Of the many questions concerning the election of Hassan Rowhani to the Iranian presidency, none has provoked more confusion than the future of Iran’s foreign policy. Accordingly, it is important to bring to light some issues that are often overlooked in Iran’s strategic profile. The fundamentals need to be reexamined. Only then can one develop an accurate picture of the impact of what is essentially a reformist resurgence in Iran, and understand how it will shape the country’s foreign policy.
Iran’s Central Priorities
Every state within the international system has certain core foreign-policy imperatives that are fundamentally consistent throughout time, regardless of the governing structure controlling the country. In Iran’s case, some regional realities have remained constant, whether in the age of European domination in the immediate post-Ottoman collapse, the Soviet and U.S. penetration of the region, the period of American unipolar dominance, or the current upheavals in the Arab World. The most consequential factors include Iran’s encirclement by foreign troops; the existence of new unstable regional states whose governments are both suspicious of Iran and kept in power by foreign powers; instability on Iran’s borders because of foreign-power competition in neighboring countries; and the broader dependence of the global economy on Middle East oil, which both facilitates and exacerbates the aforementioned circumstances.
Within this context, certain priorities have long been hallmarks of the foreign policy of each Iranian government for the last one hundred years: the defense of Iranian territory, regional power enhancement, economic aggrandizement, alliance seeking in its near and abroad (with both states and non-state actors), and the desire to transition from a developing to a developed country.
To fulfill these goals, Iran has long tried to achieve both autarky and independence in decision making. And it is here where the main conundrum within Iranian foreign policy lies. The structural conditions of the Middle East, where regional politics have been principally determined by external powers, prove dysfunctional when faced with the independent posturing of an indigenous regional actor.
To deal with these issues, Iran has tried to navigate between the contradictions of achieving autarky and independence, while broadening, as much as possible, relations with the great powers that possess inordinate influence over major international institutions and access to globalized means of economic and financial trade. These priorities have displayed a remarkable sense of continuity, enduring through the first Pahlavi Shah, the installation of his young son as ruler of Iran, the democratically elected Mossadegh administration, the second incarnation of the second Pahlavi Shah, Revolutionary Iran, to post-war Reconstruction Iran, Reformist Iran, and the rise—and now fall—of the New Iranian Right.
In the implementation of Iranian foreign policy, each political order has had their share of successes and failures in achieving some of the longstanding priorities. For instance, the second Pahlavi Shah was more adept in dealing with great-power alliance building than his predecessor. The Islamic Republic has proven more capable of asserting independence and instituting self-sufficient policies, yet has been unsuccessful in coming into a broader understanding with the major powers, most significantly the United States.
Looking at the Islamic Republic more closely, the first generation of Iran’s reformists was more successful than the New Right in reaching some détente with the great powers (except for Washington). It is within this context that the reformist resurgence of 2013, spearheaded by president-elect Rowhani, and its likely impact on Iranian foreign policy, should be analyzed.
Same Goals, New Circumstances
Just like his predecessors, the new Iranian president will become the custodian of the same foreign-policy goals, while attempting to implement them in the unique internal and geopolitical dynamics of his time. Having been a part of the reformist administration of President Khatami, and witnessed the ramifications of President Ahmadinejad’s tenure, the new administration confronts major challenges that did not plague preceding administrations, while also enjoying certain advantages that are unique to it.
The most crucial challenges are in the economic and diplomatic spheres. Indeed it was the mismanagement of these two elements by the Ahmadinejad administration, according to mainstream Iranian outlets, that was a principal cause of the conservative defeat. In both spheres, a Rowhani administration would most likely bring back the same technocrats that left government with the entrance of Ahmadinejad. On the economy, critical issues such as subsidy restructuring, investment in the oil and natural-gas sectors, investment in the transportation infrastructure, partnering with Iran’s large and diversified manufacturing base and its agrobusiness sector, and a sound and workable anti-inflation policy will be the major objectives for the new administration. And already, the psychological impact of an impending change in management has significantly strengthened the rial since Rowhani’s election.
Yet, while the new administration can make significant headway on management, sanctions would be tougher to work around. The economic mismanagement during Ahmadinejad’s tenure was only exacerbated by the escalation of the U.S.-led sanctions regime that has impeded Iran’s ability to get paid for its exports and access the global financial system. Indeed, of the myriad of economic challenges that will face the new administration, it is the financial sanctions that will pose the biggest hurdle.
The economic problems that Ahmadinejad has left for Rowhani are rivaled only by the severe diplomatic dilemma that Iran faces, both in the region and beyond. The most significant regional crisis for Iran has been the violence in Syria, essentially now a civil war that is creating a dangerous sectarian divide. The years of diplomatic mismanagement by Ahmadinejad (in addition to the desire by Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies to bleed the Iranians in Syria by supporting anti-Assad forces) paralyzed any hopes of a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis based upon regional cooperation.
On the nuclear issue, though Rowhani was deeply involved in the negotiations with the EU3 (France, Great Britain, and Germany), present conditions are much more challenging. The IAEA is no longer the same institution anymore, as Yukiya Amano is clearly seen as far more deferential to the U.S. position, while every government of the EU3 is significantly more hostile to Iran than each of their respective predecessors. And as for nuclear talks with the United States, massive sanctions escalation has become the only policy towards Iran.
Yet the Rowhani administration does enjoy some major advantages that prior administrations have not. The first concerns the regional security architecture. Unlike Khatami’s administration, which came into power at a time where both Iran’s eastern and western neighbors were hostile regimes—and unlike the Ahmadinejad administration, which began with both Iraq and Afghanistan completely occupied by U.S. forces—the Rowhani administration comes into power under much different circumstances. Today both neighboring countries have relatively friendly governments, while the U.S. military presence in the region is diminishing.
Though it’s true that the fallout of the Arab Spring in Syria has complicated Iran’s regional strategy, the events have also exacted a significant domestic and geostrategic cost for other countries that are viewed as Iran’s rivals. In Turkey, where the ruling AKP party is a major supporter of the Syrian rebels, a majority of the population opposes their government’s Syria policy. Moreover, the recent nationwide demonstrations in Turkey against the AKP and the subsequent government crackdown on protesters have negatively impacted the image of the “Turkish model,” both within the Arab world and beyond—not to mention putting strain on the country’s economy.
As for Israel, the upheavals in the Arab world may threaten it more than Iran. Unlike Israel, which lives in the midst of the Arab world, and thus is more vulnerable to border instability coming from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and possibly Jordan, Iran resides on the frontiers of the Arab world. And considering the recent setbacks of the Syrian rebels, competition from the Persian Gulf countries is not a big concern; without massive intervention by the United States and the EU on the rebel side, it is unlikely that they would continue on their current course. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, bolstered by the American public’s unambiguous aversion to more military interventions, and the fact that Iran no longer faces an existential threat on its borders, will enable the Rowhani administration to think strategically, as opposed to just tactically.
The new president also enjoys domestic advantages. The electoral mandate that Rowhani now possesses is qualitatively more robust than his predecessors. In his campaign, Rowhani, traditionally known as a centrist figure, was able to form a new coalition of forces within Iranian politics, most significantly centrist and reformist technocrats, disillusioned conservatives looking for change, and a major showing of the broader Iranian reformist movement seeking a relaxation of social restrictions. The spontaneous celebrations across Iran on the night of Rowhani’s electoral triumph not only helped begin the long process of reshaping Iran’s image, but also showed that the new administration has the political backing of the population to implement significant decisions.
These new circumstances will have major ramifications for the implementation of many Iranian foreign-policy goals, particularly the upcoming resumption of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 coalition. In the event that both sides reach an agreement—one predicated on Iran curbing levels of enriched uranium and more transparency, along with the United States and EU providing significant sanctions relief (such as from central-bank and financial sanctions)—the Rowhani administration’s ability to deliver on the deal will no longer be in doubt. On the other hand, if a deal cannot be made, the new administration will have the domestic support and maneuverability to protect Iran’s national interests. The biggest consequence, as I have argued, would most likely be Iran’s withdrawal from the NPT.