Photo illustration by John Lyman

The Paradox of Iran’s Foreign Policy

Iran’s foreign policy since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 reflect two contrasting doctrines depending on the circumstances. One is a total rejection of the current Westphalian system of international relations which is based on Islamic supra-nationalist ideologies. The other represents a desire to be accepted as a part of this system.

The source of the paradox is rooted in Iran’s approach towards the world. On the one hand, Iran is trying to remain loyal to its ideological revolutionary principles while, on the other hand, as a member of the international community, it attempts to adhere to the current world order.

The cause is rooted in its paradoxical ideological approach. Iran’s foreign policy tends to accommodate both Islamic supra-nationalism and the Westphalian system at the same time. To achieve this goal, an ideological interpretation of “expediency” is manipulated to ensure the survival of the Islamic state.

In the complicated structure of Iranian foreign policy, expediency “can be accurately interpreted as nothing less than a cost-benefit approach to decision making.” This approach posits that until the survival of the state is threatened, Iran bases its foreign policy on Islamic supra-nationalist objectives instead of rational ones within the Westphalian system.

However, when a threat materializes, Iran retreats from its initial ideological objectives in favor of adopting pragmatic approaches thus recognizing the Westphalian system, at which point it is prepared to either covertly or overtly negotiate its idealist objectives and sometimes abandon them altogether.

As long as Iran does not confront survival threats at the international level, it continues to pursue its ideologically bound foreign policy. In this phase, the ruling elites – consisting of the ruling political administration as well as the military and security apparatus, are primarily responsible for achieving the state’s ideological foreign policy. However, when facing conditions that threaten the survival of the state, the state adopts a more flexible attitude whereby its foreign policy decisions become more rational in nature within the Westphalian system. The degree of the State’s flexibility is directly related to the severity and proximity of the threat to the state’s survival. This pattern is especially visible in today’s foreign policy approach when Tehran found the state’s survival in immediate danger under crippling international sanctions.

As a result, Iran returned to the negotiation table with the international community and engaged in direct talks with the US for the first time since 1979. This eventually resulted in Iran’s resolving its nuclear dispute with the international community in 2015. It is apparent that, during this period, the Islamic supra-nationalist principles were halted in favor of the Westphalian values.