Alone in the World

The most defining feature of the Islamic Republic’s international posture today is its isolation. Tehran has managed to feed the hostility and suspicion of its Arab neighbors and of Israel. Iran is not a member of any security arrangement, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council for the Persian Gulf monarchies or NATO in Turkey’s case. Moreover, four regional powers surrounding Iran – India, Israel, Pakistan and Russia – enjoy the security guarantees provided by nuclear weapons. Iran’s support for regional groups such has Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories does not significantly alter the equation. Although both groups have become increasingly important within regional dynamics in recent years, they have also become progressively independent of Tehran – to the extent that they act more as partners of the Iranian regime than as proxies.

Beyond the Middle East, the situation is even bleaker for Tehran. Since 1979, Iran has faced relentless efforts on the part of Washington to isolate it diplomatically and economically. In particular, the accumulation of several rounds of US and United Nations sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian economy and further deepen the country’s isolation. Iran’s diplomatic overtures towards other regional or rising powers such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, Sudan and Venezuela have not improved its overall position. More often than not, the governments of these countries only back Iran when it suits their diplomatic or commercial interests. But if push comes to shove – often under US pressure – they tend to leave Tehran out in the cold. At the same time, those more ideologically inclined towards Iran such as Venezuela simply do not have enough leverage to help Tehran more than symbolically.

It is this continuing isolation and strategic loneliness – the fact that it is alone in the world – that is the focus of this paper. The paper will provide an overview of the evolution of Iran’s international posture since 1979 and will follow with a discussion of the key drivers of its foreign policy and of the main schools of thought explaining it. It will conclude with an overview of specific case studies.