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Iran’s Foreign Policy Strategy: Implications for the United States

We want to draw your attention to a brilliant piece, “Iran’s Foreign Policy Strategy After Saddam,” just published by Kayhan Barzegar, an Iranian scholar and foreign policy analyst currently at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  We have previously posted about an Op Ed that Barzegar published on Iranian perspectives about proposals to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor.  His new article offers an equally compelling analysis of Iranian perspectives on the regional balance of power following the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and how Iranian leaders have worked to interweave the nuclear issue with broader regional dynamics.  He states his main thesis clearly and upfront: 

The prevailing view in the United States is that Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and Iran’s increasing presence in the region has been offensive, expansionist, opportunistic, and often ideological.  Though Iran has occasionally taken advantage of new opportunities, these characterizations have been exaggerated in the United States.  Instead, Iran’s actions should be perceived in a more pragmatic light.  Though Ahmadinejad may himself be an ideological and divisive figure, Iran’s foreign policy strategy predates him and ought to be viewed as a wider Iranian effort to secure its geostrategic interests and national security concerns.  Despite Ahmadinejad’s tendencies to indulge his eccentricities, the logic of Iran’s foreign policy decisionmaking process always ensures this return to pragmatism.

Barzegar also provides powerful affirmation for our argument that President Obama, for all his fine rhetoric about engagement and dealing with the Islamic Republic on the basis of mutual respect, has not changed the strategic fundamentals of American policy toward Iran:

[W]ith the arrival of the Obama administration, there has been much talk of a substantive change in the U.S. approach to Iran.   From the Iranian perspective, however, the long-term U.S. approach to the regional balance of power remains largely unchanged.  For over half a century, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and especially in the Persian Gulf, has been to maintain a balance of power while preventing regional supremacy.  As a result, the Iranian leadership perceived Obama’s overtures to Syria to be a continuation of the Bush administration’s policy to isolate Iran and minimize its ability to influence regional developments.  Obama’s tactical visits and public diplomacy in Turkey and Egypt, as well as his conciliatory pronouncements toward the broader Islamic world, were all seen as efforts to shore up regional support against Iran and weaken its ability to withstand international pressure.  It is this belief that led the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to reply to Obama’s Persian New Year greeting by stressing that a change in Iranian attitudes would be contingent on ”genuine” and ”real” changes in the U.S. position vis-à-vis Iran. 

Barzegar rightly argues that ill-informed observations about Iranian domestic politics should not divert U.S. policymakers from correctly assessing the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and making choices that serve American interests and the cause of regional and international security:

After Iran’s June 2009 presidential election, Western commentators and policymakers have speculated about divisions among the Iranian political elite, and how to exploit them to gain leverage on Iran’s nuclear program and various outstanding regional disputes.  Such a policy, however, will bear little fruit.  Though there are of course differences in style and approach among the elite, it is clear that Iran’s nuclear program has the capability to unite them, especially in the face of foreign threats of increased sanctions and military attack.

Of course, Barzegar’s argument about the overarching aims of Iran’s foreign policy strategy has profound implications for U.S. policy — implications which he draws with admirable clarity: 

If the Iranian leadership’s actions are perceived as offensive and expansionist, then the rational choice for the United States is to maintain robust deterrence.  In contrast, if Iran’s policies are defensive, then the rational choice for the United States is to seek cooperation with Iran and eventually to help integrate Iran into the regional political-security architecture.  Such integration is certainly inseparable from settling the ongoing nuclear dispute and reaching a broader and much anticipated détente with the United States.  It is essential that Washington not misinterpret Iran’s actions.  Misreading Iran prevented the Bush administration from pursuing engagement and cooperation.  President Barack Obama must not make the same mistake.  He should reexamine the current perception of Iran’s regional aims and redefine Iran’s place in U.S. Middle East policy. . . .

If the Obama Administration seeks to bring further pressure to bear on Iran in the form of another round of sanctions at the UN Security Council, Obama’s promise of reorienting U.S. strategic relations with Iran will be irreparably damaged, and the Iranian leadership’s pronouncements of distrust and fears of U.S. double-speak will be vindicated.  Eloquence and pleasant new year greetings will prove to be far from enough, if there is any hope of breaking the deadlock.  Obama has a choice between going for long-term stability in a region that is strategically important to the United States and the world or for short-term gains in the futile hope that such leverage will yield a win-lose outcome in which the United States will be the sole victor.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.  We encourage you to read Barzegar’s outstanding article in its entirety.

We are posting about Barzegar’s article on the same day that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Berman bill authorizing additional Iran-related secondary sanctions, with the Obama Administration’s acquiescence and the private encouragement of some Obama advisors.  The overwhelming vote in favor of the Berman bill underscores the profound disconnect between the short-term political calculations that are increasingly driving America’s Iran policy and the long-term strategic imperatives highlighted by Barzegar’s piece.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 15 December 2009 under a Creative Commons license.




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