The Foreign Relations of the Islamic Republic: Self-Perception and Reception

The Islamic Republic has a checkered history when it comes to how it perceives and pursues relations with other states. The revolutionary rhetoric notwithstanding there are there powers of logic driving its foreign policy than just a revolutionary ethos.
This panel will explore various aspects of Iran’s foreign relations, from the underlying logic of Tehran’s own understanding of its foreign policy goals and methods, to how it is received and understood by other state actors.
- While there are striking continuities in the narratives of the Pahlavi monarchy and the Islamic Republic explaining and justifying an Iranian nuclear programme, Ariane Tabatabai’s paper will explore the religious element as a distinguishing element of the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of nuclear technology and its justification to the outside world.
- Dina Esfandiary will examine how the GCC states understand and perceive Iran's regional foreign policy. Here narratives of identity (ethnic/religious) and ideology are relevant. These narratives are often employed in a binary form and thus exacerbate threat perceptions between state actors.
- Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi will analyse the relations between the Islamic Republic and one of its most important interlocutors, the European Union. In her paper she will analyse the interaction between the two entities and the phases their relationship went through. The question is to what extent are they actually taking each others position into account when interacting and to what extent are they constituting their general foreign policy through this interaction?
- Janne Bjerre Christensen’s paper takes the analysis of EU-Iran relations line step further by delving into the drug policy/diplomacy of the two actors. How has the different political winds in tehran affected its drug policy and in extension its willingness and ability to co-operate with international institutions like the UN and important political interlocutors like the EU? And conversely how has grand politics like the nuclear issue and sanctions affected the EU’s ability to pursue important anti-drug policies with a country like Iran?


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Iran is a major driver of the Gulf Arabs’ regional and international policymaking. Fears of regional Iranian hegemony are longstanding. The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen have only served to highlight and intensify this. Some states, namely Saudi Arabia, have reacted by counteracting Iranian influence through a multi-tiered rivalry, with geopolitical, economic, military, ideological, and sectarian aspects. Conversely, the Gulf States are only a comparatively small part of the world viewed from Tehran. Iran views itself as a natural hegemon over its neighbours, with a strong sense that its interests should be treated deferentially by others in the region. This paper will examine how the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with its Gulf neighbours is perceived in Tehran and in Gulf Arab capitals.

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Iran started a nuclear program in the 1950s. The Shah wanted to have a nuclear program that would allow his country to diversify its energy sources, have a solution to its water shortage problems, and address its medical and industrial needs, while at the same time having a nuclear weapon option. Despite pursuing a policy of hedging, the Shah and his officials never officially admitted to this, rather insisting that Iran's nuclear program was merely peaceful. With the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the nuclear program was put on hold for several years. Indeed, the revolutionaries believed nuclear energy to be a waste of money and resources for an oil-rich country. In the middle of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), however, the Islamic Republic decided to revive the nuclear program, continuing on the same path the Shah had started. The Islamic Republic's nuclear narrative also followed the example of that of the Shah with a few exceptions. The most important difference between the two narratives lies in its religious component, shaped around the idea of the prohibition of nuclear weapons in Shi'a jurisprudence. This paper examines Iran's nuclear narrative and its evolution from the time of the Shah until today.

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The paper will explore the evolution of the European Union’s relations with Iran between 1992 and 2015, arguing that Tehran’s foreign policy affected the way in which the Union framed its policy vìs-à-vìs the Islamic Republic only until 2003, when the nuclear crisis erupted.

The paper will start by briefly outlining the different phases of EU relations with Iran: it will first describe the goals and triggers of the Critical Dialogue (1992-1996) and of the Comprehensive Dialogue (1997-2003), both shaped and implemented by the Union’s formal institutions; it will then analyse the stages and objectives of the ad hoc initiative developed, outside of the Union’s legal framework, by the E3 countries (France, Germany and the United Kingdom, later joined by the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy) on the Iranian nuclear issue (2003-2015).

The paper will argue that, between 1992 and 2003, the policy framed by the Union on Iran was strongly linked to which government and foreign policy was adopted in Tehran. In this phase, different level of engagement characterised bilateral relations on human rights, the Middle East Peace Process, terrorism and non-proliferation issues, whilst also economic interdependence changed during the Khatami administration, compared to the Rafsanjani presidency. The focus will then be shifted to how, on the other hand, throughout the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue, Tehran’s foreign policy no longer affected the framing of the EU policy toward Iran. This section will briefly explore the different foreign policies implemented by the administrations governing Iran between 2003 and 2015 (Khatami between 2003 and 2005, Ahmadinjead between 2005 and 2013 and Rouhani between 2013 and 2015); it will then argue that, despite the diverging foreign policies of the three administrations, the Union equally prioritised the nuclear dossier, sidelining all other issues. Even the choice to reduce economic interdependence with Iran from 2010 onward was the result of the Union’s heavier investment on economic pressure and unilateral sanctions, in line with the US preferences, rather than the consequence of Iran’s foreign policy.

The paper will conclude by arguing that, whether the EU takes into account Iran’s foreign policy when shaping its relations with Tehran thus depends on whether its policy is framed within or outside the Union’s legal framework.

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The EU and the UN have often praised Iran’s fight against drug trafficking, because Iran is the country in the world seizing the highest amount of opium. This paper will discuss the trajectories of drug diplomacy between Iran and the EU after 1997, and the political and moral agendas, which the drug cooperation has legitimized and fueled. Using Ghassan Hage’s notion of crisis as a governing principle it will discuss how drug control turned from being an arena for cooperation to a contested field of disengagement.

With the 1997 reform movement drug control became a political tool to break Iran’s political isolation, and calling for international cooperation against drugs was one of the ways in which President Khatami enabled his ‘dialogue among civilizations’. The intensified drug diplomacy also opened up human rights related interventions on treatment of drug users and debates about state responses towards the socially marginalized.

However, the presidency of Ahmadinejad changed the status of drug diplomacy. As the nuclear negotiations collapsed in 2005 and the EU-Iran human rights dialogue came to an abrupt hold, cooperating on drug control became one of the few remaining, relatively neutral arenas for the EU to sustain a dialogue with Iran. The urgency to do so was further stressed by the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, which also escalated its opium production dramatically.

However, after 2009 drug control also became a much more contested policy field. This was partly due to the sanctions imposed on Iran’s dual-use technology, explicitly challenging cooperation on border control. Partly it was due to a mounting critique in the Western media of Iran’s escalating use of capital punishment (coinciding with the clampdown on the Green Movement and the securitization of domestic politics). At present no EU countries support Iran’s fight against drug trafficking. The paper will explore what the drug diplomacy between Iran and EU has implied and how the issue of drugs, once termed a relatively neutral avenue for cooperation, has become a heated and morally charged arena for mutual human rights accusations.