Iran Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

Iran is a nation in Western Asia. Its capital city Tehran. With its size and strategic location on the Persian Gulf, between the Arab world, Central Asia and southern Asia, Iran is a regional power. Many see the country as a Shi’a Muslim counter-pole to the Sunni Muslim heavyweight Saudi Arabia. But Iran has since been largely isolated, especially in relation to the Western world. Since Iran agreed to limit its nuclear technology program in 2015, the country’s hopes of breaking the isolation increased. Developments were broken when the United States left the agreement and reintroduced sanctions in 2018.

iran military spending and defense budget

Since the violent revolution of 1979, Arab countries and other states in the region have feared Iranian propaganda directed at “wicked” regimes around the world. Iran has supported Shiite Muslim opposition in Iraq and Kuwait, among others. Even the Soviet Union, with a large Muslim population, was troubled by the revolution. Therefore, when Iraq attacked Iran in 1980 (see Modern History), the Iranian regime had no reliable allies.

After the war, which ended in 1988, Iran made efforts to create ties with the Arab world. The regime in Syria became intimately familiar, not least after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Iran played a big part in the formation of the Hezbollah Shiite Muslim militia in Lebanon. Iran also acts as the main sponsor of Palestinian Hamas.

When the United States became militarily involved in the region following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, a side effect was increased influence for Iran, when first the Taliban in Afghanistan and then Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq overthrew. In both cases, Iranian-friendly governments came to power. Among Sunni Muslim neighbors, concerns about an increasingly stronger Shiite sphere of interest extended from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The so-called Arab Spring, with major upheavals in several countries from 2011 onwards, initially seemed to strengthen Iran’s position. The Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power in Egypt and made advances in other countries, had good relations with Tehran. However, the brotherhood soon overthrew Egypt and elsewhere, more Sunni extremist movements took up more space. Countries in the Arabian Peninsula also accused Iran of supporting Shiite groups challenging Sunni regimes in Arab countries. Iran, in turn, criticized Saudi Arabia as it militarily intervened in Bahrain, in support of the tiny Gulf state’s power. In Yemen, Iranians and Saudis have supported each other in a bitter civil war with dire consequences for Yemeni civilians.

The war in Syria has highlighted the divide between the countries in the region. Tehran has spent billions on the support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and helped it remain in power. But the distance has grown between Iran and the Sunni-dominated Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which have been on the side of the Syrian opposition. It has also destroyed much of the “goodwill” Iran has tried to build up among Arabs in common, not least through President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s (2005-2013) violent outburst against Israel. By involving Hezbollah in Syria, the reputation of the Lebanese militia in the Arab world has also sunk.

The developments in 2014 when the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group took control of large parts of Syria and Iraq meant that hostile forces established themselves along Iran’s western border. IS, which also established a Sunni extremist caliphate, considers Shi’a Muslims as apostates who should be obliterated. At the same time, the Iran-friendly government in Afghanistan was weakened. As a result, Iran was surrounded by more or less hostile Sunni Muslim forces. IS advancement increased cooperation between Shia Muslim countries and movements. Contacts have increased between Tehran and allied states on the Arabian Peninsula.

With Iraq, Iran has a close relationship. Since the US invasion in 2003, Shiite-dominated governments have ruled the country, but Iran’s active involvement and economic dependence on Iran is not seen with a positive eye by all Iraqis, not even by all Shi’a groups. In Iraq, there are two of the most sacred places of Shia Islam, Karbala and Najaf, and the country has the world’s second largest Shiite population (after Iran).

The situation that emerged in the region with IS also meant that Iran gained common interests with the United States, which in 2014 launched air strikes against IS in which several Arab states participated.

Since the revolution, the United States has been designated “the great Satan”. The US role when Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq was overthrown in 1953 and the revolutionaries’ occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 are events that have poisoned relations between the countries. The United States has sought to isolate Iran internationally and supported Iraq during the war between the two countries in the 1980s. Washington has accused Tehran of supporting international terrorism, undermining peace efforts in the Middle East, committing human rights violations and trying to acquire nuclear weapons. The United States introduced sanctions for the first time as a result of a long-standing hostage frame in 1979.

President Khatami (1997-2005) sought to achieve better relations with the West, but he was thwarted by conservative forces within the country. In addition, some time after the regime change in the White House in 2001, the US attitude became more aggressive. President George W Bush branded Iran as one of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea, which were said to pose a threat to the United States. Other statements suggested that the United States was prepared to actively support groups trying to overthrow the regime in Iran.

Nuclear energy dispute

At the same time, US criticism of Iran’s nuclear program increased. There were suspicions that Iran was striving to develop nuclear weapons. In 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) became aware of two new nuclear facilities in Iran, which meant that the country had acquired the opportunity to produce nuclear weapons. For several years, accusations, promises, cooperation calls and demands for inspections were carried out without progress. The EU and several countries also adopted their own sanctions, alongside the UN, due to growing concerns over the nuclear program. The dispute was brought to the UN Security Council, which in 2006 adopted a first resolution on limited sanctions unless Iran stopped enriching uranium. The UN sanctions were gradually expanded.

Tehran has constantly asserted its right to continue with the nuclear program, which is said to have only peaceful purposes. However, the IAEA has not been able to confirm that the goal is solely to develop nuclear power and not nuclear weapons.

Following a sharp report by the IAEA, stating that Iran had enough nuclear fuel to eventually produce two nuclear weapons, the 2010 sanctions were tightened with expanded arms embargo and measures against Iranian individuals, several from the Revolutionary Guard, as well as banks, shipping companies and other companies. In addition, as in the past, the US and the EU went further and increased their own, bilateral, sanctions in 2012.

All in all, the penalties of the outside world have been described as the most extensive and harsh measures taken against any country. It became difficult for companies, individuals, banks and government agencies to interact with the outside world. Iran’s customers in Europe stopped buying oil almost overnight. Money transactions and bodies linked to Iran’s central bank were banned, government assets abroad were frozen, and balances with hundreds of state and semi-state companies were banned.

After 2011, the sanctions became increasingly noticeable in Iran, which experienced a sharp slowdown in growth and became increasingly isolated (see Economy). Negotiations continued, between Iran, on the one hand, and the UN’s five permanent members, and Germany on the other (a group called P5 + 1 or sometimes EU3 + 3: France, the UK and Germany, and China, Russia and the US).

The change of power in Iran in 2013 provided better conditions. In November of that year, a settlement described as historic came: Iran promised to limit the enrichment of uranium in exchange for relief in the sanctions. It was the first time a concrete result was achieved after years of talks. A provisional agreement was concluded and extended in two rounds. The deadline for reaching a permanent settlement was extended to mid-year 2015. The crack question was how long it would take for Iran to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon. Iran wanted the right to continue enriching uranium on a large scale and, of course, getting the sanctions lifted.

In July 2015, after intensive negotiations in Vienna, the parties agreed on an agreement under which the Iranian nuclear program would be severely lost and UN inspectors allowed to ensure compliance. In return, the international trade sanctions would be abolished. However, the arms embargo against Iran would remain for five years. The deal was hailed in large parts of the world but criticized harshly by Israel and met with skepticism in conservative Republican circles in the United States. The reactions, even from Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, were the same when most international sanctions were lifted in January 2016, when the IAEA confirmed that Iran had lived up to its commitment to reduce its nuclear technology capabilities.

During the negotiations, the Israeli right-wing government called on the United States to tighten its policy against Iran. Israel regards Iran as a threat to its existence and has made threats of air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. The suspicion is based not least on former President Ahmadinejad’s statements to eradicate “the Zionist regime”. It is known that Iran and Israel carry out hacker attacks against each other.

With Donald Trump as president, the US tone against Iran sharpened again. After several months of harsh criticism of the nuclear agreement, Trump announced in May 2018 that the United States has decided to withdraw from the agreement and reintroduce harsh sanctions. In principle, this meant that the United States left the agreement – but demanded that Iran continue to follow it. Trump made no reference to Britain, France and Germany trying to persuade the United States to hold on to the deal. Like the United Nations Atomic Energy Agency, the Western countries held that Iran had not violated the terms of the agreement. Since then, however, Iran has taken several steps to abandon the nuclear agreement. These include enrichment of the radioactive substance uranium, which Iran agreed to restrict in the agreement, storage of heavy water, which can be used to produce weapons plutonium,

By the beginning of 2020, tensions between the United States and Iran had grown so strong that it led to direct fighting, on Iraqi soil where both sought influence. The decisive step was that President Trump ordered a killing robot attack against General Qasim Soleimani. As head of the Revolutionary Guard’s overseas efforts through the elite force Jerusalem Force, Soleimani had been the key player in Iran’s contacts with Shiite forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

While EU countries sought to save the nuclear deal, the EU has also sharpened the tone against Tehran, for other reasons: Iran is accused of brutally prosecuting regime-critical exile Iranians on European soil. In addition, Iran uses recurring foreign nationals, who have been arrested on unclear grounds, as playing fields in negotiations with other countries (see Calendar).

The sanctions also create tension in Iran’s relations with other countries. China, India and Turkey, who are all major oil buyers, are being pressured by the sanctions to turn to Saudi Arabia instead. Iran is strategically located on the Persian Gulf, and sometimes makes use of its opportunities to disrupt traffic by tankers through the important strait. But this is also a strategy that could benefit the United States, whose oil production has grown strongly through modern extraction of shale oil. Iran may put obstacles in the way of oil states on the Gulf, but not for US oil exports, which on the contrary can benefit from it.

With the United Arab Emirates, Iran has a dispute over the islands of Abu Musa, Great Tunb and Little Tunb in the Persian Gulf. The islands are controlled by Iran.

Iran competed with Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence in the states that formed in the Caucasus and Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Summer 2018, after protracted contradictions, concluded an agreement between the five countries that coast towards the Caspian Sea. Iran has stood alone in its demand that the sea be divided into five equal parts, no matter how long the coastline is. The result was a compromise, which gives the Caspian Sea “special status”, but several issues have not been resolved in the long term.


Iran has since the revolution two parallel armed forces, the regular armed forces and the Islamic revolutionary guard (also called the pasdaran).

The Revolutionary Guard was established after 1979 and serves as both semi-military force and intelligence service. The force played an important role in crushing the opposition after the revolution and in the war against Iraq. It has also become an economic power factor (see Finance). Within the guard is an elite force, the al-Quds Brigade, who is accused of secret involvement in other states’ conflicts through, among others, Hezbollah, Hamas and support for Shia groups in Bahrain and Yemen, among others.

The Revolutionary Guard also controls the people’s militia. It can mobilize hundreds of thousands of militia.

The armed forces were weakened by purges after the 1979 revolution and the long war against Iraq 1980-1988.

War materiel used to come mainly from the United States and the United Kingdom, and much of it today is outdated or unusable. In recent years, Iran has purchased weapons mainly from former Soviet republics, China and North Korea, and has also developed a domestic weapons industry.

While the Air Force has become outdated, Iran has instead focused on domestic development of robotics. Iran now has robots capable of reaching both Israel and Saudi Arabia, both conceivable targets in a war situation. In 2017, Iran also showed off a robot capable of carrying multiple warheads.

In 2020, in the wake of several months of paratroopers in the Gulf of Persia, it was reported that the Revolutionary Guards naval forces were expanded by 110 new vessels, among them fast tanks, patrol boats and submarines.

Reading tips – read more about Iran in the UI’s online magazine Foreign magazine :
The Iran-US crisis: a golden state for mediation? (2020-02-10)
The Russia-Iran Relationship in a Sanctions Era (2019-11-20)
Hans Blix: From an isolated Iran to an isolated US (2017-11-04)
Trump wants to provoke Iran to submit nuclear technology agreement (2017 -10-13)
China offers to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran (15/03/2017)


Army: 350,000 men (2017)

The air Force: 30,000 men (2017)

The fleet: 18,000 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 3.1 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 15.8 percent (2017)



Concessions on uranium enrichment

Iran agrees to cease most of its enrichment of uranium, in a deal with the EU.


Criticism from UN agencies

The IAEA criticizes Iran for lack of cooperation.


Reform candidates are excluded from elections

Thousands of reformers are disqualified by the Guardian Council before the parliamentary elections. The Conservative camp in politics is regaining control in Parliament.



Iranian Peace Prize Awarded

Human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


The UN requires notification of nuclear projects

The United Nations Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gives ultimatum to Iran to prove that it does not plan to manufacture nuclear weapons.


Student protests against the clergy

Thousands of students participate in protests in Tehran against the conservative clergy.