Maintenance of power structure in the international system by the United States requires a severe treatment of the Islamic Republic of Iran as the most critical model. On this basis, the emphasis on “the brand of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a revolutionary state” and “Iran should behave like a normal country” has found a special place in the position taking of US officials. Consequently, Iran’s foreign policy (regional resistance and nuclear policy) is represented as unrealistic and abnormal behavior. Regardless of American politicization and sloganeering the question can be raised from the standpoint of international relations science, what exactly should a “normal” foreign policy look like? And is Iran’s foreign policy “normal”?
Normalization in International Relations
As suggested by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the form of 12 conditions (Pompeo, 2018), “normalization” means accepting all US demands by Iran unilaterally and without receiving anything in return. “Pompeo considers the set of offensive conditions, from the complete withdrawal of forces from Syria to more extensive and more detailed inspections of Iran’s nuclear and missile installations and programs, a condition of normalization of relations between Tehran and Washington,” writes Ilan Berman, US Vice President for Foreign Policy. These conditions emphasize the transformation of Iran into a normal state (Berman, 2019). It is clear that “normalization” in the above reading (Hook, 2018) is a surrender to American unilateralism, while no country has so far submitted its material assets and interests on the pretext of “normalization”.
“Normal” and “normality” in the field of international relations are defined as how relevant a country’s foreign policy is to the realization of the fundamental goals of a “nation-state” and commensurate with the characteristics of the “international system”. Since “the first goal pursued by any nation-state is self-preservation” (Höntzinger, 1368: 193), the normality of “survival” is what every state thinks and decides as an intrinsic instinct. Another dimension is normality of conformity with the intrinsic characteristic of the international system. The fact is that the international system, where there is no ethical norms and legal order (anarchy), is a field of distrust, rivalry, and the struggle of nations to survive; so what should a country that wants to be “normal” under these conditions do?
In response, the necessity of “power maximization” reveals itself, a theme that John Mearsheimer describes as the sad truth of international politics that cannot be avoided. The truth is that all nation-states seek to maximize power, but not necessarily because they have power-seeking leaders, but because in the international anarchic system there is only such a way that they can guarantee their survival (Mearsheimer, 2014: 3). That is why Hans Morgenthau, the theorist of realism in international relations, summed up the purpose of foreign policy in the “national interest” and that it was synonymous with the pursuit of power (Kazemi, 2003: 111). Therefore, in the international system, with the exception of the ruling power that is satisfied with the distribution of power, other countries do not accept the status quo and adopt a completely revisionist approach by balancing power (Mearsheimer, 2014: 2). This is the “normal” behavior of countries in foreign policy, especially when confronted with an offensive power such as the United States, trying to rely on itself, expanding its influence and maximizing power in the form of “balance of power” or as Stephen Walt explains; “Balance of threat” to keep themselves safe. The “balance of threat” states that a combination of offensive powers, military capabilities, geographical proximity, and the delicate structure of domestic power (national mobilization) must be used to deter the rival and restore national security (Moshirzadeh, 2005: 134).
“Balance of Threat”: A Test of Normality for Iranian Foreign Policy
As is clear, the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the above realistic features, so that Iran has no choice but to “balance the threat” in the turbulent West Asian region. Cleary in the current anarchic order, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a national government for the survival of its land and identity, must adopt a “normal” outward-facing threat balance to prevent external aggression and “internal balance” to increase support for political-internal groups and public space. An overview of Iran’s foreign policy based on revolutionary and Islamic values does not mean that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy is purely ideological and unrealistic. Rather, the normative-value categories are put forward alongside national interests.
Case Study: Threat Balance against US Maximum Pressure
Given the US maximum pressure policy, the continuation of Iran’s policy of “neither talks nor war” is one of the instances that reflect a realistic approach to the country’s foreign policy. With the coming to power of Trump and the perception that Iran has no alternative but to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), America’s “maximum pressure” began. From the US perspective, Iran is reluctant to sign an agreement that would permanently eliminate its deterrent potential through economic sanctions. Naturally, in these circumstances, the “threat balance” logic requires that Iran take action to obtain new playing cards without entering the negotiation arena.
Iran has pursued a “balance of threat” by reducing its compliance with the JCPOA, including the foreseeable requirement in the IAEA regarding the level of enrichment, and by pursuing “diversity in response” while confronting US at regional level, including the downing of the US drone and … has optimized the “structure of internal power capacity”, which included controlling economic markets, combating corruption by reforming the judiciary, enhancing national self-confidence in society, so that the United States would be forced to retreat due to the “emergency” state it would face. Iran has come to realize that in the current situation, submitting to Pompeo’s 12 demands is not the right path, as Hans Morgenthau puts it: “Reconciliation will always be in the interests of the larger state.” But according to Brookings on the contrary, Iran is sending the message that it has the potential to strike back and that the other side has a lot to lose, so only diplomacy from an equal footing is an acceptable option.”
Case Study: The Balance of Threat in Iranian Regional Policy
Iran’s regional policy in West Asia also has characteristics that show its realism. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s regional policy is based on a “threat balance” in the face of the outside by strengthening the deterrent and keeping the enemy geographically (expanding regional influence to the Mediterranean). In fact, contrary to enemy propaganda, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regional behavior is a normal and defensive one but not through conquest.
As Von Rennenkampff writes in the US Congress-affiliated Hill magazine, “The Iranian people view Tehran’s limited military support of Syria and Iraq not as a domineering effort of the Islamic Republic, but as a vital deterrent against enemies armed to the teeth by the US.” (Von Rennenkampff, 2019)
For this reason, the Institute for Middle East Studies points out that Iranian military commanders are trying to pursue a “defensive front” strategy to weaken US options while expanding Iranian influence (Vatanka , 2018). Another issue that has reinforced Iran’s position is that, contrary to the American, Saudi, and … implicit behavior, Iran’s interaction with its regional audiences is of mutual interest and cooperation, which is why it is said in Iraq that “General Qassem Suleimani is an insider.” (Benaim, 2018)
Iran’s foreign policy, from its nuclear approach to its regional policies, has a realistic logic while basing its internal value principles. Contrary to the views that portray Iran’s behavior as a habit in international relations, one can define the theory of “normality” in international politics in accordance with the functions of “nation-state” as well as with regard to the “anarchy” feature of the international system. This article attempts to test this “normality” by testing Iran’s foreign policy. As a result, the test is clear that this policy is based on a realistic understanding of international developments and seeks to achieve national goals against an external enemy through a “threat balance”. Normal politics is pursued as a geopolitical reality.
- Berman, Ilan (2019), “Understanding Donald Trump’s Policy on Iran”, Radio Farda, News ID: 29841607
- Kazemi, Ali Asghar (2003), International Relations in Theory and Practice, Tehran: Ghoomes.
- Mearsheimer, John (2014), Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Translated by: Gholam Ali Chegnizadeh, Tehran: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- Mearsheimner. Homeyra (2005), Transformation in International Relations Theories, Tehran: Position.
- Honzinger, Jacques (1989), Introduction to International Relations, Mashhad: Cultural Deputy of Astan Quds Razavi.
- Benaim, Daniel (2018), “The Next Phase in Iraq’s Transition”, Center for American Progress.
- Hook, Brian (2018), “Special Representative for Iran”, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, August 2
- Maloney, Suzanne (2017), “The Roots and Evolution of Iran’s Regional Strategy”, Atlantic Council.
- Pompeo, Michael R. (2018a), “In Hard-Line Speech, Pompeo Criticizes Iran’s Behavior”, NY Times / 2018/05/21
- Vatanka, Alex (2018), “Iran’s Use of Shia Militant Proxies”, Middle East Institute.
- Von Rennenkampff, Marik (2019), “Trump’s Critical Miscalculation on Iran”, The Hill, July 13.