Journal Article - Washington Quarterly

Iran's Foreign Policy Strategy after Saddam

| January 2010

"During President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's first term, Iranian foreign policy had two key enduring components. First, Tehran sought to deal with Iran's new security dilemma brought about by the U.S. presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003. Iran responded with an "accommodating policy," which consisted of expanding cooperation after Saddam's fall with the main Arab world actors, principally Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and seeking direct talks with the United States. This included Iran’s engagement in direct talks with Coalition Forces regarding the prevailing security situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In this way, Iran hoped to avoid both a new round of rivalry with its Arab neighbors and a new security dilemma in its relations with the United States.

The second component was to seek an "alliance policy" while regionalizing the nuclear issue, in which Iran sought to tie and interweave the nuclear issue with broader regional dynamics such as Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal and the Arab-Israeli conflict. By building relationships with friendly states (e.g., Syria) and political movements (e.g., Hezbollah or Shi‘ite factions in Iraq), Iran tried to deter the U.S. or Israeli military threat in the short term and to prevent the institutionalization of a U.S. role in its backyard in the long term.

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 action 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.

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 de´tente 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.

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 of 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. What, therefore, should be the Obama administration's stance toward Ahmadinejad's second term in office?..."

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This article was described as "brilliant" by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Leverett in their commentary, "Iran's Foreign Policy Strategy: Implications for the United States."

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Barzegar, Kayhan. Iran's Foreign Policy Strategy after Saddam.” Washington Quarterly, vol. 33. no. 1. (January 2010):

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