From Cornell International Affairs Review VOL. 1 NO. 1
Discerning Iran: Exploring the Motives for Iranian Foreign Policy
Case Study of Iranian Foreign Policy The Nuclear Energy Program in Perspective
In his article “Dealing with a Nuclear Iran,” Kori Schake raises some interesting questions about Iran’s nuclear energy program. He notes,
The Iranians have the indigenous technical ability, and possibly nuclear material, to build nuclear weapons right now. They can do it if they want to, and we [the US] know so little about their program they could likely achieve it without detection. The question is why they're so intent on detection.14
In answering this question, we look to the arguments already made in this paper. The Iranian regime is inflating the nuclear energy issue by bringing it to international attention and then being defiant about American demands, because they realize the more aggressive the US government becomes, the more the Iranian people will rally behind the regime, and validate its right to government despite falling legitimacy on other fronts in the domestic political scene.
Returning to the regime’s strategy of using sociological forces, we see how the nuclear threat can raise both nationalism and the specter of uncertainty. In a speech to students in the Iranian city of Shiraz, Ahmedinejad declared, “The Iranian people will stand firm on the nuclear issue to acquire all their rights, will continue solidly to reach the summits of perfection and will raise their fists to insist on their rights!”15
By tying Iran’s nuclear energy project to its inevitable growth as a regional power, the regime has tactfully connected the nuclear program to the Iranian people’s profound sense of nationalism. Because the program is the regime’s pet project, it has cemented its own position as the leader of the nationalistic movement.
But more than inciting nationalism, the propagation of the nuclear energy issue is also a strategic distraction from the other things chipping away at the Iranian regime’s authority. In his article on the Iranian reform movement, Muhammad Sahimi notes that,
He [Ahmedinejad] has used the U.S – created nuclear crisis not only for inciting Iranian nationalism, but also for distracting people’s attention from Iran’s vast economic, social, and political problems, as well as attempting to suppress Iran’s democratic movement… By creating an unnecessary crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, the [American] Administration has played right into the hands of Iran’s hardliners.16
Where the Iranian regime couldn’t claim to be democratic or progressive, it can now claim to be nationalistic simply because of its defiant policy on its nuclear energy program. The defiance has triggered an even more aggressive stance from the US, which predictably has fed into the uncertainty factor in Iranian society.
When the American government denounces the Iranian regime for its nuclear energy program, it heightens an already deeply embedded mistrust for American policy. Since the regime boldly stands up to the Americans, they gain support from their threatened people. The regime is automatically elevated from the position of detested oppressor to patriotic savior. “The conservatives need an external enemy to preserve their power,” says Mohammad Reza Khatami, a leading reformist and younger brother of the former president.17 As long as the regime can guarantee (or at least pretend to do so) Iranians protection from foreign aggressors, their legitimacy will be tied to the feeling they are needed and will trump subversive democratic movements such as those of Mr. Khatami. Seeing all they have to again from their aggressive foreign policy agenda, with regards to the nuclear program or anything else, the risks involved in pursuing such a strategy seem to be worth it.
Let us now turn our attention to the popular realist perspective on Iranian foreign policy. Realism rests on the assumption that states are autonomous unitary entities that act to maximize security and power. In terms of Iran, the realist assumption is that Iran is challenging the global hegemon (the US) because it is a rising power faced with a security dilemma. Indeed, after years of political and economic turmoil, Iran has become relatively stable in the last few years, at least relative to the Islamic Republic’s past performance. Moreover, it has increased ties with Eastern powers such as China, India, and Russia and in turn has acquired international recognition. Its oil (now crossing $70 a barrel) has supplemented its influence and growth as well. Despite its growth however, the Iranian state faces a security dilemma because it has got several hostile neighbors, namely American soldiers on both eastern and western borders (Iraq and Afghanistan) and Sunni Arab states which are opposed to a strong Persian-Shiite state dominating the Middle East. Because of the conflicting nature of Iran’s growth and its security dilemma (one is propelling it forwards while the other is holding it back), realists would assume Iran is bound to challenge the current International system and attempt to remove the security threats by challenging the US and threatening its regional allies. Though this reasoning reaches the right conclusion, the method of deduction is slightly flawed.18
The first flaw in the realist argument is of the security dilemma. If anything, Iran’s security dilemma has thinned over past few years. It strengthened its alliances with Arab partners such as Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Palestinians, through aid and defense agreements. It has also won massive “street appeal” in its Arab neighbors (despite being a Shiite minority in the Muslim world) because of its Islamist propaganda, forcing Arab governments to take a more conciliatory approach. Moreover, the American soldiers on Iranian borders have helped Iran get rid of three potential hostile fronts: the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Baathists in Iraq, and the Americans themselves because of their diminished military capacity.
As for Iran’s aspirations to become a regional power, it can do so much more easily by cooperating with the US than by antagonizing it. The US and its European allies have already offered Iran many economic and political incentives for giving up (or at least opening up) its nuclear energy program. These incentives involve a greater role in Iraq, lifting of economic sanctions, and developmental aid. As Kori Schake points out, “If maximizing its presumed security objectives were the Iranian government’s plan, taunting the US, Israel, and Europe with an overt nuclear program would seem to put at risk at least some of the gains Iran is already achieving at very little cost.”19 Indeed, if maximizing growth and influence was the objective the Iranian state would be behaving much more cautiously; and here lies the core drawback of realist assumptions. The “Iranian State” isn’t acting to maximize its power interests, because there is no such autonomous entity. The Iranian state is merely a representative institution of its ruling clerical elite who are pursuing their high stakes adventures for gain at home and the strengthening of their domestic legitimacy.
Drawing Conclusions: What We Know and What We Can Predict
To conclude, let’s review the claims made in this paper. We started our discussion on the assumption that Iranian foreign policy has been aggressive towards the US, and then set out to explore motives for such a policy. This paper worked within the Liberal Theory context, because it takes into account the political hegemony of the clerical interest group within Iran, and can thus be used to understand Iranian foreign policy through the perspective of that interest group’s motives. Moreover, we saw that the Iranian clerical regime is losing legitimacy within the domestic context because of a diminished selectorate and public frustration. This lack of legitimacy has provoked the regime to manipulate nationalistic sentiment and propagate uncertainty to create a demand for its services as a government, and in the process fill the legitimacy void. Such a strategy has, because of Iranian sociological reasons, involved an active foreign policy opposed to the US. The most important lesson to be drawn here is that in analyzing Iran, we must take into account the Iranian regime’s priorities. This will most likely be the decisive factor in Iranian foreign policy in the near future. As long as an aggressive foreign policy against the US, or any other “Western” nation for that matter, provides legitimacy to the Iranian government at home, it will continue to pursue it. In fact foreign policy, for lack of legitimacy at home, will continue to be the raison d’être of the Iranian regime.
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