Iran: Alone in the World

Examining Iranian foreign policy, with a focus on the years since 2001, this panel analyses the defining feature of Iran’s international and regional posture, its strategic loneliness, and the implications of this for the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.

The panels offers an in-depth analysis of the key drivers behind Iran’s foreign policy; power, strategic culture, and ideology. In addition, the authors examine Iran’s relations with key countries and regions, including its often tenuous relations with China, Russia and America, as well as its bilateral relations with non-state actors such as Hezbollah. The common thread running throughout the panel is that Iran is alone in the world: regardless of its political manoeuvrings, the Islamic Republic’s regional and international posture is largely one of strategic loneliness.


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The author argues that to expand its influence in the Levant, Tehran goes by with a fourfold strategy that relies on both soft and hard power: upholding an anti-Israel discourse, supporting its most trusted regional partner, Hezbollah in Lebanon, backing Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and maintaining a strong state-to-state relationship with Baathist Syria. Although these policies are viewed as ideological in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh, they are actually based on the pragmatic desire to guard what Iranian leaders perceive to be their national interest. For instance, by tapping into the region’s anti-Israel sentiment, Iran hopes to gain influence in the heart of the Sunni Arab world, a significant feat for a Shia and Persian nation. As this chapter aims to demonstrate, Iran’s Levantine ambition largely seeks to counter pressure coming from the USA, Israel and Sunni Arab regimes, which currently hold adversarial positions toward the Islamic Republic. At the same time, we should not overestimate the Islamic Republic’s sway in the region. Iran is a powerful actor with various means of influence, but it faces significant constraints, some of which have become even more important since the onset of the Arab uprisings in 2011.

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This paper will examine the role of Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, in shaping Iranian-Saudi relations during his first year in office. Iranian-Saudi Relations had improved in late 1990s during the presidency of Muhammad Khatami however they have deteriorated significantly since the the Lebanese-Israeli war of 2006. Tensions between the two states have been exacerbated by Shi'a-Sunni competition in the Arab world, concerns about Iran's nuclear program and the impact of the Arab-Spring in the Persian Gulf and Syria. Although Rouhani has a reputation for pragmatism and moderation, his ability to improve relations between Tehran and Riyadh will likely be limited. While he may moderate Tehran's rhetoric, he will be constrained by domestic politics, regional dynamics that are beyond his control, and deep seated Saudi suspicion.

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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.

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Iran had initially displayed great hopes that the so-called "Arab Spring" would increase its influence throughout the Middle East. Anti-Iranian regimes were toppled across the region; Political Islam was, at least initially, given a boost; and US influence in the region seems to have waned. However, these developments have not moved the region in Iran's favour. Why? The fighting in Syria has certainly been a major source of unpopularity for Iran, but are there deeper and more systemic reasons? This paper will explore these questions and ask what impact, if any, Hassan Rouhani's election has had on Iran's standing in the region.