A Critical Evaluation of Twenty Years of Iran’s Foreign Policy 2001-2021

The collection of Article in this book also follows requisite angles of assessment based on this variety in perspectives. Using foreign policy evaluation measures in the first chapter, attempts have been made to discuss new criteria consistent with evolutions in global governance. The author proposes and formulates the criterion of happiness based on people’s satisfaction with foreign policy decisions. Based on this, foreign policy is not merely a tool to advance national interests based on the perceptions of statesmen, but the people’s views and their satisfaction of this must also act as a yardstick. That the people of a country should feel satisfied and gratified by these ideals and how they are pursued within the framework of foreign policy and diplomacy. The sense of satisfaction and contentment in people is a blend of subjective and objective criteria pointing to a favorable space the outcome of the wishes and requirements of every single person in the collective life a nation. In other words, the welfare and happiness of society.


In the second chapter, the author points out to the shortfalls of existing theories available on elucidating the foreign policy of the IRI and endeavors to develop a theoretical framework for the theoretical understanding of foreign policy. The author believes that nearly all key changes in the foreign policy of Iran have taken place with changes in government, envisaged as microdiscourses which can be defined within the context of the metadiscourse in Islamism. Looking at it from this angle in the foreign policy of the IRI, “the system of decision-making is justified in terms of expediency rather than national interests”. “Based on the concept of expediency, one can explain why a foreign policy interest is at times sacrificed for the concept of domestic expediency or vice versa”. According to this view, everything happens at home, or at least what happens at home takes precedence.


In the third chapter, efforts have been made to critically asses the strategic loneliness of Iran as a concept which, from the viewpoint of some analysts at least, can explain its unique situation on the international stage. It has been underscored here that the strategic loneliness of Iran is not a factum but a mental construct which can be managed with human agency and correct policymaking.


What may have acted as a counterweight to balance Iran’s strategic loneliness over the past four decades may be the attempts of its statesmen in forming non-governmental alliances at the level of popular movements and maximum use of the semantic power produced by the Islamic Revolution. In fact, the vacuum of state alliances has of sort been filled with the policy of exporting the revolution and open and hidden support for popular currents aligned with the Islamic Revolution. As a result, the concept of exporting the revolution became a key concept in assessing the foreign policy of Iran, especially in the first two decades following the victory of the Islamic Revolution. Nevertheless, at the start of the third decade, the element of soft power or semantic power of the IRI lost part of its prestige and influence for a range of reasons. Attempts have been made in the fourth chapter at the pathology of this issue with a primarily philosophical approach.


Relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran with the major powers when its nuclear program was initially brought to attention in the early 2000s displays a complex image of confrontation by a middle power with major powers in which widespread and varied interaction between them in terms of the global structure has often been intentionally overlooked by Iranian statesmen. The IRI which began its work with the slogan of “Neither East nor West” in a bipolar world lost the opportunity to play in the existing rift between the two superpowers after the collapse of the Soviet Union and turned into the most significant and uncompromising critic of the liberal order in practice in a space where the US saw no big obstacles on the path of its unilateral policies on the international stage. Under the circumstances, the foreign policy of the IRI over the past two decades – even more so than the two decades before that – was visibly defined by its relations with the US, essentially marginalizing the other dimensions of its foreign policy into a US-Iran confrontation over the years. This is while, previously, Iran’s regional policy, especially its efforts to strengthen the Islamic-Arab front against the Zionist regime, was the main cause of US enmity with Iran.


Attempts by Iran to become a nuclear power considerably upped tension levels between Iran and the US, taking it from a regional confrontation to an international challenge. Although a pragmatic approach has been adopted in chapter five by underscoring that the infrastructure of competitive and confrontational interactions between Iran and the US in the regional environment and international politics are set by a power equation, it seems that reducing the conflict between the two countries to a power equation is not a fair portrayal of the situation. Such an analysis will not only omit the ideological reasons behind the ontological conflict between Iran and the Zionist regime – as the central issue in Iran’s regional policy – it will also neglect the reasons and logic of how Iran entered the process of becoming a nuclear nation. It is highly unlikely that Iran’s efforts to become a nuclear power – as the main two-decade-long challenge between Iran and the US – can be explained solely by its desire to become a regional leader. No analyst may be able to say with certainly that the constant feelings of threat by the US propelled Iran into adopting a deterrence policy and, consequently, becoming a nuclear power, or that Iran’s attempts at changing the regional order and turning itself into an unremovable power prompted relentless efforts by the US to contain and control Iran. In other words, there is still no clear answer to whether it was Iran’s regional policy which defined the relations and level of confrontation between Iran and the US, or whether it was relations between the two countries which defined the regional policies of Iran.


Throughout these years, IRI policy and interaction with other major powers, particularly Russia and China, has also been subjected to the Iran-US confrontation for the most part. The fact remains that, over the past two decades, relations between Iran and Russia and Iran and China have never exceeded a fixed level of political, economic, and military cooperation despite a range of alignments between each set of countries. During these years, ties between Iran and Russia have moved along a narrow edge of contradictory goals by both sides. In an interpretation highlighted in chapter six, relations between Iran and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union have been “more of a case of urgency and lack of other choices rather than based on choice and free will”.


Ties between Iran and China have also consistently suffered from asymmetry between economic and political cooperation. Unlike relations between Iran and Russia in which political cooperation exceed economic cooperation, Iran and China have forged better economic ties than political relations. Overall, although Iran has tried to benefit from the powers of Russia and China to counter US pressures over the past two decades and limit these, it has only succeeded in doing so when its efforts were compatible with the type of interaction between these two countries and the US.


Relations between the IRI and European powers in the last two decades have also been influenced mainly by the nuclear issue and Iran-US conflicts in a downward, tension-filled relationship. In chapter eight, the role of these disputes in the downward trend of relations between Iran and the EU have been recognized in addition to highlighting that a lack of domestic consensus on the benefits of expanding economic ties with EU has been another central issue in the downward trend.


Britain has also been constantly viewed with pessimism by the elites and public opinion in Iran during these years. Some of the factors which explicate Iran-UK relations in chapter nine can be listed as growing geostrategic rivalry between the two in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, developments in the security environment of Europe and thus a more prominent policy of containment towards Iran, turning Iran's nuclear program into an international agenda, Iran's negative deterrent use of its geopolitical foundations and its simultaneous tactical use of the rule-based order in Europe, and the political and security requirement for Britain to keep diplomatic doors open with Iran.


If Iran’s foreign policy towards the major powers can be predominantly defined as a realm of reactions (active or passive), its regional policy must be defined more as an action field. The past two decades have seen major developments in West Asia with each one presenting a different challenge to Iranian foreign policymakers. Chapter ten emphasizes that after the US invasion of Iraq, the foreign policy of Iran focused mainly on increasing its influence there and strengthening the Axis of Resistance. This policy was pursued more powerfully following uprisings in many countries of the Arab world. The foreign policy decision-makers of Iran believed that the Arab uprising was an Islamic Awakening paving the way for a stronger Axis of Resistance in the region. However, developments in Syria were not seen as part of this Islamic Awakening by Iranian statesmen and they perceived it as an effort by Western powers and regional forces to break up the Axis of Resistance.


As mentioned in chapter eleven, Iran’s regional policies in the Middle East evolved from being reactionary to one of taking action. From this angle, Iranian strategy in the Middle East and Levant has undergone three stages in forty years. In the first stage, the foreign policy of Iran was mainly focused on countering the US policy of containment. In the second stage, Iran left the reactionary space of counter-containment in the first two decades of the revolution for a more creative space and witnessed the continued expansion of the deterrence strategy at home and in the region. The regional deterrence policy of Iran in transitioning from the imposed war also encompassed an asymmetric dimension which gradually developed and stabilized into the Axis of Resistance, eventually turning into “full-spectrum deterrence” and shaping Iran’s regional policy in two symmetrical and asymmetrical dimensions. In the third stage, especially from the time of Arab uprisings in the early 2010s, Iran sought to contain regional forces opposing it. In this context, Iran was generally able to maintain its strategic independence and gradually move from the periphery of the Middle East towards the center-periphery with the aim of creating an alternative order to the regional order set in place by the US and its allies, leading to the growing power of the Axis of Resistance and its influence in the region.


The emergence of a power vacuum in the region as a result of the US invasion of Iraq and the failure of the former to realize its strategic objectives for a greater Middle East have been discussed in chapter twelve as underlying factors in intensifying regional rivalries, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Attempts at seeking mutual supremacy by these two countries have been considered as the characteristic feature of regional equations in the initial two decades of the 21st century. Nonetheless, following the 2003 Iraq crisis, not only did the importance of the Persian Gulf region diminish as a priority in Iran’s regional foreign policy, its independent outlook on relations with the Arab States of the Persian Gulf also weakened considerably and was greatly influenced by power equations and political and security trends in Iraq and the Levant, as well as the type of relations with the major powers. Thus, rather than being guided by an independent stance, Iran’s relations with the Arab States of the Persian Gulf became a function of Iran's regional policies, particularly coalition building with the Axis of Resistance.


Under the circumstances, Iran’s relations with Turkiye became pivotal in regional relations. Although Iran and Turkiye totally disagreed on Syria, both sides still tried to refrain from moving towards bilateral disputes for various reasons and generalizing the situation to other aspects in their relations. This is why the model governing relations between the two countries has always been a mix of competition and pragmatic cooperation in terms of macrohistory. With the start of Arab uprisings and the active presence of both countries in the changing equations of the Arab world, their differences, and geopolitical and ideological competitions in their periphery increased. But the failed 2016 coup in Turkiye was a turning point for Ankara to review its friendships and rivalries.. On the other hand, at a time when Iran is under growing international pressures, a level of strategic independence in the foreign policy of Turkiye, especially vis-à-vis the Western powers, has provided Iran with some breathing space to utilize this country’s particular capacities in times of sanctions. Be that as it may, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, the overall situation is one of weakening strategic connections between the IRI and Turkiye.


After the passing of over four decades from the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are still no clear answers to many defining questions on its foreign policy. One such specific question is to what extent is the foreign policy of Iran ideological or pragmatic? Or what aspects of foreign policymaking by various Iranian governments formed with different political tendencies did the intervention of ideological considerations cover? The foreign policy of Iran is brimming with examples for and against it being ideological or pragmatic. Analysts have differences of opinion on whether the foreign policy of Iran is one of a regional power who uses the tool of ideology to promote its power and find allies, or whether it is an ideological foreign policy trying to find a way for achieving its ideological policies in the context of power relations. Furthermore, there is still no clear understanding of how various entities, individuals, and public opinion affect foreign policymaking in Iran. Therefore, conceptual discussions about the place of different discourses in Iran's foreign policy are not complete discussions.


Another reality is that the foreign policy of Iran continues to remain in passive mode since the onset of the nuclear dispute between Iran and Western powers due to maximum US pressures and Iran must regulate its behaviors based on countering these pressures. Even the look to the East policy by Iran is the result of constraints and passivity, not choice and free will. Relations regulated by events outside one’s control will solve no problems. At best, passive policies will only allow one to merely exist.


Editors: Abed Akbari, Mahmood Shoori, Ali Esmaeili-Ardakani



Winter 2022