Commentary by Alex IRELAND
Since the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal in July of this year, plenty of arguments for and against have been raised. This article will offer a new perspective, examining the effect of the deal on wider Iranian foreign policy, and will argue that if the West abides by the deal it could strengthen moderate factions within Iran’s foreign policy elite and foster further Iranian efforts to reduce tensions. This would be an obvious success for Western foreign policy. This analysis will draw on Jeffrey Legro’s theory of how societies respond to attempts to change their foreign policy paradigms.1 It will not be argued that this consideration should override all others regarding the deal, but that it should be taken note of and considered alongside other more publicised arguments. Firstly, Legro’s theory will be briefly outlined, before being applied to the Iranian nuclear deal in subsequent paragraphs.
Legro’s theory aims to explain why some ideas of major foreign policy change overcome societal inertia, but others do not. Legro emphasises the need for the previous foreign policy strategy to have been severely discredited, but also crucially the need for the new strategy to achieve some early successes. Without the achievement of early successes (whether actually caused by the new approach or not) it is easy for critics to mobilise dissatisfied members of the wider population against it, and build a coalition of elites unhappy with the new strategy, to force either a return to the status quo or a different alternative.
This framework can be readily applied to the Iranian nuclear deal agreed in July. The old paradigm of disengagement from, and hostility towards, the Western powers has brought Iran international isolation and heavy economic sanctions. Amongst much of the general population, and a section of the elite, it has been discredited due to these failures. Evidence for this can be found in the surprise landslide election of Khatami to president in 1997, and the landslide victory of Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections – both vocal proponents of rapprochement with the Western powers. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate which part of their electoral successes were due to public support for a reformist domestic agenda, as opposed to foreign policy, but Rouhani especially widely broadcast his foreign policy stance in the presidential campaign. At any rate, it demonstrates that a significant section of the elite is willing to attempt the new foreign policy strategy of engagement with the Western powers.
The concern is that Western rejection of the new Iranian strategy of engagement, by a perceived reneging on the principles of the deal or through causing difficulties in implementation later on (or, currently, with Republican obstruction in the United States Congress), would weaken domestic support for the entire Iranian foreign policy strategy. It could weaken the position of elites that support engagement with the West, and discredit the approach in the eyes of the population. This could open the way either to a return to the previous status quo, or some other unpalatable alternative. Evidence for this can be found in the arc of Khatami’s presidency, which lasted from 1997 to 2005. Despite being elected as a believer in lessening tensions with the West, Khatami was unable to deliver more than moderate symbolic gestures, and the population grew disillusioned with his lack of success. After Khatami’s term ended in 2005, the presidential election was won by Ahmadinejad, who attracted 62% of the vote by campaigning on a violently anti-West foreign policy (as well as hardline conservative domestic) agenda. What followed was eight years of increased tensions between Iran and the West. Were Rouhani’s current attempts to de-escalate tensions also met with failure, such a strategy may not receive a third chance.
This article acknowledges that the Iranian system of government is not a full democracy, and as such the ability of public opinion to influence foreign policy decisions is not as strong as it may be, but the argument is not invalidated by this, and at any rate the argument applies to Iranian elites as well. Additionally, this article acknowledges that the principal objective of the nuclear deal should be, and is, to restrict Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. Attempts to alter the domestic power balance underlying the wider foreign policy strategy of Iran cannot be the overriding basis for the deal. There are, of course, further competing extra considerations, such as the reaction of other states in the Middle East and the potential legitimacy that the deal may confer upon pursuit of nuclear weapons. However, we cannot pretend that the deal exists in a vacuum affected only by nuclear proliferation issues. Here is an opportunity to try to strengthen elements within Iran that support decreasing tensions with the West, and this side of the issue is a major foreign policy consideration to note as the deal is tested over the coming years.
- Legro, J. (2005). Rethinking the World. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.