Regional Cooperation as a Strategy to Counter US Unilateralism
The IR of Iran has optimal manpower, natural resources, geographical environment, and geographical location (geostrategic & transit) potentials which can serve to generate power and strengthen the domestic structure of the establishment. Achieving a strong position and a more effective role in West Asia has always been a foreign policy goal for the IR of Iran. In the meantime, the US is using its unilateral policies and coercive diplomacy to compel Iran to accept its norms within the framework of international organizations, weaken the foundations of its establishment, and prevent the country from attaining regional hegemony.
One effective way of strengthening national power and countering US unilateralism is expanding regional ties and cooperation. Bilateral cooperation and active interaction with neighboring countries can play a pivotal role in offsetting unilateral US policies aimed at isolating the IR of Iran. As relying on common bonds in relations between countries forms a strategic support base, this can create positive goals in expanding relations and common interests as well as help deter common threats. These common bonds are of a cultural, religious, geographical, historical, political, defensive, security, economic, and technological nature, or an amalgamation of all of these. The religious, cultural, and geographical bonds, together with social interactions, diminish threats and are fundamentally more effective in relations and unity, generating interests, accord, and national security while giving more weight to geopolitical and geostrategic structures.
The essence of the IR of Iran is one of fighting domination and oppression. Its political orientation, sensitive geographical location, and important strategic and geostrategic position in West Asia has meant that the international order, whether unilateral or multilateral, exercises the harshest structural constraints to stop Iran from becoming a regional hegemon. The correct application of elements which lead to power and dignity on a transnational level, and the exploitation of internal and external power factors, including the strengthening of political, economic, cultural, social, and military capacities, will give Iran the opportunity to be a strong regional actor. In addition to maintaining its integrity and national security, and stabilizing the internal structure of the establishment by increasing its geopolitical weight and expanding its geopolitical boundaries in the region, it can bring its smaller southern neighbors into the sphere of its influence and political will.
Regional cooperation will increase national strength and reinforce the domestic structure of the establishment. This article will examine how regional cooperation can develop and progress in Iran’s strategic environment and the advantages such cooperation can have in advancing its foreign policy goals.
Regional Cooperation in Iran’s Strategic Environment
The strategic environment of every society is a function of the interactions and confrontations of its domestic variables (Government structure, power distribution, ideology, values, public participation) with the external environment (Power structure, global order or disorder, technology, arms race, geopolitical and geostrategic position). The strategic environment always contains threats and opportunities which national units take advantage of to the extent of their status. Identifying environmental actors is a key component in assessing the strategic environment. A significant number of regional organizations have been set up in Iran in a range of social, political, economic, and security sectors as a tangible indication of regional cooperation between governments to enhance capabilities and achieve common goals and interests.
The geographical position of the IR of Iran in the north, south, east, and west has common values with its neighboring countries which can connect them together. Emphasizing these mutual interests and focusing on them when interacting with neighbors can empower them in their shared regional interests and potentials. Iran has an array of top regional advantages, especially in its geographical position, culture, and natural resources, which can act as excellent opportunities for regional cooperation. Climate diversity, fifteen neighboring countries, natural resources, and its location for energy transmission corridors, are Iran’s top advantages in expanding relations and cooperation with its neighboring countries. Its simultaneous presence in the five regional subsystems of the Persian Gulf, West Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Indian subcontinent, has created a sensitive and advantageous strategic environment, exploiting the benefits of which requires logical decision-making and creating a network of official and non-official networks.
Moreover, cultural, linguistic, and religious homogeneities have created profound historical ties between Iran and a number of its neighboring countries, so that cultural interaction with different ethnicities residing on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Turkey, has created a strategic region for actual and potential possibilities to expand bilateral and multilateral regional and global cooperation. An ancient civilization, valuable cultural and religious work, and the potential to export products and ideas, have given the IR of Iran a special standing in cultural and civilizational influence in the Islamic world. The identity, culture, history, and civilization shared between Iran and some of its neighboring countries can serve as the backdrop for further synergy and bilateral and multilateral cooperation in countering US unilateralism.
It is noteworthy that managing these geopolitical, geocultural, geoeconomic, and geostrategic advantages to expand regional cooperation with neighboring countries requires adopting the politics of cultural regionalism by placing targeted emphasis on a shared history, literature, language, culture, religion, and even shared experiences with respect to the particular characteristics of the neighboring country. This approach can pave the way for further interaction and cooperation with regional countries. The outcome of such a policy will give Iran to chance to be an active actor in the political, economic, and security sectors, while diminishing the role of major, transregional powers in regional equations.
Strengthening and expanding regional cooperation in this strategic environment is, therefore, not a matter of choice for Iran, but an unavoidable necessity; because the IR of Iran can boost its levers of power in its strategic environment based on its cultural, historical, and religious commonalities, as well as its geographical, natural, and financial potentials; a strategic environment, the prominent features of which are the conflicts and crises in different dimensions and levels of security with the intervention of transregional powers. In such an environment where major powers, the United States in particular, follow their unilateral political interests, convergence and cooperation between regional countries and the establishment of mutual organizations and agencies can empower Iran’s potentials to counter major powers.
The Advantages of Regional Cooperation to Counter US Unilateralism
Given the shared cultural, economic, and political interests mentioned above, pursuing regional cooperation can have positive outcomes for the IR of Iran. One of these is strengthening Iran’s potentials to encounter US unilateralism. Given the particular features of Iran’s strategic environment and the coercive US policy towards independent countries, expanding regional cooperation is the most important strategy to guarantee national interests and independence. The top advantages of such cooperation to counter US unilateralism are as follows:
1. Promoting Regional Status: Countries with more geopolitical weight and, hence, higher status than others in their geographical region are the ones who influence collective actions and decisions, as well as the actions of other regional countries. They influence their regional structures, procedures, decisions, and collective actions, while they are also influenced by these other countries.
Due to its geopolitical setting, such as being in the midst of regional crises like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as proximity to crises centers in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and South Caucasus, the security of the IR of Iran is intertwined with regional and global security issues. Its geographical location, size, economic capacity, and military power, give Iran the leeway to play a focal or leadership role in a number of organizations in the Persian Gulf area, Central Asia, and the Caspian Sea. Iran’s active role in geographical regions and the expansion of regional cooperation means that it can use regional potentials to elevate its status and obtain the support of its neighbors on the international stage to create a balance vis-à-vis unilateral US policies. Furthermore, more regional cooperation will increase Iran’s regional influence in its security environment, diminish security threats, and provide it with the resources to develop.
2. Security Advantages: One of the central, distinguishing features of the IR of Iran’s security environment is the susceptibility of the region to crises and intervention by transregional powers in regional equations who give crisis management and resolution as justification. In such an unstable, pervasive security environment, the IR of Iran must simultaneously pursue an internal and external balancing strategy. An internal balancing strategy depends on bolstering military-economic capacities by relying on domestic potentials. But the external balancing strategy focuses on relations and coalitions with other states and actors. To this end, boosting regional cooperation with neighboring countries can pave the way for collaborative, multilateral, and participatory procedures to build security. In other words, such a setting lays the groundwork to deal with all the issues that create crises in the region, in which governments can diminish their pessimism and threatening perceptions of one another by exchanging crucial information. An environment in which governments do not distrust each other can give rise to the possibility of political and security interaction, where transregional powers will not be able to infiltrate and pursue their unilateral policies. Under the present circumstances in particular, when the model of power distribution in the international order is based on multilateralism, a collective security model among regional states will increase their strategic advantages to change the power balancing act in the region.
3. Forming a Collective Security: Collective security requires trust-building in the region. Trust-building is based on accepting the regional position of states, avoiding unilateral actions, and limiting the willingness to use military equipment in pursuing foreign policy goals. In other words, trust-building will help eliminate the political push-and-pull of regional actors, boost regional convergence and cooperation, and most importantly, diminish the credibility and effects of the interventional approach and unilateralism of transregional powers in regional equations. Using the benefits of diplomatic mobilization can generate convergence between norms and perceptions in connection with security issues. This is why diplomacy in a crisis environment is considered a factor in changing perceptions to achieve common goals and policies. Influenced by diplomacy, political conditions and perceptions come to life for setting up regional institutions; institutions which will be established for dispute resolution to create new levels of intra-regional cooperation in tandem with international activities. The continued activities of such organizations can, on the one hand, set a code of conduct for non-discriminatory behavior, and herald the participation of a wider range of actors to achieve security objectives, stability, and regional balance on the other.
4. Soft Balancing Vis-à-vis US Unilateralism: Soft balancing is an ensemble of actions which delay, weaken, or lead to the failure of coercive unilateral policies by the adversary or enemy by using non-military instruments. In reality, soft power is a collection of measures taken by weaker states which do not directly challenge the military superiority of the stronger power, but indirectly neutralize its objectives with delaying tactics, increase costs, and undermine the abilities of the superior power to deter it.
One mechanism in soft power is constraining the superior power through regional and international organizations and agencies. The procedures, norms, and regulations governing over international organizations provide the means for reciprocity among member states and limit the unilateral policies of the superior power by coordinating the other states. According to Walt, soft balancing means the smart coordination of each actor's diplomatic activities to limit and shape outcomes that run counter to rival preferences. As creating official institutions to constrain US power is very costly, other states endeavor to increase their political relations and orchestrate their interaction to attain their desired outcomes.
Within this framework, Iranian membership at the SCO can be considered a balancing measure in reaction to US unilateralism. Improving relations with Russia and China as the two permanent members of the UN Security Council with the right to veto can increase political and economic costs for unilateral US actions against Iran. By expanding exclusive economic relations with Russia and China, pressures caused by unilateral US economic sanctions are weakened and new potential created for Iran to access consumer markets in Russia, China, and countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In fact, the SCO is a reflection of growing security cooperation between Russia and China and the objective manifestation of confronting US unilateralism.
5. Challenging Traditional Regional Power Structures: The IR of Iran can challenge belief and trust in American superiority in the region by expanding security ties with other regional and transregional powers and introduce the concept of resistance and revisionism to West Asian politics as a general norm accepted by all regional states. Perhaps it can be said that the Iran-Russia cooperation in the Syrian crisis is a display of the weakening US role in regional equations. Although Iran and Russia had remained passive towards regional events in the 1990s and 2000s due to domestic issues and pressures, the two countries have changed their role from a passive to an active one in recent years by benefiting from the strategic chaos in the region, the Syrian crisis, and the gradual weakening of the US. Military cooperation between the two in Syria is an important turning point in the strategic pivot. By doing so, they have defined themselves as new actors in the region who do not accept the norms in relations constructed by the Americans and seek to define a new order and procedures in the region and the world which provides for their interests too.
By engaging in Syria militarily, Iran and Russia were able to challenge the traditional power structure constructed by the US in the region and instill a current outside its control. By making efforts to form a new coalition in the region with the cooperation of countries (Including Iran) with similar interests, Moscow is seeking to impact the power structure in the Middle East in the long run. Iran, who is trying to bolster its position and become the top regional power, sees its resources as insufficient for reaching that position and countering the maximum pressure policy by the US; hence, it perceives that a coalition with Russia is an effective option to boost its power. As trends indicate, the coalition between the two countries in Syria has been effective in changing the balance of power in this country and the region to the detriment of the United States and shows their revisionist approach. Both countries have realized that active resistance in the current geopolitical game is the only solution to creating a more moderate balance. Thus, Iranian emphasis on empowering the Axis of Resistance in the Middle East is not necessarily an ideology, but a geopolitical attempt at creating a positive balance and stability in the region.
Regional cooperation as a synergic action can increase the ability of states to confront US unilateralism. Countries in different regions can expand collaboration between their governments in the political, economic, technological, and cultural sectors to safeguard their interests and increase their power of resistance to confront US unilateralism. States can cooperate in the region to protect their safety and guarantee their political, economic, cultural, and social security. They can challenge the American cultural unification and integration discourse by adhering to their cultural identity. Promoting the level of interaction and economic and political cooperation means that the fate of countries will be intertwined. Under such circumstances, a joint fate and mutual interests will lead to taking joint measures against unilateral US policies which are in conflict with the goals and interests of other countries. Another impact would be an increased number of people cooperating in various political, economic, cultural, social, and communications sectors and diverse ties between governments, leading to diminished pressures and restrictions stemming from the structure of the international system.
Considering the above, expanding regional ties must be the top agenda of the IR of Iran to counter US unilateralism. A lack of cooperation by other countries, especially neighboring countries, with unilateral US policies will defeat the desired outcome for decision-makers in Washington when pursuing unilateral policies and empower Tehran to counter such unilateralism. Trust-building regional policies will cut the level of cooperation by regional countries and dissuade them from following divisive US approaches. It will provide the backdrop to understanding the mutual interests of member states of a same region.