serves as Khameneiʹs shield, using his diplomatic talents to block Western economic and political pressure and counter pervasive ʹIranophobiaʹ. […] Soleimani deals with foreign militias, Zarif with foreign ministries."