Iranians are now second generation revolutionaries and one might have expected that the country would have settled down into a clearly visible, if not well defined, development path, and that path would have helped carve its role and position in the international, and by extension the regional, system. But in the two decades since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has yet to decide what real role it will play on the international stage. The country’s growing geopolitical importance since the late 1990s and a tense regional setting have undermined this decision-making process. 

Developments in the region and security turmoil seem to have had a direct effect on the domestic politics of the country, and so long as Iran sees itself as a beacon of resistance, it will not be able to chart an accommodating role, which in turn fuels tensions with its neighbours and the wider international community. Also, so long as Iran and the U.S. see each other as regional hegemonic rivals, Tehran will find it uncomfortable to swim with the currents sweeping the region.

Iran’s regional stature has grown considerably in recent years as a result of President Mohammad Khatami’s soft diplomacy and reform-minded presidency, the polarization and fragmentation of the Arab order that allowed for a wider distribution of regional power, and the 2001 and 2003 military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, which resulted in the removal from power of two hostile ruling regimes on Iran’s doorstep. Of the two military engagements, by far the more significant was the April 2003 U.S. overthrow of the Sunni-dominated Baathist regime in Iraq, which effectively opened the way for an extension of Iranian influence to the heart of the Arab world.

Iran’s soft power has been growing for over a decade and its views are now an important consideration in regional diplomacy. Besides the benefits of geopolitical changes in the region, Iran’s own policies have played a key part in its role-conception and regional power politics. Its irredentist position in relation to U.S. power in the region, post-9/11, has enabled Tehran to propel itself forward to a position of dominance in Middle East radical-Islamist politics. This repositioning has strengthened Hezbollah in a weak Lebanon as a power base in the Levant and deepened Iran’s financial, political and military links with the essentially Sunni Palestinian rejectionist groups (Hamas and Islamic Jihad), giving Tehran new levers to pull at the heart of Arab politics. Iran in the twenty-first century has grown into a regional broker, competing and cooperating with Arab actors at will.

Iran’s nuclear program, of course, has added a new layer of authority, despite the international controversy and the regional fears that its comprehensive nuclear and satellite launch ambitions have generated. The benefits and hindrances of being an independent political, military and now scientific actor are debatable and in some ways immeasurable. But these actions do reinforce the impression and image of a powerful Iran acting in its national interest on the international stage.

There is a heavy price to pay for the image and content of Iran’s power. Iran’s apparent prowess has invited counterbalancing rather than “bandwagoning,” leading to relative international isolation. Regionally, some neighbors have chosen to draw closer to the U.S. and seek protection from not just the West, but also India and China, as a way of heading off Iran’s influence. The West, in turn, has sought Arab allies to contain Iran’s irredentism. There is also a domestic price for its growing regional role. At home, there has been a securitization of public life and politics as well as immeasurable mismanagement of the country’s political economy since 2005, as misguided populism and militarism took hold.

A combination of the above, added to the perceptible de-liberalization of public space in Iran since the 2005 presidential election, indicates that the Islamic state has entered a new stage in its evolution, in which personnel changes at the top have brought to the fore new priorities. But these changes have also underlined the force of revolutionary values and ideology in the system. It is quite striking that the rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has set him apart from many of his predecessors, including even Ali Khamenei, who served as president during the 1980s. It is a consequence of the fluidity of Islamist Iran and the undeniable power of the ballot box that someone like Ahmadinejad can take center stage and dramatically change the tempo and mood of the country, and at the same time renegotiate the country’s regional role on its own terms.

Interest in Iran has grown as its president has chosen unorthodox ways of approaching international agendas. At the same time, he has been so out of step on so many fronts, like on the Holocaust, that his utterances have damaged Iran’s standing and therefore its public diplomacy. Looking back, Ahmadinejad’s policy pronouncements clearly unsettled nerves at home and abroad, and again raised suspicions of Iran’s motives and strategic objectives in the region.

As has been evident in recent years, Iran’s image can certainly be modified under different leaders and under changing international conditions and its policies can be altered to meet its new priorities. This has already happened under President Ahmadinejad.

In the final analysis, despite his neoconservative leanings, Ahmadinejad has had to govern a modern and complex state, as well as rule over a restless population which no longer responds positively to pressures from above and is desperate for its fair share of Iran’s bounties. The geopolitical realities of today, as well as some 16 years of constructive policy making at home, have generated their own policy momentums which cannot be overlooked, such as maintaining close economic relations with the European Union; continuing to seek trade links with key industrial powers, seeking foreign investment in Iran’s energy and other strategic sectors, dealing diplomatically with all UN agencies (including such sensitive agencies as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Commission on Human Rights); and continuing to interact with Iran’s Arab and non-Arab neighbours.

Although it cannot be said with any certainty that Ahmadinejad’s populist yet neo-revolutionary administration has been able to reorient the Islamic Republic in the long run, the issue must be this: Which ideology will have to give way for the sake of national stability and wider security? My suspicion is that it will have to be the neo-revolutionary who has to give way, given Iran’s shifting demographic balance, its economic difficulties, its role in the international political economy as a major hydrocarbons producer, and the pressures associated with geopolitics.

Thirty years after the birth of the Islamic Republic, Iran is still looking to find its “natural” place in the order of things, a struggle that has not been helped by the dramatic international and regional developments since the early 1990s. With each new administration since 1989, Iran has tried to put into place the building blocks of a forward-looking country that is comfortable with its past while cautiously optimistic about its future. Since 2001, however, securitization of international politics and the grand geopolitical developments in west Asia have had such a dramatic impact on the Iranian polity that today it has an administration dominated by the security focus of the revolution, even though the personnel is different.

With political Islam re-emerging as the ideological principle of some of its elite’s worldview, it was inevitable that the tone, if not the content, of Iran’s relations with the outside world would also change. As elsewhere, policy in Iran is not shaped in a vacuum. For all the emphasis that Iranian neoconservatives have placed on the role of identity and ideology in the Islamic Republic, I would still venture to suggest that the wider context is ultimately what determines the agenda. Therefore, to understand Iran’s policies, we must first recognize the domestic backdrop as well as the regional realities in which they take form.

Professor Anoush Ehteshami is Dean of Internationalisation and Professor of International Relations in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, and held the position of Vice President and Chair of Council for the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) 2000-2003.


His many publications include Globalization and Geopolitics in the Middle East: Old Games, New Rules (Routledge, 2007), Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives (with Mahjoob Zweiri) (I.B. Tauris, 2007), and Syria and Iran: Middle Powers in a Penetrated Regional System (with Ray Hinnebusch) (Routledge, 1997).