Part of Foreign Affairs Report: The Iranian Election

Iranian Foreign Policy After the Election

Realists and Islamic Idealists Face Off

A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili holds his picture after a rally in Tehran June 12, 2013.
A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili holds his picture after a rally in Tehran June 12, 2013. (Yalda Moayeri / Courtesy Reuters)

As Iranians head to the polls today, much of the world is focused on the country’s domestic politics, particularly given the unrest that followed the last presidential election. A question that has gotten less attention is how the choice of president will impact the country’s foreign policy. But in Iran, like in other countries, domestic politics play a big role in foreign policy. The election has exposed the choices available to decision-makers and the political limits they face.

As we wrote in Worldviews of Aspiring Powers, two basic tensions underpin almost all the foreign policy perspectives in Iran. The first tension is between Iran’s outright rejection of the current international order and its desire to improve its own position within that order. The second tension is between the country’s sense of importance as a regional and global player and its impulse to emphasize Iran’s insecurities and strategic loneliness. The one guiding principle of Iranian foreign policy that is in no way up for debate is nationalism, specifically an emphasis on national sovereignty in the face of global arrogance.

These three broad forces shape the boundaries beyond which political players cannot step if they wish to remain relevant. Those seeking improved relations or accommodation with the global order, for example, need to walk a fine line between being seen as promoting the national interest and falling prey to sazesh (collusion). Meanwhile, those advocating resistance to the West and self-sufficiency have to be mindful of the country’s official desire to be the region’s technological and economic leader. And, one way or another, everyone must package their positions in a wrapper of nationalism.

In short, there is near consensus on the broad objectives of Iranian foreign policy: enhance Iran’s role in the Middle East and maintain the country’s Islamic identity despite the adversity of global powers. Where there is room for debate is over the scope of Iran’s foreign policy and the means through which it might achieve these objectives. It would be a mistake to reduce these discussions to a contest between hard-liners and ideologues on the one hand, and those who want accommodation with the West on the other.

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