Dr. Juneau is an assistant professor with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy (Stanford University Press, forthcoming). Until July 2014, he was a strategic analyst with the Department of National Defence, Government of Canada.
Iran is alone in the world. Its acute strategic loneliness is primarily the result of structural factors inherent in its place in the regional and international systems and is largely independent of the actions of whoever governs the country. Its international posture does not render cooperation with other states impossible, nor does it predetermine a condition of permanent conflict with its neighbors. Strategic loneliness, however, explains why Iran has very limited common interests with its neighbors and why cooperation is difficult and costly to achieve. Tehran's policies, as a result, can worsen or improve the situation but cannot fundamentally change it.
Analyzing a state's international posture or position in the international system is a necessary first step that should form the foundation of foreign-policy analysis. After briefly explaining what strategic loneliness implies, this article therefore will lay out the essential features of Iran's place in the regional and international balances of power, which explain the persistence of its strategic loneliness. It then looks into how this posture shapes the parameters of Iran's most important bilateral relations. Next, the article argues that efforts launched in 2013 by President Hassan Rouhani to solve the nuclear standoff between Iran, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies and partners, on the other, are unlikely to alter more than marginally the Islamic Republic's posture. Even if Tehran and the international community reach a long-term solution, Iran's loneliness will endure.
THE MEANING OF STRATEGIC LONELINESS1
Whatever configuration the regional balances of power and interests take — Iran's power relative to its neighbors, the presence of extraregional powers, the specific nature of the regimes in Tehran and in neighboring capitals — Iran's strategic loneliness deprives it of space to make gains from cooperation. Cooperation obviously does not come easily for any state in the anarchic international system. But for Iran, the structure of the regional balance makes it excessively difficult and costly to engage in sustained cooperation and to overcome its neighbors' inherently high levels of mistrust and suspicion. Such an acute strategic loneliness explains both continuities and ongoing challenges in Iran's foreign policy. This condition raises four key implications.
Iran's baseline perception of its regional environment, unfiltered by the worldview of the rulers in Tehran, is one of threat and encirclement. Whoever governs will see threats and competition, irrespective of whether the regime is a monarchy, a theocracy or, perhaps eventually, a democracy. An objective reading of the threat environment, unbiased by ideology, leads Iran's rulers to see their country as surrounded by rival powers whose ambitions can only be realized at the expense of Iran's own interests.
Second, and as a direct result of the first implication, Iran mistrusts the international and regional systems because its position is so inherently vulnerable. It is certainly the case that the Islamic Republic holds a worldview acutely sensitive to its threat environment. Yet it has merely brought what had historically been a high level of mistrust a step further.
Third, because Iran's relations with its nearest neighbors are inherently highly competitive, irrespective of the identity of the rulers in Tehran or surrounding capitals, potential allies emerge in Iran's second circle of neighbors. This logic partly explains how the shah's Iran came to cooperate with Israel and how the Islamic Republic has become closely aligned with Syria and Hezbollah.
Fourth, if one looks from the outside, one understands why it is also natural for Iran's neighbors to perceive it as a competitor. Irrespective of their international alignment and of the identity of their own rulers, they correctly perceive Iran as an ambitious regional actor whose quest to maximize its power and security can only come, at least partly, at the expense of their own interests and ambitions. Neighbors therefore approach relations with Iran with the primary objectives of protecting their security, which they perceive as threatened by Iran, and countering Iran's power.
Given such an inherently competitive environment, Iran's insecurity dilemma is structurally severe; its relations with its neighbors are acutely vulnerable to mistrust and misperception and to potential spirals of conflict escalation. Rulers in Tehran or in neighboring capitals can tinker with this insecurity dilemma, mitigating or worsening it, but they cannot eliminate it.
The view that strategic loneliness is a structural condition raises the question of Iran's agency, its ability to act autonomously. A state's place in the international system — its share of the distribution of power — creates pressures that shape a range of feasible policy options. This pushes a state in certain directions, creating incentives to adopt some courses of action and raising the costs of others, shaping the parameters and the costs and benefits associated with different options. This does not preclude agency, but Iran cannot overcome the limited margin of maneuver shaped by the structure of the regional balance of power. Poorly designed or implemented policies can worsen its condition, while wise choices can mitigate it, but no regime can fundamentally alter Iran's strategic loneliness.
STRUCTURAL SOURCES OF IRAN'S POSTURE
Iran has a vast pool of potential power assets, primarily its large population and territory and its wealth of oil and natural-gas reserves. It is a basic rule of international politics that powerful or potentially powerful countries are ambitious. Whoever governs in Tehran is thus structurally pushed to seek regional power and influence. The main objective of the shah's foreign policy, until the 1979 revolution, was to be the dominant power in the Persian Gulf and a key player in the broader Middle East. The Islamic Republic has since harbored the same objective, though the means it uses to pursue it have been different. As Graham Fuller and others have observed, such ambitions have been a constant in the country's history.2
Geography shapes many of the constraints on foreign policy, pushing a country to adopt certain courses of action and raising the costs of others. Iran's geography, which Geoffrey Kemp refers to as "strategic real estate,"3 is unique. The heart of Iran is a mountainous plateau, much of which consists of uninhabitable desert, surrounded by the waters of the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf to the south, by plains to the southwest and deserts to the east. Towards the west, the Zagros mountain range steadily descends towards the densely populated and fertile Mesopotamian basin. A part of this plain extends into the southwest corner of Iran, the province of Khuzestan, one of the country's most vulnerable areas because of its exposure to open plains to the west, its oil wealth and its Arab minority. Iran's eastern flank, on the other hand, consists mostly of empty desert; its engagement with the world has thus been less intense in that direction.4
This geography shapes the parameters of Iranian power projection. Iran's combination of size, mountain and desert barriers, and central urban centers, tends to isolate it from its neighbors, adding distance and cost to engagement. Because its heart lies in its central plateaus, its ports on the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman are vulnerable; Iran has never been a maritime power. It also shares land borders with seven states (Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and maritime borders with six Persian Gulf states (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman) and, indirectly, with Russia and Kazakhstan through the Caspian Sea. This gives Iran a stake in developments in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, Central Asia and South Asia.5
Iran, moreover, lives in a regional environment where clashes of ambition are intense. It is, of course, the only ethnic Persian state and one of the few Shia-majority states. More important, Iran is surrounded by entities that historically have also sought regional or great-power status. To the north, Iran almost shares a maritime border with Russia. Its perceptions of Russia have been excessively mistrustful, owing to a centuries-old pattern of Russian influence-maximization in the Gulf, often at the expense of Iranian interests. To the northwest is Turkey, for centuries one of Iran's main regional rivals as the Ottoman Empire, and today as a NATO member. To the west is Iraq, a young political entity with which Iran shares a long and porous border. The power and ambition of each therefore acutely affect the other. To the south is the relatively new state of Saudi Arabia. As the two largest states on the Persian Gulf, it is inevitable that there will be a high level of competition between them. To the east is India, another regional power with high aspirations.
Iran's strategic loneliness is thus structural, shaped by factors inherent to the distribution of power in the Middle East. Though it has been a constant in Iranian history, this preexisting condition has deteriorated under the Islamic Republic. It has been made worse, first, by regional developments since 1979. Iran borders two unstable states to its east, Pakistan and Afghanistan, while most Arab and Sunni states to its west and south are close to the United States, the Islamic Republic's main extra-regional rival. The Islamic Republic, moreover, is not a member of any significant regional organization or security arrangement — unlike two of its main rivals, Turkey, a NATO member, and Saudi Arabia, a member of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).6
The Islamic Republic's insecurity has also been magnified by the country's very identity, which emphasizes historical wrongs at the hands of meddling great powers and assertively opposes what it perceives as imperialism, especially the American presence in the Middle East. This also translates into opposition to the "lesser Satan," Israel, and to American "lackeys," especially Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Sunni Arab monarchies of the Gulf. Since 1979, Iran has therefore adopted a rejectionist posture, opposing the U.S.-dominated regional order. Though Tehran made some efforts to violently overthrow this order in the early revolutionary years, since then it has become more of a limited-aims revisionist than an unlimited one. Still, many in the regime are deeply skeptical of the benefits of compromise, convinced that the United States, as a great power bent on dominating and humiliating its rivals, views concessions as a sign of weakness and an invitation to push for more. As such, through its use of confrontational strategies and tactics, the Islamic Republic has further alienated itself from most of its neighbors.
KEY BILATERAL TIES
Iran's international posture explains the continuity of the broad structural parameters shaping its key bilateral relations. These incentives and constraints push and pull Iran in specific directions, raising the costs of adopting certain foreign-policy orientations and encouraging the adoption of others.
Despite some common interests, Russia and Iran are often frustrated by what each sees as a lack of cooperation from the other. Indeed, the history of the bilateral relationship illustrates that their interests have been more frequently divergent than convergent. Sustained cooperation, as a result, has remained an occasional rhetorical goal but not a reality.
Russia's core interests regarding Iran have stayed relatively constant over time. Russia (today, and under the Soviets and the tsars) has primarily sought to maximize its security by protecting its southern flank, its "soft underbelly," from instability that could spread northwards. Beyond security, Russia seeks to project its influence in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East by trying to position itself as a great power, an indispensable player with a leading role in the management of regional affairs. This objective has often clashed with Iran's ambitions. Recently, Russia has defined its regional interests largely through the prism of its complex bilateral relations with the United States. As a result, Moscow's ties to Tehran are subordinate to its broader, more essential interest of countering American influence in the Middle East. Russia, moreover, opposes Iranian ambitions; a strong Islamic Republic assertively projecting its influence throughout the region and supporting subversive movements is not in its interest. Rulers in Tehran have historically understood that, because of these interests, Moscow was unlikely to be a reliable partner. Such Iranian suspicions, which can be traced to a pattern of Russian meddling in Iranian affairs going back more than a century, have shaped Tehran's perceptions.
Russia's approach to Iran's nuclear program illustrates why a common interest in opposing American preponderance of the Middle East has been far from sufficient to drive sustained bilateral cooperation. Every time the United States has pushed the UN Security Council to adopt new sanctions against Iran in recent years, Russia has worked to dilute the resolution, primarily to block American efforts to position itself as the chief arbiter of regional security. Yet on all four occasions, Moscow ultimately voted in favor of UN sanctions. In part, this was because Russia fundamentally opposes the prospect of Iran's obtaining a nuclear-weapons capability. In addition, Moscow feared that in the absence of a positive Security Council vote, the United States or Israel might launch strikes against Iran's main nuclear sites, a scenario Russia wants to avoid. An Israeli or American attack would create instability on Russia's southern flank. In addition, an attack would highlight Moscow's inability to protect a partner, while also marginalizing the Security Council — and therefore Russia — from the management of the Iran crisis by reframing the issue as a military one between the U.S.-Israel partnership and Iran. On the other hand, as long as the issue is dealt with diplomatically at the Security Council, Russia remains an indispensable player, given its veto and its ties to Iran. Moscow nonetheless sought, with some success, to dilute sanctions, thereby increasing Iran's dependence on Russian protection.
Longstanding friction between Moscow and Tehran on the issue of the S-300, an advanced air-defense system, also illustrates the inherent limits to the bilateral relationship despite a common interest in opposing American preponderance. Russia has brandished the prospect of selling the S-300 to Iran for almost 10 years. It has not provided it, however, and is unlikely to do so. It represents one of Moscow's most valuable bargaining chips. Iran's acquisition of this advanced system would be a game changer, making it significantly more challenging for Israel to attack the Islamic Republic and increasing the costs for the United States. Yet for Russia to merely raise the prospect of selling the S-300 increases its leverage with Iran (which wants it) and with the United States and Israel (which would be furious if Iran acquired it).
Despite important ideological differences between theocratic Iran and China, a one-party dictatorship with a state-capitalist economy, they share some common interests. China is a major energy consumer with no history of colonialism in the Middle East and no agenda for regional dominance. Iran is both a source of oil and a market for arms exports. Yet, despite this convergence of interests, there is no strategic alliance and little indication that one could emerge. Ties are mostly based on a pragmatic economic calculus.7
As with Russia, the nuclear issue illustrates the limitations of potential Iran-China ties. Like Moscow, Beijing shares with Tehran an interest in opposing American ambitions in the Middle East. At the same time, China opposes the prospect of a nuclear-capable Iran and, more generally, Iranian assertiveness. Above all, China seeks a stable Middle East; a powerful Islamic Republic aggressively pursuing rejectionism is not in its interest. In choosing to support Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, China's calculus was therefore similar to Russia's, with one important caveat. Because its ambitions in the Middle East are more limited, Beijing has allowed Moscow to take the lead role at the United Nations. At the same time, China is mindful that building close ties with the Islamic Republic — by, for example, spending too much capital defending it at the Security Council — can damage its increasingly important ties to Arab oil producers, especially Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, like Moscow, when Beijing concludes that the political costs of dealing with Tehran outweigh the economic benefits, it will not hesitate to sacrifice its relations with the Islamic Republic.
The structure of the regional balance of power in the Persian Gulf drives competition between Iran and its Arab neighbors to the south. Regardless of the nature of the regime in Tehran, Iran considers itself the hegemonic power in the Gulf. At the same time, leaders of the GCC states naturally interpret Iran's actions through the prism of what they see as Tehran's hegemonic ambitions. These ambitions, in their view, can only be realized at the expense of their own security and, in Saudi Arabia's case, can only clash with its own ambitions.
This insecurity dilemma arises from the structure of the regional balance of power and is independent of the nature of the regimes in Gulf capitals. Before 1979, when Iran and Saudi Arabia were both led by conservative, anti-communist and anti-Nasserist monarchies, their relationship was already one of rivalry and competition, despite ideological affinities and close ties to the United States. The insecurity dilemma has worsened, but it was not created by the post-1979 balance of interests in which conservative, pro-American, Sunni Arab monarchies face a rejectionist, Shia Persian, anti-American theocracy.
Because of their vulnerability, the GCC states — sparsely populated and highly exposed geographically, given the absence of physical barriers separating them from ambitious neighbors, especially Iraq and Iran — have historically sought protection from extraregional powers. The United Kingdom played the role of security guarantor until 1970; more recently, Washington has assumed this responsibility. Iran's policies towards the Gulf states have therefore also been shaped since 1979 by the strong American presence in what Tehran considers its sphere of influence.8 Because of its rejectionist identity opposing the U.S.-dominated regional order, the Islamic Republic thus believes — partly correctly — that regional American policies are directly focused on countering its ambitions. This further entrenches its perception of encirclement, which is, indeed, a fundamental interest of the GCC states. They fear the emergence of a strong Iran. They are equally anxious, however, about the possibility that a warming of U.S.-Iran relations would unshackle the many constraints on the projection of Iranian power and reduce their own importance in Washington's eyes.
Iran is the most influential external actor in post-Saddam Iraq.9 The convergence of three trends allowed Iran to penetrate Iraq after 2003: the collapse of the Iraqi state, the need for external support by individual Iraqi factions and the relative absence of competing regional powers. All three, however, are evolving in directions unfavorable to Iran and will constrain its ability to shape events in its western neighbor. The gradual consolidation of the Iraqi state, first, closes off opportunities for external penetration. As their country slowly rebuilds, moreover, Iraq's leaders — including the Shia — increasingly reject Iran's attempts to dominate Iraq and are seeking and obtaining support from other sources, a growing number of which are domestic. Third, other regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are steadily increasing their presence in Iraq, and therefore their ability to build their own influence and counter Iran's. The rapid expansion of the Islamic State insurgency in 2014 has reversed some of Iraq's recent gains, opening up new space for Iran to increase its presence. Over the longer term, nevertheless, the constraints against Iran's penetration of Iraq are likely to grow. In short, the stronger Iraq is, the more it acts as a bulwark against Iranian power projection; Tehran and Baghdad are natural competitors, not partners.
Iran has succeeded in positioning itself as a key player in the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Israel), but, again, the continued projection of its power faces significant constraints. As in Iraq, these constraints have grown in recent years, especially since the onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings, and will likely continue. It is indeed the exception for Iran to have such success in the Levant, a region with which it has no common border and limited economic ties.
The Islamic Republic perceives that one of its core interests is to oppose Israel. Tehran has thus sought to position itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and the leader of the rejectionist front opposing American and Israeli policies. As such, its power projection in the Levant has been predicated on a strategy of seeking to encircle Israel through close ties to Syria and Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, Palestinian rejectionist groups.
Baathist Syria has been the Islamic Republic's only state ally since their common opposition to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 brought them together. The relationship has provided Iran with important benefits. Cooperation with Damascus, a partner dedicated to many of its rejectionist goals, has, in particular, allowed Tehran to avoid complete isolation. Syria also offers the Islamic Republic a strategically located platform from which to penetrate the Levant and pressure Israel, especially by providing it with access to Lebanon and, indirectly, the Palestinian territories.
The benefits Iran reaps from its partnership with Syria, however, are declining, a trend that will continue. The most likely scenario for the foreseeable future in Syria is the continuation of a stalemated civil war in which no side is strong enough to decisively defeat the others. This represents a loss for Iran. Even though Bashar al-Assad's survival allows Iran access to Syria as a platform from which to project its influence in the Levant, the financial, military and political support it provides to the Assad regime is a drain on its resources. Tehran's support for Assad, who heads an Alawite-dominated regime engaged in a brutal war with a mostly Sunni opposition, is also costly in terms of its regional soft power, traditionally one of the Islamic Republic's main assets. It makes leveraging the appeal of Iran's rejectionist identity, previously popular with Sunni and Arab populations, more difficult.
The Assad regime has lined up a series of battlefield successes since early 2013. It is possible that, should they maintain this momentum, forces loyal to Assad could eventually succeed in weakening the disparate opposition factions to the point where the stalemated civil war could morph into an insurgency, with a relatively stronger regime in Damascus dominating but unable to decisively eliminate a weakened and fragmented but resilient opposition. Should this scenario emerge, Assad would remain inward-looking and focused on rebuilding his regime. This would not represent a gain for Iran, but merely allow it to mitigate the major strategic loss it would have suffered had Assad been overthrown. A loss by Assad is unlikely in the short-to-medium term. Should a game-changing event such as a massive increase in external support for the opposition change the balance of probabilities, however, Assad's defeat would become conceivable. This would represent one of the greatest foreign-policy blows the Islamic Republic has suffered since 1979. Whatever form a successor regime would take, it would be very unlikely to be as close to Tehran as Assad was.
The Islamic Republic was largely responsible for the creation of Hezbollah in the early 1980s, when, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, it encouraged various Shia militias to unite. Tehran's extensive political, financial and military support has been indispensable to the emergence of Hezbollah as a powerful militia-cum-party that is now the dominant actor in Lebanon. Hezbollah's gains have therefore provided Iran with significant benefits, a high return on its investments in Lebanon. Though it remains dependent on Iranian support, Hezbollah has become deeply entrenched in Lebanese society and political life and has grown increasingly autonomous. It has seen some of its representatives elected to Parliament and has been a member of unity governments. It has also diversified its sources of support, making it more financially independent from Tehran. As a result, when making decisions, Hezbollah must balance different priorities. Its stakeholders are more varied, as they include not only Iran but also the Shia in Lebanon, to a lesser extent the Lebanese population as a whole, and the group's international networks. Because it has become an important regional player, Hezbollah must also consider possible reactions from other Middle Eastern actors, ranging from Hamas and Syria to Saudi Arabia and the United States. The bottom line is that, though Hezbollah is not becoming weaker, it is growing more distant from Tehran. This, with time, hinders the Islamic Republic's room for maneuver and its ability to shape events in the Levant.
Iran played no role in the birth of Hamas, which arose from Muslim Brotherhood elements in the Gaza Strip in the 1980s. Recognizing a common interest in opposing Israel with the increasingly powerful Hamas, however, the Islamic Republic started providing it with financial and military support in the 1990s. Yet until the mid-2000s, Iran's aid to Hamas was limited in comparison to the larger support it received from Arab states and individuals and from charities in the Gulf. As Arab support for Hamas decreased after 2001, partly under American pressure, Iran gradually stepped into the vacuum. Iran's support was crucial for Hamas to consolidate its position after taking control of Gaza in 2007 and during its military confrontations with Israel in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014.
Ties to Hamas have brought Iran some gains, providing a valuable return on a relatively small investment. Perhaps most important, closeness to Hamas has been an important tool in the Islamic Republic's effort to present itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause, allowing it to transcend sectarian and ethnic differences despite its Shia Persian background. Along with ties to other Palestinian groups, this has also provided Iran with a presence on Israel's borders. There have been challenges in the partnership, however. Iran is a latecomer as a Hamas supporter, and for years was a relatively marginal donor; the relationship therefore does not benefit from the same historical legacy as that with Hezbollah. As a Sunni movement, moreover, Hamas cannot pretend to support the velayat-e faqih, Iran's foundational system of governance based on the Shia doctrine elaborated by Ayatollah Khomeini. There are, more broadly, important political and ideological differences between the Islamic Republic and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's parent organization. Hamas is also essentially a local organization with limited international ambitions.
Tensions have intensified recently, moreover, especially since Hamas chose to side with the mostly Sunni opposition in the Syrian civil war. As a result, Hamas moved its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar in 2012, which led Iran to reduce its funding.10 One important implication of this distancing is that Iran's only remaining close partner in the Palestinian territories is Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a more radical group than Hamas. But Islamic Jihad has limited grassroots support and largely consists of a core of a few hundred fighters. This significantly narrows Iran's options. Because its only remaining asset in the area is a small violent group, it can spoil developments through the indirect use of violence, but it cannot shape outcomes.
In sum, although Iran has managed to carve out a strong position in the Levant, this is unlikely to be sustainable. Assad's hold on power, in particular, is tenuous. Hezbollah and Hamas are both increasingly autonomous from Iran, albeit for different reasons. As a result of these trends, Iran's posture in the Levant will continue to deteriorate. The worsening of Iran's position is, in a way, inevitable: it has been punching above its weight for years in a region where it has limited interests.
This overview of Iran's bilateral relations illustrates why characteristics inherent to the regional system shape its strategic loneliness. Key regional actors, especially GCC states, are structurally pushed to oppose Iran. These states, moreover, have become economically powerful and close to the United States. Iran's few allies, meanwhile, are either weakening (Syria) or distancing themselves from Tehran (Hezbollah and Hamas). In addition, for most regional and extraregional powers, ties to Iran systematically take a back seat to relations with Washington. Renewed attempts since 2013 to find a solution to the nuclear standoff are unlikely to significantly alter this equation.
UNDER ROUHANI: STILL ALONE
Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic conservative, was elected president of Iran in June 2013 on a platform of domestic and international change. At home, his promises to tackle the country's deepening economic crisis, ease social restrictions and liberate political prisoners — especially the 2009 reformist presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi — garnered him significant support among the urban youth, the middle class and minorities. Rouhani also promised to repair the diplomatic damage caused by eight years of what regime moderates view as the costly and unnecessarily confrontational policies of the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13). Rouhani made it clear that economic improvement could only come through an easing of international sanctions.
It is in this context that Rouhani, with the apparent support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate decision maker in the Islamic Republic, reinitiated long-stalled nuclear talks with the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Germany. After weeks of negotiations, Iran and the P5+1 reached an interim agreement in November 2013 that temporarily froze Iran's nuclear program in exchange for a modest and reversible sanctions-relief package worth $6-7 billion. The agreement lays the groundwork for a comprehensive accord that would seek, according to a Joint Plan of Action, to satisfy the concerns of each side. For the P5+1, Iran's nuclear program would be verifiably for civilian purposes only. For Iran, its nuclear program would be legitimized, and the international sanctions that have so damaged its economy would be significantly loosened. At the time of writing, discussions on a comprehensive agreement were ongoing, in a climate combining cautious optimism with lingering mistrust.
The nuclear talks illustrate how Iran's international posture significantly narrows its margin of maneuver. As a result, reaching a comprehensive agreement has been excessively difficult. More important, even if the P5+1 and Iran do reach a final deal, Iran's strategic loneliness will only be partly mitigated. Because its condition is structural, wise policy choices can only temper but not eliminate it. Extraregional and regional powers indeed all have interests that are fundamentally at odds with Iran's.
Russia, first, must weigh competing objectives. Moscow has long backed the P5+1 process and supported the November 2013 interim agreement, especially because it believes that talks reduce the chances of Israeli or American strikes on Iran, a prospect it opposes. Yet rapprochement between Washington and Tehran would also be detrimental to Moscow. Indeed, Russia gains from the United States being bogged down in a costly confrontation with the Islamic Republic, while closer ties between Washington and Tehran would likely imply a displacement of Moscow's influence. Russia thus supports the talks, as they allow it to achieve two strategic objectives: under the P5+1 format, Moscow can position itself at the center of the diplomatic stage and keep the possibility of an American or Israeli strike off the table. Russia therefore has an interest in prolonging the status quo, with talks muddling along without reaching full success (especially an eventual warming of U.S.-Iran ties) or collapse (which would raise the risk of an American or Israeli strike). Thus, the more the P5+1 process gathers momentum, the less Russia would be willing to constructively support it — as witnessed, for example, by reports of an eventual large-scale oil-for-goods agreement between Tehran and Moscow.11
China's interests relative to the P5+1 process are similar to Russia's, though it has again kept a lower profile. Beijing views a lessening of U.S.-Iran hostilities positively. An escalation of tension, especially American or Israeli strikes on Iran, would go against its core interest of stability in the Middle East. It would, in particular, lead to a rise in oil prices, which would be highly detrimental to its economy. At the same time, an eventual Iran-U.S. rapprochement could be costly to China. Like Moscow, Beijing perceives that it has gained from a longstanding conflict that has cost Washington in attention and resources. It also fears losing the preferential access to the Iranian market it patiently built while Western companies were excluded because of sanctions. More generally, like Russia, China opposes American predominance in the Middle East. Beijing therefore also finds the status quo optimal; fundamental change, whether rapprochement or escalation, would negatively affect its regional interests.
Officially, Saudi Arabia "welcomed" the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1. In practice, however, it has been vocal about its unhappiness with the deal. On the one hand, despite its longstanding rivalry with Iran and deep hostility to the Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia is not overly enthusiastic about the prospect of strikes on Iran. Though Riyadh sees some benefit to strikes that would set back Iran's nuclear program and send a strong signal to Tehran that the international community will not tolerate its nuclear ambitions, it also fears the risk of escalation and regional destabilization that would likely follow. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia aggressively opposes any arrangement that could lead to the removal of constraints on Iranian power. Riyadh views Iranian ambitions in zero-sum terms, believing that they can only come at the expense of its own power and security. Saudi Arabia, in particular, looks unfavorably on the removal of sanctions, viewing them as constraints on Iran's economy and therefore on its power. Riyadh also assumes that a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations would come at the expense of its own privileged ties to Washington, on which its security is predicated.12 Saudi Arabia, moreover, considers that an eventual comprehensive agreement between Iran and the international community would legitimize the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program. This would, Riyadh claims, encourage Tehran to pursue its regional ambitions more assertively and embolden Iran's allies, especially Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Saudi Arabia, in addition, fears that a long-term agreement would allow the Islamic Republic to maintain a residual nuclear program. For Saudi Arabia — and to varying degrees its GCC partners — this would leave open the possibility of Iran's accelerating its program in the future. GCC states benefit from a large advantage relative to Iran in terms of conventional military power. Iranian military forces' major weapons systems, in particular, suffer from low reliability rates and high levels of obsolescence, while GCC militaries have massively invested in advanced kit in recent years. GCC states therefore fear that Iran could eventually revive a latent nuclear capability and acquire, or come close to acquiring, a nuclear weapon. This would provide Iran with a "great equalizer," eliminating GCC states' growing conventional military advantage.
Israel has also been vocal in its opposition to the November 2013 agreement. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had previously referred to Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing," labeled the interim deal a "historical mistake."13 Israel's aggressive opposition stems from Iran's status as its main regional competitor. Tel Aviv therefore views negatively any development that removes constraints on Iranian power, especially sanctions and, more broadly, the Islamic Republic's hostile ties to the United States. An unshackled Iran, in Israel's view, would increase its support to like-minded actors, especially Hamas and Hezbollah, and embolden the latter to more assertively pursue their own rejectionist ambitions. Furthermore, Israel fears that any arrangement that is perceived as legitimizing Iran and its nuclear program would enhance the Islamic Republic's regional posture. Israel's fundamental interest is therefore in an Iran that remains tied down. Israel, in this sense, has played its cards very well in recent years. By constantly brandishing the threat of strikes on Iran — which neither the United States, the EU, Russia or China wanted Tel Aviv to carry through — Israel was partly responsible for driving the international community's movement towards an ever harsher sanctions regime.
Recognizing that the interim deal has become a reality, Israel has shifted its efforts to ensuring that the international community keeps the pressure on Iran. Israel closely monitors Iranian actions and stands ready to point out signs of noncompliance. Israel also seeks to ensure that an eventual comprehensive agreement maintains maximal restrictions on Iran's nuclear program. It insists, in addition, that most sanctions should remain in place because of other aspects of Iran's foreign policy, especially its support for terrorism. The status quo is therefore also close to optimal for Israel. In this context, Israel would not necessarily look negatively on a steady succession of lesser deals that would constrain Iran's nuclear progress while only partially lifting sanctions.
The United States, finally, needs to find a difficult balance between competing international and domestic priorities. On the one hand, Washington is staunchly opposed to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic, while President Barack Obama is committed to nonproliferation.14 On the other hand, the United States wants to find a balance between its interests in compelling Iran to moderate its nuclear ambitions while continuing to contain its other rejectionist policies. In addition, America must take into consideration the resistance of its regional partners, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, to a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran. Like his Iranian counterpart, President Obama also faces important domestic obstacles to pursuing a comprehensive deal. Hostility towards Iran, in particular, is deeply entrenched in Congress. Yet further sanctions relaxation would most likely require congressional approval: nearly 60 percent of American sanctions on Iran since 1980 have been legislated. Given that there is already significant congressional opposition to the interim agreement, the White House faces an uphill battle.
There are major obstacles to a resolution of the nuclear standoff. Strong regional and international pressures, in particular, converge against Iran, vastly increasing the costs of Rouhani's efforts to reduce his country's isolation. Though most regional states support efforts that would lead to a limited reduction of tension, such support is lukewarm and shallow and is superseded by other concerns. Israel and Saudi Arabia see Iran as their chief competitor for regional influence and resist developments that could unshackle Iranian power. Russia and China oppose the prospect of a strong and assertive Iran, especially if it is nuclear-armed. Yet they also seek to counter America's regional ambitions. They are thus willing to hinder U.S. attempts to become the arbiter of the Iranian nuclear standoff. They are also keen to protect the gains they have made through their ties to an isolated Iran, especially their preferential access to the Iranian market.
Most important, a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the P5+1, should it eventually emerge, would mitigate Iran's strategic loneliness without eliminating it. The nuclear program has certainly made it worse by sowing greater mistrust among Iran's neighbors. The essential features of the structure of the regional system would not change, however, in the event of a long-term deal between Iran and the P5+1, and even of a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations. Indeed, the hostility with Washington has contributed to Iran's strategic loneliness but has not been a fundamental cause. Deep regional concerns with Iran's ambitions, even though they have been made worse by apprehensions specific to the Islamic Republic's character, would endure. This is the tragedy of Iran's place in the world: despite a lack of consensus on almost every other issue, Israel, the GCC states, Russia and China have a common preference for a weak and isolated Iran.
1 It may seem awkward to use the term "loneliness" – commonly employed to refer to a human emotional or social condition – to describe a state's strategic posture. Like isolation, however, loneliness can under certain conditions explain a state's place in the international system. On this and on why loneliness is a more apt label for Iran's international posture than solitude or isolation, see Farhang Rajaee, "Conclusion: Why Alone?" in Thomas Juneau and Sam Razavi, eds., Iranian Foreign Policy since 2001: Alone in the World (Routledge, 2013): 208-22.
2 Graham E. Fuller, The "Center of the Universe": The Geopolitics of Iran (Westview Press, 1991).
3 Geoffrey Kemp, "Iran: The Next Hegemon?" Survival (Spring 2007): 213.
4 Richard W. Bulliet, "Iran between East and West," Journal of International Affairs (Spring/Summer 2007): 1-14.
5 For more on how Iran's strategic loneliness shapes its bilateral relations, see Juneau and Razavi, Iranian Foreign Policy since 2001.
6 The GCC regroups the six Arab petro-monarchies of the southern shore of the Persian Gulf: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
7 Manochehr Dorraj, "Iran's Expanding Relations with China and Their Strategic Dimensions," The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, Lecture Series 112, 2013.
8 Henner Fürtig, "Conflict and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf: The Interregional Order and U.S. Policy," Middle East Journal (Fall 2007): 627-40.
9 Babak Rahimi, "Iran's Declining Influence in Iraq," Washington Quarterly (Winter 2012): 25-40.
10 Hanin Ghaddar, "Marriage and Divorce of Hamas and Hezbollah," The Iran Primer, August 27, 2013.
11 Jonathan Saul and Pariza Hafezi, "Iran, Russia Working to Seal $20 Bln Oil-for-goods Deal – Sources," Reuters, April 2, 2014.
12 Riyadh views the redeployment of Iranian resources to Iraq in 2014 to counter the Islamic State insurgency much through this lens. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia does not want the insurgency to represent an opportunity for Iran to reverse the trend of its declining influence in Iraq, nor does it support cooperation between the United States and Iran on this matter.
13 Dan Williams, "Israel Denounces Iranian Nuclear Deal as Historic Mistake," Reuters, November 24, 2013.
14 David Kenner, "The President Who Went Nuclear," ForeignPolicy.com, December 1, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/12/01/obama_nuclear_weapons_….