Iranian Foreign Policy as Realist Security Dilemma

Traditional security concerns, not religious zeal, guide Iran’s policy in the Middle East.

Last year saw the spiral of debate over the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions gain continuous coverage in the international media. In September, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that a “clear red line” must be articulated by the international community to avoid conflict. This conveyed a firm statement of intent from Israel, which reaffirmed its unequivocal opposition to Iran attaining a breakout nuclear capability. It also served to outline the clear military repercussions that Israel would take if Iran breached the conditions of such a red line by continuing the enrichment of nuclear materials.

In light of this Israeli posturing, it is important to contextualize perceived Iranian belligerence in the region and consequently, Tehran’s relationship with the West. When dealing with the “Iran problem,” it is imperative that international stakeholders consider the reasons for Iran’s self inflicted international isolation, in order to better understand why it would continue to defy the wishes of foreign powers.

Professor Anoush Ehteshami, director of the Center for Advanced Study of the Arab World, has attributed Iran’s status as a pariah state to its “three deadly sins.” These are; Iran’s support of terrorist organizations, the continued development of its nuclear program — despite international and regional pressure not to do so — and its longstanding opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Rather than viewing Iran’s actions through the conventional one dimensional framework of the “axis of evil” as the neoconservative discourse presupposes, Iranian foreign policy can be said to be determined by pragmatic geopolitical calculation, crystalized by the realist security dilemma.

The reasoning behind using the theoretical construction of realism as the lens through which to view the nature of Iranian policy lies in the fact that realism focuses on security based factors; it is Iran’s response to these that forms the central pillar of the argument as to why Iran can be said to act belligerently in the region.

This defies the notion that Iranian foreign policy is driven by irrational rhetoric. Viewing its actions through this realist framework, it can be argued that belligerency on Iran’s part is actually reactionary to the security situation inherent to the Middle East. Tehran’s top priority in this situation is the continuance of the Islamic republic, especially in reference to the United States, which Iran views as an existential threat.

Washington, for its part, has utilized a policy of containment upon Iran in order to blunt its ambitions as a regional power and minimize its ability to interfere with vital American strategic interests. In response to this, Tehran has countered the United States’ policy of containment with a strategy of deterrence, an approach that is the result of Iran’s perception of its vulnerabilities.

Iran’s “three deadly sins” can be rationalized and understood within this framework. Its funding of Islamist terrorist groups, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, is an effort to counterbalance the hegemony of Israel and the United States in the region. The question is, has Iran supported Hezbollah (and others) for ideological and religious reasons or has it done so for geopolitical reasons? Using the realist framework as a basis, it is feasible to argue that Iran uses its position as the only Islamic republic, not only to “promote the revolution” but to form a rejectionist axis against perceived Western imperialism in the Middle East.

Iran’s support is encapsulated within its aforementioned policy of deterrence. Hezbollah, although sharing religious and revolutionary ties with Iran, is essentially utilized as a proxy force in which it can wage asymmetric low intensity warfare, especially against its regional rival Israel. Despite the anti-Israeli rhetoric, in doing this, Tehran is attempting to neutralize Washington’s strategy of containment by expanding its own influence in the Middle East.

Hezbollah provides Iran with the proxy force through which to threaten Israel thus giving security assurances against an Israeli air attack on Iran. As both Israel and the United States threaten Iran (through containment, rhetoric and regional position) this forms one pillar of the Iranian security dilemma. In sum, support for Hezbollah and other groups originally had an ideological basis but this has given way to strategic rationale, as reflected in zero-sum conceptions of regional security requirements.

In relation to Iran’s suspected development of a nuclear weapons capability, Israel and the United States have sought to contain Iranian influence in the region and therefore are considered by Iran to be its primary foes. Both powers have a considerable superiority of conventional forces and operational capabilities, notwithstanding their nuclear arsenals. This problem for Iran forms another pillar of the regional security dilemma. The Islamist regime’s greatest fear is the undermining of its regional position and the erosion of its religious policies which would mean the abandonment of its sole claim to legitimacy. A logical way for the regime to circumvent this dilemma would be to develop a nuclear capability of its own, thus negating the ability of its foes implementing its containment.

The centrifugal forces emitted from such fear of national sovereignty, through a zero-sum framework, would therefore translate Iran’s desire to attain a nuclear weapons capability, despite such a move reinforcing its role as a belligerent state in the region.

Realist political theorist Kenneth Waltz would argue that rival powers equipped with nuclear weapons will counterbalance one another and resolve security dilemmas by providing stability. However, while it is fair to assert that Iran’s development of nuclear technology may in part be a result of prevailing realist logic, it would more than likely precipitate further tremors in the security architecture of the region.

Whether it is or isn’t developing a bomb, Iran’s actions can be framed as responses to pragmatic realist considerations and not actual hostility motivated by ideology.

The final aspect of Iran’s belligerent behavior is its vehement opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process. The argument above has asserted that, through realist pragmatism, the national interests of Iran have superseded religious concerns as the primary reasoning behind its actions. It would appear on the surface then that Iran’s opposition to the peace process is not precipitated (as a realist framework would inform) by regional security apprehensions, rather by adherence to the aggressive rhetoric of the revolution.

However, it is possible to view Iran’s antagonism to the peace process through the prism of realism as well. Iran’s tendency to Islamize the conflict reinforces its position as the head of the Islamic cause, thus projecting its regional power in counterbalance to that of Israel and the United States.

Therefore Iran has historically opposed the peace process, not simply from a religious and ideological standing but because normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel would undermine its counterbalancing role as well as its legitimacy to oppose perceived Western hegemony.

Not only this but a comprehensive peace agreement could lead to a greater Western economic and military presence in the Arabian Peninsula, thus exacerbating Iran’s significant fears of encirclement. In framing its opposition through the rubric of Islamism, Iran posits itself as a defender of the Muslim people, the result of which improves its regional standing and projects its political influence.

It can be argued therefore that the prevailing security considerations of the region are what have caused Iran to adopt a belligerent foreign policy position. It tends to be misread by foreign powers, however, increasing the chances of misunderstandings and perpetuating a cycle of unabated regional fear and hostility.

Andrew Murray contributed to this article.