Five Months On: Iran’s Rational Foreign Policy—A Realist Analysis

President Rouhani (left) and President Obama (Right)

In the spring of this year (2013) I wrote a paper that seemed to a great deal of my peers to be premised upon a notion of fancy. The notion that Iran, the great pariah of international relations, the scourge of all that was right and moral, was in fact a rational actor in its foreign policy performance. The genesis of my argument, so simple yet to many so obviously wrong, was that the Islamic Republic of Iran might actually be governed by a group of men (for it is irrefutably men) that behave in a way that seeks to advance rather than hinder their own nation’s interest. I endeavoured to argue this through an interpretation of a well established international relations theory, Political Realism, and two case-studies of empirical evidence: analysing first the Iranian Nuclear Program and second, Iran’s diplomatic ties with China. Countless hours of often frustrating research going against the grain of the vast majority of “academic” wisdom brought me to a position whereby I could hand in a piece of work for which I expect I shall be proud of for a long time. Not merely I am proud of the overall mark that I received, but I think I am more proud of the courage it demonstrated to tackle an issue taking a position so controversial in the intellectual hegemony of the day.


Today, writing in late September of 2013, the Middle East continues to hold top billing for international relations observers. Ongoing is a civil/ proxy war that for over two years now has indiscriminately taken the lives of both the innocent and the guilty in Syria. Last week raised a wry smirk however for those disinclined toward unchecked American power, as it presented an intriguing phallus measuring contest between the leader the USA and its supposedly former Cold War rival Russia. A draw? Maybe. And who thought it was China that was the bad guy? Finally, after Vladimir Putin’s op-ed-off with John McCain, this week’s foreign contributor to the US press is the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, who is seemingly using his honeymoon period in power to embark on an international campaign of goodwill. The Rouhani phenomenon presents a very serious opportunity for the West. Evidently vastly intelligent and well respected within the Iranian political elite, Rouhani could be the key to improving relations between the Islamic Republic and the US. According to reports, this week may provide in the first handshake between a US and Iranian President since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Khomeini must be turning in his grave. Netanyahu must be fuming somewhere, furiously drawing for the UN General Assembly a diagram of Rouhani as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


Just to temper expectations slightly, détente between the US and Iran has been close before. The US sought it in the late 1990s but Khatami did not have the power. Iran wanted it during Bush’s first term, but the neoconservatives wanted war. Any war. Every war. History tells us however that the path of states, like stars, do eventually align for long enough for at the very least a conversation to take place. Nixon reached out to China and changed the Cold War. Sadat went to Jerusalem and changed the Middle East. Can a handshake change the world? If one is to take place between Obama and Rouhani in New York at the UN today then it gives two men with the power to end this utterly useless hostility the opportunity to look into one another’s eyes and see that neither is evil, both are highly intelligent, and each has a duty to the millions of people that they respectively represent.


Rouhani clearly wants to end Western sanctions against Iran, and backed by a popular mandate that would be the envy of any world leader, Ayatollah Khamenei appears to have ceded to him the authority to try and deliver. Iran could be positioning itself for a concession on nuclear, though I would not expect a big one. The timing with the US electoral cycle appears fortunate also. Precedent demonstrates that second term US Presidents look to cement their legacy through foreign policy. For whatever reason (Hope and Change from his predecessor perhaps), Obama sought initially to do this by adding fuel to this year’s fire in the Middle East. Publically rebuffed by a reemerging Russia, perhaps the man that promised so much back in 2008 will write his name in the history books for good after all. Being an integral part of détente with Iran after 33 years of animosity would certainly achieve that.





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