Iran’s Foreign Policy Principles And Priorities – OpEd


By Dr. Seyyed Jalal Dehghani Firoozabadi

The foreign policy behavior and strategic goals of the Islamic Republic of Iran are based on principles which must be accurately scrutinized for their correct understanding. Along the same lines, the explanation of these principles requires a correct understanding of the essential characteristics and coordinates of the country, which collectively define and determine its identity. In order to identify and understand these essential characteristics, we need to assess the discourses within the context of which they are defined. This will clarify the logical relationship between its foreign policy discourses, the identity and nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its strategic principles and goals.

The first step that must be taken in order to analyze Iran’s foreign policy is to elucidate the discourses that shape it. Despite popular belief, Iran’s foreign policy is not exclusively shaped within the context of the Islamic discourse and ideology. There are three other discourses, namely Iranian nationalism, the revolutionary discourse, and Third-Worldism, all of which play a pivotal role in defining the strategic pillars of Iran’s foreign policy. Thus, the country’s principles and goals are intensified in every one of these. For instance, the principle of anti-colonialism features prominently in all of the said discourses.

Each one of these discourses has its own special place and logic in the foreign policy of Iran, invoking a special type of behavior. The Islamic discourse implies the “logic of Ummah,” which gives priority to Islamic principles, ideals and expediencies in Iran’s foreign policy. The Iranian nationalism discourse ensures the “logic of nation-state” which gives precedence in Iran’s foreign policy to national principles and interests. The revolutionary discourse also calls for the “logic of revolution,” which compels revolutionary principles and goals. Finally, the Third-Worldism discourse ushers in the “logic of non-alignment” along with its own principles and goals.

Secondly, to thoroughly understand and analyze Iran’s foreign policy, it is necessary to identify its substantive coordinates. According to the aforesaid four discourses, the country’s most important characteristics show:

  1. It is Islamic, revolutionary and Iranian
  2. It is a developing country
  3. It is a regional power
  4. It is located in an unstable region
  5. It is threatened by extra-regional existential threats
  6. It is strategically lonely

Thirdly, these characteristics and coordinates highlight clear-cut principles in the IR of Iran’s foreign policy, which in turn shape its behavior. These underlying principles can be divided in the two general and specific categories. The most important general principles that determine Iran’s foreign policy behavior include its:

  1. Anti-arrogance policies
  2. Anti-oppression policies
  3. Negation of domination
  4. Support for the oppressed people and liberation movement
  5. Support and defence of Islam and Muslims across the world
  6. Peaceful coexistence
  7. Anti-colonialism
  8. Mutual respect
  9. Commitment to and compliance with international obligations, treaties and laws

Although these general underlying principles play a sustained role in shaping Iran’s foreign policy behavior, they have been defined and implemented differently under different governments. For example, President Rouhani’s foreign policy attaches more priority to the three principles of 1) peaceful coexistence, 2) commitment to international obligations, treaties and laws, and 3) mutual respect between countries. However, the government of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave priority to such principles as anti-arrogance, negation of domination, support for the oppressed and liberation movements, and defending Muslims and Islam.

Apart from these principles, the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran has also been based on other specific principles under various governments over the years. This is the main factor for relative alterations in Iran’s policies under various governments. For example, the specific principles shaping President Rouhani’s foreign policy include:

  1. Prioritizing national interests and objectives (based on the nation-state)
  2. Constructive interaction
  3. De-securitization and normalization of foreign relations
  4. Balanced economic development
  5. Détente
  6. Confidence building
  7. Seeking positive security
  8. Seeking a peaceful status
  9. Balanced multilateralism
  10. Positive peace
  11. Balanced regionalism

President Rouhani’s government pursues its policies on the basis of the above general and specific principles. Below, we will take a more detailed look at these.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) tops the list of Rouhani’s foreign policy priorities. Iran aims to guarantee the full implementation of the JCPOA by all the signatories to the deal. From Iran’s perspective, the JCPOA is by no means open to correction, renegotiation, amendment, or any other changes. The main goal of the agreement was to lift economic sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme so that the economic benefits of the deal would allow Iran to pursue all-out economic progress and development. Therefore, Iran has announced that it will remain committed to the JCPOA as long as this primary goal is met and all other parties also remain committed to it. Otherwise, it would not be in Iran’s interests to remain in the nuclear deal. All political factions in Iran are unanimous in this regard.

The main bone of contention and disagreements here are about the violations of the JCPOA by the United States, the degree to which Iran has benefited by it, the preservation of the JCPOA after possible US withdrawal, and last but not least, Iran’s reaction should the US exit the nuclear deal. Some critics of the Rouhani government believe that he must adopt a tougher stance regarding the violations of the JCPOA and the imposition of additional sanctions by the United States. They also argue that a US withdrawal means the practical demise of the deal. On the other hand, there is another group including Rouhani’s government, which argues that if Europe remains committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and resists US pressures, the JCPOA will survive. Furthermore, they believe that preserving the JCPOA is necessary and even vital for maintaining the unity and integrity of the European Union and its global role.

Expanding regional relations and bolstering the neighbourhood policy

Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the expansion of relations with other countries in the region and the promotion of the good neighbourhood policy as one of its top priorities. Subsequently, during his second term in office, President Rouhani is planning to formulate and implement an all-out, active neighbourhood policy in order to play a more constructive role in the region. His government is especially focused on rectifying misunderstandings in relations with certain regional countries by reducing tensions and confidence building in order to move towards a more secure and stable region.

Critics of his government, however, argue that due to the priority that President Rouhani has given to the nuclear negotiations officially known as the JCPOA, and its implementation and preservation during his first term in office, Iran’s regional diplomacy has been weakened and marginalized in practice. Therefore, regional policies must take higher priority during Rouhani’s second term in office.

Contrary to some opinions and analyses, Iran’s regional foreign policy is by no means hegemonic, expansionist, aggressive, or invasive. On the contrary, it is totally security-oriented and defensive. Based on facts, Iran has never invaded any of its neighbours over the past 200 years and has been merely seeking to guarantee its national security within the framework of the nation-state logic and its requisites in an anarchic, unstable, and crises-ridden region which is a hotbed of threats.

Therefore, Iran’s regional foreign policy does not seek hegemony, but is based on multilateralism and overarching partnerships. Subsequently, Iran’s activism in Iraq and Syria, as in all cases, is based on the principle of ensuring survival and national security by repelling security threats and maintaining territorial integrity. For example, Iran’s principled stance on Iraq and Syria has been to maintain the stability and territorial integrity of these two countries, because their disintegration and partition would pose a direct threat to the territorial integrity and national security of Iran. As a result, all political factions in Iran have reached a consensus on this issue with no differences of opinion in this regard.

Based on the underlying principles of its foreign policy, Iran has always believed that establishing regional stability, security and peace calls for dialogue and regional cooperation. At the same time, international powers must play a positive and responsible role within the framework of a comprehensive regional security system in order to build confidence with regional countries and reduce tensions. Tehran also maintains that any form of regional security system which is not inclusive and comprehensive will not be able to guarantee regional stability and security. Along the same lines, any kind of provocative policies which would increase tensions in the region will be to the detriment of both regional and extra-regional actors.

Iran’s performance in the region shows that this country is part of the solution, not part of the problem. The problem of instability and insecurity in the region stems from direct and indirect interventions, as well as the constant military presence of extra-regional powers. Therefore, the resolution of regional issues and the restoration of regional stability will not be possible without Iran’s active role. Extra-regional powers, especially the United States, must recognize this role for the sake of stability and security in the region. Regional cooperation between Iran and Russia, as well as between Iran and China, can be taken as a good model for other global powers that are active in the region.

Promoting economic diplomacy to achieve economic development

Another important priority, which has been announced by Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is to bolster a comprehensive economic diplomacy in order to facilitate the economic development of the country. To this end, Iran is endeavoring to expand its economic relations with other countries. The argument offered by the Rouhani government is that Iran’s national economy has so far been at the service of the country’s foreign policy; but the time has come for foreign policy to serve and help the economic development of the country. Similarly, Iran’s Supreme Leader has also set economic developments as one of the main objectives of the country, to be pursued by the government at home and abroad. The member states of the European Union and other countries such as Russia, China and Japan can play an important role in this regard.

Global interaction

Addressing the endorsement ceremony of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s Supreme Leader clearly noted that global interactions with all countries must be at the top of the list for the new government, so that Iran’s foreign relations will not be limited to a specific number of countries and regions. The Rouhani government has sought to strengthen relations with other countries in a balanced way, based on the principles of constructive and effective interaction with the world as an important measure of its foreign policy. A recent trip by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Africa was expressive of this reality.

European countries can benefit and boost their economic ties with Iran more than ever before, because the Islamic Republic of Iran follows a balanced foreign policy based on the axial policy of looking both to the East and the West. Moreover, there are good grounds for expansive cooperation between Iran and Europe in other strategic areas. For example, terrorism is the most important common threat posed to this region and Europe alike. Therefore, bilateral and multilateral cooperation between Iran and Europe can play a very effective role in fighting this threat.

Iran is also ready to cooperate and expand its relations with Europe and attract foreign investment on the basis of such foreign policy principles as balanced multilateralism, mutual respect and constructive interaction. Therefore, not only China and Russia, but also European countries can take advantage of the geopolitical and economic potentials of Iran as the safest, most stable country in the region and engage in cooperation with the Islamic Republic in line with their mutual interests. A prerequisite to bring about this cooperation and development of relations is the EU’s commitment to the JCPOA with or without the US. Europe can help preserve the JCPOA by giving objective guarantees to Iran. Europe must also take into account its long-term interests, as opposed to short-term interests, in its relations with regional countries like Iran.

Countering US existential threats and hostile policies

Another main foreign policy objective for President Rouhani and his cabinet is to counter US existential threats and hostile policies against Iran. Iran’s position regarding the United States is also based on the same principles of peaceful coexistence, reduction of tensions, mutual respect and non-interference in Iran’s internal affairs. The main guidelines of Iran’s foreign policy toward the United States are its national interests and its national security. Naturally, any country will defend itself against all existential threats posed to it by another country and will take steps to boost its defensive and deterrent capabilities.

The new US policies on Iran are absolutely based on threat and coercion in addition to an effort made by Washington to change Iran’s structure and political system. This comes despite the fact that this strategy, which is based on the policy of containment, restriction and isolation of Iran, has proved to be a failed policy and counterproductive. On the other hand, the US policy of engagement to change Iran’s structure and behavior has not been successful in the absence of good understanding and recognition of Iran’s position, status and legitimate national interests, especially in the region. As such, the policy of “contaigment” which is a combination of containment and engagement to contain and restrict Iran through engagement with the country will not be successful either.

A successful policy with Iran will be one which is based on peaceful coexistence, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of Iran. This policy must also recognize Iran’s regional importance and status as well as its legitimate national interests, especially at regional levels, and must promote interaction based on mutual interests. It must also differentiate between various issues and avoid issue linkage despite the substantive ideological differences that exist between the two countries.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has shown in practice that it is ready to cooperate and interact with all legitimate countries on the basis of these principles. The JCPOA was a good example of Iran’s principled policy based on a win-win strategy. Iran’s cooperation to resolve various crises, including Kuwait in 1991, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003-2006, is testament to this claim. It is important to note that, in response to its peaceful policies of cooperation, Iran has been consistently met with the policy of threat and containment.

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review’s viewpoints.

Iran Review

Iran Review is a Tehran-based site that is independent, non-governmental and non-partisan and representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran’s political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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