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.


Mainstream Iranian foreign policy thinkers can be seen as fitting into three broad schools: Islamic idealists, regional power balancers (themselves divided between offensive and defensive camps), and global power balancers (themselves divided between rejectionists and accomodationists). It is quite possible for individuals to hold several positions at the same time or move from one to another. For instance, a look at any speech given by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reveals his positioning as both a pan-Islamic idealist as well as an offensive regional power balancer. He has repeatedly called sectarianism a Western plot against the Islamic world and put forward the need for Islamic unity. At the same time, he has supported an aggressive foreign policy against neighboring countries as a means to deflect threats against Iran. Former president Mohammad Khatami has positioned himself as both an idealist and defensive regional power balancer. His ecumenical notion of “dialogue of civilization” is ambitiously idealist and yet his foreign policy of “reducing tensions” with neighboring countries when he was president fell in the defensive mold. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been identified by at least one Iranian political scientist as being an offensive regional balancer and a global accommodationist. It is useful, however, to draw sharper distinctions to lay out the terrain.

First, the idealists: Their aspiration is for Iran to bridge the gap between Shias and Sunnis and promote Islamic unity. Islamic idealism is often associated only with the 1979 revolution and the years that immediately followed, and with the idea of exporting of Islamic revolution. In reality, though, this strain of idealism continues to this day and is no longer so focused on exporting revolution. Instead, Iranian politics is marked by routine calls for pan-Islamic unity and dialogue between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. In terms of immediate foreign policy impact, this school holds that Iran should define its interests in coordination with Islamic countries through organizations such as the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The second strain, the regional power balancers, monopolizes the bulk of the country’s foreign policy discourse. Like foreign policy realists elsewhere, they emphasize their country’s territorial integrity and security. And the country is home to both an offensive camp, which thinks the best way to guarantee that security is to maximize Iranian power, and a defensive one, which would prefer to focus on preserving the status quo. Both versions identify four main goals of Iranian policy: defending the country’s territorial integrity, avoiding international isolation, expanding foreign trade and investment in order to promote development, and making the region less militarized. Because of their agreement on these broad objectives, there are a whole series of narrower goals on which both schools concur, including securing vital waterways such as the Straits of Hormuz, monitoring foreign military forces in adjacent waters, preventing illicit trade, and expanding defense cooperation with countries with similar views.

In addition, both schools of regional power balancers see the United States and its allies as trying to contain Iran’s regional ambitions; something that is not hard to understand given Washington’s own repeated declarations of its policy objectives. But they disagree on the reasons for containment, how much of a threat it poses, and how to elevate Iran’s international status despite the Western pressure. According to the offensive version, the United States actively meddles in Iran’s domestic politics and represents the country as a threat to its neighbors to destabilize it. At the same time, they are keen to take advantage of what they consider to be the United States’ economic decline and other strategic changes in the region, such as power shift in Iraq, that favor Iran. They argue that a gradual transfer of power and influence from the United States to Iran has already started and thus call Iran to highlight U.S. failures and disappointments in the broader Middle East while demonstrating Iran’s strength in places such as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine and even in the oil market.

The defensive balancers also see the United States as a declining power, but they argue that offensive balancers leave unanswered the question of whether American power will damage Iran irreparably before it diminishes. Accusing the offensive camp of pursuing far too adventurist a foreign policy, defensive balancers do not see Iran’s security situation as a zero-sum game against the United States. They view security in broader terms, including domestic stability and economic security and development. This approach informed Iran’s 20-Year Outlook document, which was produced by the government in 2005. The brief, which is still the framework for Iran’s planned economic development, outlines the country’s aspiration to become a fully advanced country, rising to the “number-one rank in economic, scientific and technological progress” among 28 nations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and to engage in effective and constructive interaction with the rest of the global community. The defensive balancers believe that, given the current international economic containment of Iran, an offensive posture would make these goals impossible. Rather, they believe, Iran can best achieve its regional goals if it works piecemeal with the United States on areas of mutual of interest, such as securing Afghanistan and stopping the drug trade.

Finally, the global balancers: They are not especially powerful, and most of their influence has to do with their affinity with the regional balancers and their similar realist focus on enhancing the Islamic Republic’s security. What distinguishes this strain is its near-total emphasis on Iran’s relationship with the United States, not the country’s regional status. Within this group, there are rejectionists who believe that the United States is unable for ideological and geopolitical reasons to come to terms with the existence of an independent and influential Islamic Republic. As such, they believe that their country’s survival depends on pushing back against Washington’s agenda. Supporters of the current nuclear negotiator and presidential candidate Saeed Jalili are on the record welcoming the sanctions regime imposed by the United States on Iran as policy that will allow Iran’s “national capacities” to blossom. They also consider active rejection of U.S. policies in the region and elsewhere as a key element in raising Iran’s global standing. Opposite them, are the accomondationists, who see Iran’s future as tied to some sort of functioning relationship or arrangement with the United States. In their call for accommodation and integration, they come close to the defensive regional balancers. But they hold that Iran can become a legitimate regional powerhouse only through a comprehensive resolution to its geopolitical struggle with the United States.


Put simply, although all Iranian policymakers believe Iran must pursue security and a greater role in regional and global affairs, they disagree about whether those goals are best achieved through integration or resistance. In the last few years, international pressure and threats had increasingly marginalized the defensive and the accommodationist perspectives, strengthening those in all three schools that would rather take a more aggressive posture towards the West. In nuclear negotiations, for example, officials have directly criticized the talks that reformist governments had previously launched with European nations. The gist is that such a policy of appeasement only increased Western demands on Iran, rather than the other way around.

But more and more in the past year, advocates of a confrontationist or offensive foreign policy have faced criticism as well. The argument against them holds that, although their approach did show that Iran is principled and steadfast in the face of external pressure, it isolated Iran, opened the country to a ferocious sanctions regime, and prevented it from achieving regional prominence as a technological and economic power. Ahmadinejad has come under fire for underestimating the United States’ ability to marshal support for the sanctions regime and, in turn, not preparing the country for the coming crush. In turn, all Iran’s presidential candidates have promised better management of the sanctions regime. Similarly, during the presidential campaign and debates, Jalili and his team have come under fire for not showing sufficient adeptness for diplomacy, compromise, and bargaining. The argument is not that he and his team should have abandoned Iran’s “nuclear rights.” Rather, it is that Iran’s negotiators should have anticipated the blow that was about to hit the country and use diplomatic skills and negotiating flexibility to placate Iran’s interlocutors.

Given Iran’s economic woes, this argument is gaining some ground just before the election. Iran’s approach to negotiations, against expectations, is now openly debated. Still, even if Iran’s offensive balancers are pushed out this weekend, a new dawn for the negotiating process cannot simply be assumed. Critics of Iran’s current posture have not seriously debated what they would do if their call for flexibility is not matched by flexibility on the part of the United States. And, given that the United States’ dual-track policy of coercion and diplomacy has (for all practical purposes) been single tracked into a sanctions regime, there is some evidence that it wouldn’t be. In short, even if a more conciliatory team takes charge in Tehran, it still needs to convince others that its efforts to negotiate with the United States would improve the Islamic Republic’s security across all its dimensions. And that will only happen if the United States seems willing to ease the sanctions regime. If not, the more aggressive strains within the Iranian foreign policy establishment may retain the upper hand for years to come.

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  • FARIDEH FARHI is a affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. SAIDEH LOTIFAN is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran.
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