Iran’s foreign policy: Issues to watch

Presidential candidates must walk fine line between winning public vote and support from Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Iran nucler talks
Saeed Jalili has been Iran's chief nuclear negotiator since 2002 and is considered a frontrunner in the election [AFP]

While it is the economy – with spiralling unemployment and inflation on basic necessities – that will likely remain at the centre of most Iranian voters’ minds when they cast their ballots on June 14, Iran’s foreign policy, too, will likely be occupying many thoughts.

That’s because, aside from Iranians’ concerns regarding their country’s role in the region and its often pariah-like status around some parts of the globe, they also realise their economic realities are closely linked with how Iran engages the rest of the world.

The issue, however, is that Iran’s foreign policy is not dictated primarily by the president – that responsibility falls to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and his council of advisers.

“In Iran, foreign policy is more guided by the Supreme Leader, the president only really sets the tone of foreign policy,” says Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-Syrian scholar who is also a contributing editor at the Harvard International Review. “The president is not really informing the foreign policy of the country.”

Rafizadeh argues that a candidate for the Iranian presidency must win two votes.

“If you listen to [the candidates], foreign policy has not really been on the agenda of their speeches. The reason [is] because the candidates have to win two votes… one is the public vote, and the other is the vote of the Supreme Leader and his old guard.”

That’s a view that Stephen Kinzer, a journalist who has written extensively about Iran, agrees with.

“There is a general unspoken understanding within the political class of Iran that foreign policy is not the province of elected officials,” he told Al Jazeera. “The president is essentially someone hired by the supreme leader and the mullahs to run the country for them, like an executive director, but the president of Iran does not have decisive control over Iranian foreign policy.”



Iran and the United States have not had official diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage crisis, in which Iranian students and activists held 63 US embassy staff and citizens after storming the Tehran embassy.

The major dispute between the two countries at present is over Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran says it is meant only for peaceful purposes – primarily energy and medicine.

The US, however, has repeatedly stated the programme is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.

Current assessments suggest Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not yet made the decision to commence work on a weapons programme. US and Israeli estimates on how long it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon vary from a few months to up to a year.

Tensions in the relationship have been high for decades, and the US trade embargo on Iran was initially imposed in 1995 by then-US President Bill Clinton, in response to what he called Iranian state sponsorship of “terrorism” and its “hostility” to the Middle East peace process.

US sanctions have, however, been tightened in recent years, as the US attempts to leverage the economic impact of the sanctions as part of its prevention-rather-than-containment strategy.

The current sanctions are exhaustive, and forbid any direct or indirect dealings with Iran in the form of either goods or services, for both US persons and US allies abroad. The measures, particularly those aimed at financially isolating Iran, have forced the country to enter into complicated barter agreements with some international partners when selling its oil and natural gas. Such agreements – notably those with India and Pakistan – have been criticised by the US.

The policy of sanctions, however, has been criticised by policy analysts who say, ultimately, the crippling nature of the measures has done more harm than good.

“[Sanctions are] very harmful to ordinary people, and cause a lot of resentment amongst them. Secondly, they have been a tremendous boon for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has become rich off the sanctions-busting business and is using that to strengthen its position,” says Kinzer.

“Finally, from a diplomatic standpoint, sanctions can be effective if they are part of a package [which includes incentives]. The US sanctions programme right now is mostly all sticks. There’s no real list of things that Iran could do to get out of this.”

Kinzer argues the US government has set up a position where it seems that compromise with Iran is not on the table. “It just seems to want Iran to bow down to everything that [the US] wants,” he says, arguing that, until Washington begins to ask Iran for what it wants from the US, “we are very far away from a serious negotiation”.

While any rapprochement between the US and Iran will require the backing of Khamenei, each of the major candidates for the presidential slot do bring foreign policy credentials to the table that would be pertinent to negotiating the relationship. Saeed Jalili, a Khamenei ally who is considered to be one of the frontrunners, is Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in the ongoing P5+1 dialogue process with the European Union and other countries.

Ali Akbar Velayati, another conservative candidate, served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997, and was once Khamenei’s top advisor. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, meanwhile, has served two terms as president (1989-1997), and is considered more open to the West as the opposition’s preferred candidate. His candidacy, however, has been rejected by the Council of Guardians.

Rafizadeh argues that, as far as the US relationship is concerned, the country’s reformists – particularly former president Muhammad Khatami and the technocrat former presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mosavi – have tried and failed to change the tone of Iran-US relationship.

“[Khatami and Mousavi] have tried to change the Supreme Leader’s policies towards the US, but they have realised that the only option [now] is for the reformists to overthrow the regime [if they want change]. So I think that is one reason that foreign policy has not been discussed a lot in the current situation.”




The European Union (EU) is Iran’s main trading partner, despite the presence of international sanctions, with trade in goods amounting to $16.6 billion in 2012, with an additional several billion dollars in services.

Despite this, however, relations between the 27-country bloc and Iran are closely tied to Iran-US relations. EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton has played a leading role in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, in both the P5+1 and other processes. At the latest such meeting, on April 6, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, however, Ashton said it was “clear that the positions of the [US and European states represented] and Iran remain far apart on the substance”.

The EU, meanwhile, has maintained economic sanctions against Iran in line with the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions imposing restrictions on trade and contact with the Iranian state.

The European Union does not maintain a delegation in Iran, although individual EU member states do maintain embassies in Tehran.




At the centre of US-Iran tensions has been Israel’s conviction that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, which could be used against Israel, a close US ally.

In a speech to the United Nations on September 27, 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu drew a “red line” on Iran’s nuclear programme, saying the issue of the country acquiring nuclear weapons capability was, under current conditions, a question of “when”, not “if”.

“The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb,” he told the UN general assembly.

Last month, Netanyahu reiterated his country’s position that Iran could not be “allowed” to reach the red line of nuclear weapons capability, and Israel would work towards stopping it if that happened. Such action, if authorised, would likely be military in nature – and is a sticking point in Israel’s relationship with the US, which has advised restraint on the military front, for the time being.

In Iran, there is little range for debate on how the country engages with Israel, but there is some room between the candidates. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has, over the course of his two terms in office, issued various incendiary statements against Israel, though as recently as February he clarified his country would not carry out a first-strike against Israel.

Candidates for the Iranian presidency will likely ratchet down the tone of rhetoric, as Rafsanjani already has done, but there will likely be little tolerance for Israeli threats against Iran.

Nevertheless, in the long term, analysts such as Kinzer argue that Iran and Israel, with their shared interests that run counter to most Arab states in the region, have more that unites than divides them.

“If today’s political scene were to shift, I think you’d see some people in Iran and Israel realising that their interests coincide[…] much more than their interests coincide with most of the Arab countries in their neighbourhood,” he says.

“I think in the end, interests always trump other considerations. But the ‘end’ can take a long time to arrive.”




The Iranian government has been one of the main supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, saying the uprising in that country that has now escalated into a civil war was an internal matter.

Iran’s support for the Syrian government, however, is not just ideological: Iran and Syria have had a long history of economic and geostrategic ties. Before the uprising in Syria began in March 2011, Iran had allocated massive sums of money for investments in Syrian infrastructure, including gas pipelines that would be used to pump Iranian resources across the region.

Rafizadeh, the Syrian-Iranian scholar, argues the alliance between the two countries is “intriguing and unique” in the region, and has evolved as a primarily “geostrategic and geopolitical” partnership, aimed at countering US and Israeli interests in the region.

Also key to the Iran-Syria relationship is the question of Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese group that the US views as an “Iranian puppet” to be used to pursue foreign-policy objectives in the region, Rafizadeh says.

While Iran did help to foster the group and provide it with training and equipment in its initial period – much of it provided through Syria – Rafizadeh says the relationship has now changed, as Hezbollah has turned into more of an “indigenous resistance group” in Lebanon.

“Their relationship has evolved… The relationship used to be that Hezbollah was more dependent on Iran for training and equipment, but the relationship has now shifted more towards some sort of balance of power. Hezbollah [now] has independent character… it is not that dependent on Iran for operations.

“But at the same time you can characterise the relationship between the two as being them trying to maintain a balance of power against Israel and the United States.”

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera