Regionalism in Iran's Foreign Policy

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar*

Active ImageWhat role does "regionalism" have in Iran's foreign policy strategy? The prevailing view inside Iran asserts that due to different power and political structures, as well as cultural and social differences between Iran and regional countries, especially the Arab Middle East, it is either very difficult or of little benefit for Iran to focus on regionalism as a foreign policy strategy. While accepting such arguments, I maintain that a corollary of such a perspective is passivity in Iran’s foreign policy and a weakening of its regional and international standing. The Middle East of the post-September 11 and Iraqi crises, is transforming into a new political and security order in which all regional players are trying to establish their “new roles.” In order to institutionalize its regional role, and increase its strategic significance in the relations with great powers, Iran needs to expand cooperation, interactions, and building coalitions with states in the region.

Tilting the scales in favor of a regionalist approach in Iran’s foreign policy will not only be beneficial, but is key to realizing Iran's national and security interests. Such a strategy, however, should be based on creating a “balance” in the various geographic-geopolitical, historical-civilizational, and political-security approaches of Iran’s foreign policy. It should also be centered on establishing relations with various geographical regions and political-security and economic sub-systems. This argument has important policy-making implications for Iran. During the past decades, inattentiveness to regionalism in foreign policy has dealt irreparable blows to Iran’s security and national interests. The most prominent examples are the empowerment of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the loss of economic, political and security opportunities in the region, and new security challenges posed by the presence of foreign powers, especially the United States, across Iran's national boundaries. In contrast, focusing on regionalism and expanding interactions with nations and states in the form of economic, political and security coalitions will provide Iran with opportunities to play its economic and political role in the region, prevent further threats, and increase Iran’s bargaining power in the relations with the great powers.

Critical Viewpoints on Regionalism

Active ImageCritics of such a regional focus in Iran maintain that the structure of power, politics and culture in Iran is such that they render any focus on regionalism in the country’s foreign policy practically useless. These viewpoints can be summarized as follows: First, one perspective tends to agree on the impossibility of making any coalition with regional countries. This viewpoint maintains that the structure of power and politics in Iran and the ideological nature of the Iranian government, which gives priority to supporting Muslims and liberation movements, on the one hand, and the power structure in the Arab world, on the other hand, dash any hope of coalition-building and advanced cooperation in the region, especially with Arab countries.i

The second perspective focuses on the globalization and technological importance of the West, arguing that in the process of globalization and development, Iran needs expanding ties with the centers of science and wealth-creation in the West. From this perspective, forming regional coalitions or Iran’s involvement in political and security issues of the Middle East, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, in a contradictory way will only go to further complicate Iran’s relations with the West and will impede the country’s development.ii

The third perspective emphasizes the cultural and social differences between Iran and regional countries and the fact that Iran is alone and unique in the region. From this perspective there are deep cultural, social and historical divides separating Iran and neighboring Arab countries which make any form of continued cooperation in political, security, and economic fields impossible. The proponents of this view argue that Iran does not have reliable relations with any Arab country and following the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it has experienced the most turbulent period of its relations with the Arab world. There is still a lot of pessimism which prevents Iran from fostering closer ties with its Arab neighbors.iii  Such pessimism with respect to Iran's regional aims and strategies similarly exists on the Arab side.

Undoubtedly such pessimism towards regionalism in Iran's foreign policy, in terms of the existing social, political and historical differences between the two sides is to some extent convincing and relies on a plausible logic. However, what is important and noteworthy is that the persistence of this trend will ensure the passivity of Iran's foreign policy and lead to missed opportunities in which Iran could otherwise have deployed its numerous sources of power to strengthen its national interests at the regional and international levels in the longer term.

Constants of Regionalism in Iran's Foreign Policy

Active ImageAfter the September 11th, especially following the 2003 Iraq crisis, Iran’s regional role markedly increased. This situation has laid the ground for Iran to expand its relations with friendly political factions and states in the region. It has also provided a good opportunity to solve Iran’s strategic problems with the United States. The boost in Iran’s regional role is not merely based on the traditional geopolitical components which consider Iran the center of various geographical subsystems in the greater Middle East such as Central Asia and the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Arab Middle East, which mostly takes a cultural-historical as well as a developmental-economic approach for the necessity of attention to regionalism in Iranian foreign policy. Rather it puts emphasis on new components which impact Iran’s foreign policy, based on a security-political and strategic approach which highlights Al-Qaeda terrorism and threats resulting from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, in the region.iv

Combining three sets of approaches i.e., cultural-historical, developmental- geopolitical, and security–political, and implementing them in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to increase Iran's regional role will lend more support to the necessity of focusing on regionalism in Iran’s foreign policy. Three factors are significant in strengthening a regionalist approach in Iran's foreign policy.

A powerful nation-state: Iran enjoys a powerful nation-state which gives it special standing in the region. Iran claims a great share in the civilization of Middle East, connecting Middle Eastern culture to the rest of the world. Iran’s background historical and cultural presence in the region is formidable. Unity of the nation, ambition and firm determination for development and progress are major characteristics of the Iranian state. For this reason, Iran has been able to remain independent throughout its history. At the same time, Iran has maintained its historical, cultural and political ties to the regional nations and states to the extent that most regional nations including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Iraq respect Iran as a great political-cultural force. Even nations such as Turkey and Russia, who were rivals of Iran through historical times, have always respected Iran for these features. No other regional country, except Turkey and Russia, share these characteristic with Iran.

Iran's geopolitical identity: Iran simultaneously connects with the major geopolitical identity and regional subsystems in the greater Middle East. In other words, the geopolitical, political and security, as well as historical and cultural features of Iran are such that it can be considered as part of various identity and political subsystems. Iran is a connecting point between Central Asia and the Caucasus, which also links South Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Arab world. Each of these subsystems faces Iran’s foreign policy with a different set of political and security themes. As a link between South and East Asia, Iran's role is closely related to “security,” “energy,” and “development” themes. From historical and cultural standpoints, Iran is part of the “Greater Aryana” which also encompasses other countries across the north-south divide, a large family of 1.25 billion people, from Tajikistan and Tibet to the Maldives, along with an east-west divide, from Myanmar to Iran (from Arakan to Khorasan)v  in which Iran remains pivotal for a great part of that cultural identity. Through Pakistan, India and China, Iran is related to energy security in East Asia, while through Afghanistan it is related to security matters specific to this subsystem. The same is true about Iran’s geopolitical identity in relation to Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and the rest of the Arab world which affords Iran special importance in strengthening the concept of regionalism in its foreign policy strategy. Therefore, Iran potentially acts as a major crossroads in the vast geographical expanse of the Middle East.

Shia ideology and national power: This factor has continuously influenced Iran’s foreign policy in the course of its contemporary history. Some analysts maintain that even the Shah's regime, in spite of not assigning a clear-cut role for ideology in the promotion of its foreign policy, used this factor in order to increase Iran’s role and political influence in the         

However, after the 2003 Iraq crisis and the strong presence of the Shiite element in the power structure of the Middle East, the use of this component has been taken more seriously in Iran's foreign policy and regional strategy. Subsequently, Iran’s role in political and security issues of Iraq, Lebanon and the whole Middle East region has increased. Within the framework of regionalism, the Shiite factor, in addition to its ideological aspect, can be drawn upon in order to increase Iran’s regional role and national power. In other words, the use of this component should not be limited to achieve merely short-term aims during particular times of insecurity, rather it should be used as a factor to strengthen Iran’s relations with other nations and states, and even in hypothetical resolution of Iran’s political-security issues with the United States. For instance, strengthening the role of the Shia factor in the regulation of Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq has played a great role in countering the immediate security threats posed by the United States during 2003-2005.vii 

Meanwhile, strengthening the Shia element in the power structure of Iraq can not only turn Iraq into a friendly state, heading off the conventional military threat,  but will also play an important role in strengthening Iran’s role in its attempts to redefine political-security arrangements in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, strengthening this component can strengthen Iran’s regional and international role, providing a powerful logic for greater concentration on regionalism in Iran's foreign policy.

Bolstering Regionalism in Iran’s Foreign policy

Active ImageThe nature of the international system is such that the more the role and influence of states increases, the more interaction and cooperation and the need to form alliances and concentrate on regionalism become inevitable. Two examples are the America of the post- Second World War, and the Turkey of post-invasion Iraq. Iran is not an exception in this regard. Due to its sensitive geopolitical situation and insecure neighborhood, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran is facing a variety of political and security problems.  Meanwhile, because of the nature of the issues Iran is currently confronted with i.e., the nuclear program, Iran's security is related to international security. Expanding Iran’s political-security and economic role in the region and the world requires more interaction with different regions of the world, especially the Middle East, which has traditionally been amongst Iran's multiple spheres of influence. Iran’s presence in various parts of the world in the context its political, economic and security interests would be beneficial to a rising power like Iran.

Another important point in Iran's foreign policy strategy is the concept of creating “balance” between “regionalism” and “globalism” (closeness with the West). Iran has constantly faced a dilemma over adopting each of these options in its foreign policy. Bolstering regionalism in its traditional form, especially after the Islamic Revolution’s inception, has meant increased relations with regional countries, especially the Muslim and Arab worlds. Some other Iranian perspectives, consider the expansion of relations with the East, especially with South Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as China and Russia and other parts of Asia as parts of Iran’s regionalist policy. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even looks upon Iran's active role in Latin America as a kind of regionalism, which ought to be factored into the formulation of Iran's foreign policy.viii  In contrast to regionalism, the Iranian foreign policy also attends to globalization, and regards relations with the West as a requirement of a pragmatic foreign policy. From this perspective, the West, especially the United States, is the main producer of wealth, technology and science in the world and Iran on its way to becoming a regional power, must interact with the United States of it is going to play its part in important political and security roles in the region and the world.  To go on with its development drive Iran should also take advantage of Western capital and technology.

A combination of two approaches, however, will better serve Iran’s national interests. In reality, Iran’s international significance is closely related to its regional political-security clout. Although Iran was also important before the September 11th events, its significance has greatly increased following 9/11 and especially in post-invasion Iraq. Fighting Al-Qaeda terrorists and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the resolution of regional crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine are major goals of international security.ix  Iran has a vital role in settling all the abovementioned issues. Iran’s increased role in the Middle East region, combined with its nuclear program and Tehran’s decision to keep its “independent nuclear fuel cycle” are factors which have provided a position of "political strategic parity" and paved the ways for possible strategic negotiations between Iran and the United States.

Active ImageAn Iranian perspective, which can be called “traditional regionalism”, maintains that Iran’s excessive involvement in Middle East issues, especially the issues relating to the Arab world such as Palestine and Lebanon, are costly and create tension between the strategic priorities governing Iran's foreign policy, and moreover damage the relations between Tehran and the main Arab world actors like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  It will also jeopardize Iran's relations with the concerned foreign powers. Therefore, focusing on regionalism should not be overemphasized in Iran's foreign policy strategy. These viewpoints focus on strengthening a “developmental” approach to foreign policy with emphasis on Iran’s sensitive geopolitical situation, which may entail many opportunities and challenges for the national interests of the Iranian nation. As such, Iran should maintain an active presence in its immediate security environment at the level of its neighboring countries. In contrast, there is the concept of “new regionalism”, focusing on a political and security approach which maintains that Iran should not only be concerned about the security issues in its immediate neighborhood e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf, but should also have an active role in other parts of the Middle East like Lebanon and Palestine and use its clout there to repel security threats posed by the United States and Israel, thereby protecting its strategic interests in the region and in relation to the great powers.x  In other words, it should create a balance between economic development on the one hand, and security and national interests on the other.

Focusing on regionalism in Iran’s foreign policy should be based on creating a balance between traditional and new forms of regionalism. Iran, as an emerging regional and potential world power, like India and Turkey, needs an active foreign policy based on a coalition with friendly states and nations in various parts of the world, especially in the Middle East. At the same time, a rising regional power requires to develop its economy and focus on integrative approaches with the region and world's economy. Therefore, an active foreign policy is marked by the simultaneous adoption of security-political and economic-developmental approaches toward surrounding regions. Within the neighborhood, undoubtedly, the Persian Gulf region is of the highest importance to Iran's security and national interests. This region is Iran’s main connecting route to high seas, is critical to the export of Iran's gas and oil and import of necessary commodities. Given the nature of its sensitivity to political-security issues such as the growing extremism and international energy security in the region, the Persian Gulf must be the center point of the pursuit of regionalism in Iran's foreign policy. The Persian Gulf is simultaneously the entry point to South and East Asia, and the Arab Middle East. It is also the focal point of Iran's relations with great powers, especially the United States.

Therefore, while the critics of regionalism refer to different power and political structures as well as cultural and social differences dividing Iran and regional countries, thereby casting regionalism as a futile strategy, and moreover claiming Iran should avoid any involvement in the political-security issues of the region, one should argue that such a perspective will weaken Iran's regional and international role. The Middle East following the events of September 11th and post-invasion Iraq is transforming into a new political and security order in which each actor, regional or trans-regional, tries to establish its new political-security and economic roles. As an emerging regional and potential global power, Iran is situated in a sensitive geopolitical region, connecting different sub-systems in the region. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program while increasing the importance of Iran in the region and the world, it has also brought about new threats to its national interests and security. To create new opportunities, and tackle the threats, Iran needs to expand relations with different regions, and establish new coalitions with states. The sources of Iran's national power including a powerful nation-state, geopolitical situation, and dynamic Shiite ideology are such that they afford Iran a prominent role in regional developments. Iran’s strategic significance is due to its relation to issues in the Middle East which have been closely intermingled with international security following the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, such that an Iranian focus and re-orientation vis-à-vis regionalism in its foreign policy strategy will benefit the country’s security and national interests.


* Kayhan Barzegar, assistant professor of international relations in Science and Research University; Director, International Affairs, Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, Tehran.

i Mahmoud Sariolqalam, Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Theoretical Review and Paradigm of Alliance, Tehran, Center for Strategic Research, 2000, p. 56

ii See Hooman Peimani, Iran and the United States: The Rise of West Asian Grouping, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1999.

iiiAhmad Naghibzadeh, "Rectification of Iran's Foreign Policy Shortcomings  during  Khatami's  Presidency," Discourse : An  Iranian Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3, Winter 2002 , pp. 85-100; also see, Ahmad Naghibzadeh, Study of Situation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Regional System, Middle East Studies Quarterly, 3rd year, No. 1, Winter 1997.

iv For more information on root causes of increased influence of Iran in the region see, Kayhan Barzegar, "Iran, Middle East, and International Security," Foreign Policy Journal, 22nd year, No. 3, Fall 2008, pp. 654-655.

v V. P. Vaidik, the special Lecture delivered in the International Seminar on "Indigenization of Afghan Reconstruction: Challenges and opportunities”, Kolkata, India, 18-19 March 2009.

vi Graham E. Fuller & Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shia: The Forgotten Muslims; translated by Khadijeh Tabrizi, Tehran, Qom, Shia Studies Center Press, 2005, pp. 171-172.

vii For more information on Iran’s foreign policy goals and strategies in Iraq see, Kayhan Barzegar, "Iran's Foreign Policy in Post-Invasion Iraq," Middle East Policy, Vol. XV, No. H, Winter 2008.

viii Manouchehr Mottaki, "Iran's Foreign Policy under President Ahmadinejad," Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter 2009, pp. 7-8.

ix Kayhan Barzegar, "Iran, Middle East, and International Security," op. cit., p. 654.

x This line of thinking is more common in the Supreme National Security Council of Iran which is the main body in charge of the security of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ali Larijani, former secretary of Supreme National Security Council, was a supporter of this perspective. Conducting three rounds of direct negotiations with the United States over security and political issues in Iraq was a result of this line of thinking which seeks to solve Iran’s strategic political and security issues by putting more emphasis on Iran's regional role and importance.

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