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The Domestic Determinants of Iran's Foreign Policy: The Illusion of Consensus

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  • October 21, 2010
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Shri Rajiv Sikri
    Discussants: Cdr. (Retd) M. R. Khan and Prof. Gulshan Dietl

    Mr Mahan Abedin, visiting fellow, introduced his paper by highlighting the significance of studying the foreign policy making process in Iran as it is rising as a regional power. He began by mentioning a note of caution that this academic exercise constituted a unique challenge since the Iranian foreign policy is mired in profound ideological, political and institutional complexities.

    Describing the Western and Iranian scholars’ approach to study Iran’s foreign policy making process, the presenter pointed out that while the Western scholars contend that all things being equal, Iranian policy is “rational”, in as much as it is the product of a laborious analytical and consultative process. On the other hand, the Iranian scholars are less concerned with the actual policies than with the ideological, political and cultural determinants that shape foreign policy formulation in Iran. However, both approaches yield suboptimal levels of understanding. He stated that both create a distorted panorama of the Iran’s foreign policy vision and aspirations.

    Contrary to the Western notion of “consensus”, Mr Abedin argued that the process of foreign policy making process in Iran is considerably more complex; that consensus is either lacking or where it is achieved, it is at an unacceptably high price. Moreover, the actual policies often reflect the tensions and divisions bedevilling the Iranian elite, leading foremost to inadequate implementation. However, he stated that Iran has made huge inroads in relatively non-contentious foreign policy areas, namely in the region where it is steadily emerging as the dominant power. But now it is faced with a hostile global climate, an outcome that is directly tied to the Iran’s antagonistic relationship with the West.

    In the second part of the presentation, he spoke about the ideological, political, and institutional construction of Iranian foreign policy making process. Outlining the ideological context of foreign policy, he said that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 dramatically altered the tone and rhetoric of its foreign policy and since then its foreign policy towards many of the countries remained relatively unchanged. He pointed out that faced with the ambitions of a revolutionary Islamic ideology engaged in the relentless pursuit of re-ordering Iran’s relations with the major world powers, Iranian scholars have struggled to embed the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy within a national framework. He added that still, a very small number of scholars have attempted a more innovative approach, namely to weave together the competing and conflicting ideational and ideological strands of foreign policy thinking since the Islamic Revolution.

    So far as the efforts to re-define the pan-Islamic aspirations of the post-revolutionary Iranian state is concerned, more than thirty years of the Islamic Revolution, it has failed to adequately define its national interests according to a consensual set of ideological and conceptual norms. He held that the complexity is not merely about the inclusion of pan-Islamic themes that tend to complicate foreign policy thinking but it is also about the attempts to redefine the national interests along revolutionary lines, which necessarily requires a radically new theoretical model for engaging with the major powers, particularly the US. The confusion also prevails among its diplomatic and the wider foreign policy establishment over the nature and extent of the pan-Islamic policies to be pursued.

    The author said that although there are over one hundred officially registered political parties in Iran, the party system is very weak. The majority of political parties do not represent any identifiable socio-economic interests. However, three reformist parties i.e. a) the Islamic Iran Participation Front, b) the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, and c) the National Trust Party are in particular recognised as genuine since they represent broad and identifiable political and ideological interests. He held that in the absence of a strong party-based system, factions have filled the political vacuum in Iran. In the sphere of Iran’s foreign policy, three factions i.e. “Principalists”, “Practicalists” and “Reformists” have an impact on Iran’s external conduct.

    On the role of the Iranian institutional system in foreign policy making process, Mr Abedin said that the post-revolutionary Iranian foreign, defence and intelligence systems are rich with institutions and these play important role in policy making, particularly in comparison with the pre-revolutionary order. Besides, the leadership (Valiy-e-Faqih), the Supreme National Security Council, the Islamic Consultative Assembly (National Parliament), the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the State Expediency Discernment Council are the other key institutions which play essential role in foreign policy formulation and implementation processes. He held that the existence of such an elaborate system often leads to the marginalisation of the foreign ministry as the country’s main foreign policy centre. Moreover, the prevailing institutional complexity is partly a product of ideological confusion and the lack of a disciplined party-based political system. Therefore, the profound philosophical and ideological contradictions that go the very heart of the Iranian system have penetrated into every institution, the net result of which is lack of consensus on a broad range of domestic and external issues.

    He pointed out that Iran’s foreign policy in the region is very successful in pursuing its national interests in the context of Islamic revolutionary beliefs and values. However, ideology has been a major constraint on its foreign policy outside the region, as evidenced by the volatile relationship with the West. But it is enormously problematic to label Iran’s foreign policy as “Islamic” or even “Ideological”, in the light of the profound sense of expediency and flexibility that informs the decisions of Iran’s rulers and their policy makers. Iran has chosen its ideological conflicts selectively, basing its calculus on issues and determinants that maximise its influence and power in the region. The opposition to Israel is best seen in this context. At the end, he said that any initiative to improve the foreign policy making process in Iran would do well to focus on the ideology, politics and the institutional setup. Finally, he concluded by suggesting that Iranian strategists and policy makers would benefit from the formulation of a clear and comprehensive national security doctrine. In addition, the recognition of the role of the Civil Society in shaping foreign policy will reduce the more harmful effects in foreign policy and will also help to align the country’s political society with the national security establishment.

    Cdr (Retd) M. R. Khan, citing various articles of the Iranian constitution, said that the very basis of Iran’s foreign policy consensus is based on its Islamic outlook. In this context, he referred to Article 152 which deals with the rejection of all forms of domination and the preservation of the independence of the country in all respects and its territorial integrity; Article 153 which deals with “no foreign control”; Article 154 which deals with “Independence, Support of Just Struggles” and other such constitutional provisions. This reflects Iran’s regional as well as outside regional foreign policy, Cdr Khan said. Speaking on the geopolitical advantages of Iran and its possession of critical natural resources like Oil and Gas, he said that in the past, Iran faced threats from both West and North and when Soviet Union liquidated, threats from north disappeared. However, it still faces threats from the West. He opined that because of Iran’s demographic and geopolitical advantages, it feels that it should get primacy not only in the region but also outside.

    Prof. Gulshan Dietl suggested the presenter to improve the paper by incorporating more sources from books and documents. Prof. Dietl also suggested for using more Persian language in the paper to provide an inclusive Iranian perception of foreign policy making. She said that in a democratic country, factions play important role in shaping foreign policy of the country and these factions should be carefully analysed in the context of Iran. She added that to assess the role of the leader (Valiy-e-Faqih) in Iran’s foreign policy making process, the author need to better analyse and relate the role of the Supreme National Security Council.

    Wg Cdr. V. Krishnappa said that Iran is a most important player in the region and it aspiring to play the ideological role. The ideological battle between Iran and other regional actors is going on since a long time in search of playing this role. On nationalism and pursuing national interests, he said that the factions are playing crucial role in Iran in shaping its foreign policy making. He, however, said that differences between various factions and political parties are inherent as the foreign policy making process is inherently a very complex process. In this context, he cited Jawaharlal Nehru’s Non-alignment policy and said that even Nehru’s NAM policy came under criticism. He said that on many of the issues that the author presented such as role of ideology, political actors, institutions etc there is lack of coherence and suggested the author to improve on this. He also suggested of studying Iran’s strategic behaviour for better understanding its foreign policy in the context of its security and ideological dimension.

    Mr S. Samuel C. Rajiv said that by framing the three level of analysis for studying Iran’s foreign policy making process the author have done good job. He held that consensus on policy issues always do not lead to rational decision making. However, Iran is very successful in its regional foreign policy where general consensus is built but not at large levels. He suggested that the role of public opinion, think tanks etc. should be involved in the foreign policy making process for more democratisation of policy making process.


    • One participant asked Mr Abedin that how he would differentiate between the domestic factors (religion and politics) and international factors (Nuclear, Gulf, and the West) which lead to the articulation of Iran’s foreign policy.
    • Iran views growing power and influence of Israel in the region as a security threat and there is a domestic consensus in Iran on its containment policy towards Israel.
    • One commentator asked for elaboration on how Iran defines its national interests.
    • Another participant wanted to know about the Iran’s perceptions about India’s rising power and its growing role in the West Asia.
    • What is the domestic consensus on Iran’s nuclear energy policy? How do they view the Western perspectives on Iran’s nuclear policy? How they are going to resolve this problem?
    • How different political parties view Iran’s role as a regional actor?
    • There are different points of view in Iran on various domestic factors which influence its policy making process. What are the main domestic determinants of Iran’s foreign policy?

    Chairperson’s Remarks

    There is insufficient understanding outside Iran on how its foreign policy is made. He appreciated for having a stimulated and spirited discussion on this subject. He said that the author has made a good attempt to explain the political structures in Iran’s foreign policy making process. It is also a clear attempt to look at Iran as first a rationalist and then Islamist state. He stated that Iran has regional aspirations and the real issue at present is the place of Iran in the region as a regional power. After Afghanistan and Iraq war, the West is now after Iran. On its role in Iraq and Afghanistan, dialogue is resuming with the West, particularly with the US. He hoped that there will be some settlement on Iran’s regional role. Finally, he said that Islamic character of Iran is as important as the national character of it and he felt that there is need to do more research on this subject. He concluded by thanking the gatherings for having a constructive engagement.

    Report prepared by Dr Saroj Bishoyi, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi