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Iran and Diplomacy

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Iran is an ancient and sublime civilization that is often defined and motivated by its unique historical experiences as well as its cultural and religious values. As a result, Iran’s foreign policy is often influenced by its historical experience and traditions to a much greater extent than many other countries. While some countries, such as China, might be better placed to appreciate this, other countries, such as the United States are less able to understand this and are more likely to approach diplomacy through the lenses of rational calculation and legalism, an approach which does not resonate well with Iranians. Nonetheless, given the importance of Iran and the Middle East in general, it is important to understand the Iranian approach to diplomacy if diplomacy is to be successfully conducted with Iran.  This report will focus on the Iranian style of diplomacy and its goals since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.


Iran’s present political system is a complex mix of republicanism and theocracy with a wide variety of factions. This Islamic Republic of Iran has pursued a wide range of diplomatic goals, but three are most important. First, despite the factionalism and competition within the present regime, there is agreement that its survival is paramount.[1] Even those for Iran calling for change most often do so within the context of a continued Islamic Republic; this was the position of the reformist candidate for President of Iran, Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. The survival of the Islamic Republic is important to the Iranian elite for the obvious reason that they seek to preserve their privileges and power. However, the elite and much of the population also favor the survival of the Islamic Republic because it is seen as an indigenous regime established by the people of Iran as opposed to by a foreign power. This government is seen as having resisted foreign interference while being sympathetic towards the poor and upholding Iran’s cultural values. Many Iranians oppose the Islamic Republic or certain aspects of it such as the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the concept of the Supreme Leader, a cleric who holds the highest power in Iran. Nonetheless few would accept any regime that replaced it due to foreign backing, given the history of Iran, as many Iranians are resentful over Russian, British, and American interference in their political process.

Furthermore, many Iranians, even those opposed to the current regime, strongly support many of its foreign policy goals because Iranians from the Shah and his supporters to leftists to the pious all wanted to aggrandize Iran’s influence and glory. Aspects of the Iranian nuclear program that is so contentious today began during the Shah’s rule as did Iranian interference in Iraq and Bahrain. This then is the second goal of Iranian diplomacy: the restoration and pursuit of Iranian pride, power, and prestige after years of weakness, conflict with neighbors, and Western dominance. Although different factions in Iran have different methods  of pursuing prestige, most of them involve the assertion of Iran as an equal, respected, and sovereign power among the nations of the world. Different factions will also define the national interest of Iran in multiple ways, but most will resent being told what their national interest is by a foreign power.[2]

Thirdly and related to the other goals of Iranian diplomacy, Iran wants to be recognized as a major, if not the major regional power in the greater Middle East, a position it feels it ought to hold on the basis of its size, location, history, and cultural ties. This is considered an important goal both for reasons of enhancing Iranian prestige but for security reasons, in order to reduce the influence of hostile and foreign powers in the Middle East. Iran’s military buildup, missile program, and nuclear program are all related to the goal of enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East as well as its overall prestige. Additionally, Iran has used various ideological methods to enhance its role as a major power in the Middle East. The Shah focused primarily on promoting the heritage of the Persian Empire while the Islamic Republic initially a broader approach based on appealing to the religious sentiments of the Islamic world, regardless of sect. Although Iran was widely popular among the common Muslims of many Arab countries for a while, especially after the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, this was primarily because it was seen as resisting American and Israeli goals rather than through the lens of its own regional goals.[3] On the other hand, Arab governments as well as neighbors such as Pakistan and Afghanistan have always been wary of Iran because of it was seen as being supportive of Islamist groups and political parties. Furthermore, with the rise of sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in the Islamic word, and Iran’s perceived hostility towards the Arab Spring, Iran has lost much of its influence among the Arab populations, many of which now negative opinions of Iran. Today, Iran often projects its influence more through the support of Shiite groups throughout the Islamic world.

Underlying Factors

Several factors shape Iran’s diplomatic goals and approach. First is the geography of Iran. Iran is directly situated between the Middle East, South Asia, the Caucasus Mountains, and Central Asia, and encompasses the region between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.[4] Both the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf hold large reserves of oil and gas. Geography has been both a blessing and curse for Iran; a blessing in that it enabled Iranian power, influence, and trade to expand over a wide area and a curse in that it made Iran a coveted and conquered nation many times in its history, by people as varied as the Greeks, Arabs, and Mongols. In modern times, Iran has often been under the influence of Russia, Britain, or the United States. As a result, Iran is highly sensitive to any foreign moves towards it that can be interpreted as interference or attempted dominance. However, conversely, to counter foreign influence and strengthen its own position, Iran itself seeks to enhance its own power and influence in its region and neighboring countries.

History is the second factor that shapes Iran’s goals. Iran’s history is the story of numerous large and glorious empires and Persian civilization and language have had a strong impact on numerous neighboring peoples. Despite periods of weakness, Iranian pride in its history as a strong nation has been an inspiration and aspiration for its future, and most Iranians believe that a civilization as ancient and important as Iran should be treated with equality, respect, and dignity by other countries. In the modern era, Iran spent the greater part of the 20th century dealing with foreign interference in its political system. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Iran was the scene of competition and interference by Russia and Britain, which chose to not colonize Iran but leave it as a buffer state between their empires. Interference increased with the discovery of oil in the early 20th century as both powers demanded concessions. Iran then suffered foreign invasion and political control during both world wars, with Shah Reza Pahlavi being disposed in 1941 for alleged friendliness with Nazi Germany. Iran then suffered occupation of part of its territory by the Soviet Union until 1946.[5]

However, the two events in the second half of the 20th century that played an especially important role in shaping Iran’s attitudes towards its diplomacy were the 1953 coup and the Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent Iranian Hostage Crisis. In 1953, the CIA acting on the recommendations of American and British intelligence helped sponsor the overthrown of Mohammed Mossadegh, the nationalist Prime Minister of Iran who wanted to nationalize British oil concessions. In his place, the United States supported the personal rule of the Shah as an autocrat. This incident increased the cynicism and tainted the way in which Iranians viewed the United States and Western powers in general.[6] In 1979, the monarchy was overthrown as a result of broad street protests. Subsequently, due to the admission of the Shah to the United States, a group of Iranian students seized the American embassy and its staff in Tehran and were eventually supported by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution.  The hostage crisis lasted until 1981, when all the American hostages were freed. Both Iranians and Americans are resentful of the events between 1979 and 1981. Many Iranians believe that the United States prevented the Shah from being brought to justice and that it did not recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people to choose their own destiny. On the other hand, the Hostage Crisis severely damaged America’s trust of Iran and its vision of Iranians. The severance of diplomatic contact between the two countries in 1980 meant that communication between the two countries would be marginal from that time while mistrust increased. Although the Hostage Crisis shaped American perceptions of Iran and the so-called national character of the Iranian people, it is important to remember that the decision of the Iranian government to support the hostage takers was strongly influenced by internal political needs at the time, especially by the needs of the more radical and Islamic factions within the government to consolidate their power and control the revolution. As such, this does not mean that the behavior of the Islamic Republic in all cases can or should be extrapolated from the Hostage Crisis. Finally, although the events of the Revolution do not influence Iran’s relations with other powers directly, they indirectly shaped Iranian diplomacy towards other countries since Iran’s goals as well as its present international isolation stem from these events.

The third factor that shape’s Iran’s goals is its religion and culture. Iran practices a form of Islam distinct from those of most of its neighbors- Shi’a Islam. As a minority among Muslims, Shiites have often felt a sense of siege, a sentiment that transfers well to modern Iran because of it having few friends and being surrounded mostly by Sunni Islamic countries. Iran also feels besieged by its isolation due to the imposition of sanctions. However, Shi’a Islam promises that those who unjustly treated will triumph in the end, so those who endure will be rewarded. One of the most important aspects of Iran’s religion is a culture permeated with a sense of justice.[7] The establishment of what Iranians believe to be justice is extremely important because this concept directs individuals and the country towards a goal of the rectification of wrongs. Justice for Shi’a Iranians means making things how ought to be, and this highly impacts Iranian diplomacy.

Iranian Diplomatic Characteristics

As a result of its goals, history, and background factors, Iranian diplomacy displays some patterns. Some of these are peculiar to Iran while others are shared by Iran and other countries. The most important elements of Iranian diplomacy are: 1) Iran’s pursuit of Justice, 2) Increased Rigidity when Under Pressure, 3) More Flexible Diplomacy when in a Position of Weakness, 4) Domestic Factors.

One of the strongest and most consistent elements of Iranian diplomacy is its pursuit of finding a just solution. In one sense, this position allows for flexibility, because the end of justice is paramount rather than the means required for reaching that point.  However, it is often difficult to change the Iranian perspective of what the just end itself is. The Iranian sense of justice was and is responsible for many aspects of their diplomacy. For example, the Iranian ability to end the Soviet occupation over part of its territory in 1947 was seen as a triumph of justice. On the other hand, the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 was viewed conversely as the triumph of injustice which needed reversal, which came in 1979 with the just revolution, and so on.  During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the Iranian government and Khomeini believed that the deliverance of justice was necessary for ending the war, not strategic factors or the loss of life, saying “all we are seeking is justice…we want our rights.”[8] Justice in this case was defined international recognition that Iraq was the aggressor. The concept of justly seeking one’s rights is also a reason that Iran strongly believes it has the right to enrich radioactive material. The Iranian concept of justice is closely connected with Iran’s wariness of legalistic jargon in the conduct of diplomacy, as many Iranians, influenced by cultural notions of justice believed that international law was often used to cheat them of their rights.[9] Iranians prefer achieving a satisfying end result than worrying about the process of getting there.[10]

Another aspect of Iranian diplomacy is the tendency of the Iranian government to become more rigid when under pressure. Iranian diplomats and other public figures often state that they are willing to negotiate with the United States and other powers about their nuclear program, but not as long as the United States increases pressure on them through economic sanctions and threats of military strikes. This aspect of Iranian diplomacy was also evident during the Hostage Crisis when the Iranian government chose to defy the United States and international opinion instead of opting for a quick end to the crisis.[11] The Iranian tendency to become more rigid due to pressure has its roots in the Iranian appreciation for taking a strong moral stance instead of choosing an expedient route, since changing course in the face of pressure is deemed to be calculating and shows a willingness to sacrifice principles.[12] Another reason that Iranian diplomacy tends towards rigidity at times is the contempt of Iranians for weakness and respect for strength. [13]Any Iranian government that buckles under international pressure could lose legitimacy.

As long as the pressure is bearable, Iran will favor defiance over retreating on its principles. The Islamic Republic of Iran is founded on the concept of resistance to tyranny and interference, whether it has been from the Shah, Iraq, or the United States. Since the survival of the regime is its paramount goal, moving away from its revolutionary stance is a way for the regime to delegitimize itself. However, if external issues pose a greater threat to the survival of the regime than its own internal legacy, it can resort to a more flexible diplomatic approach. Iran is much more likely to use negotiate when it is in a position of weakness because negotiations are seen as an instrument of survival when strength fails.[14] Iran has resorted to negotiations to improve its condition on several occasions. One such occasion was during the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan in Iran in 1946, where Iran was in no position domestically or militarily to evict the Soviet Army. It was necessary for Iran to concede to or appear to concede to some Soviet demands in order to achieve the withdrawal of Soviet troops.[15] In such a scenario, Iran showed itself capable of calculation. Iran also proved itself flexible in 1988 when it accepted a United Nations brokered cease-fire with Iraq, despite not meeting its objectives of defeating Iraq or at least receiving international acknowledgment that Iraq was the aggressor in the war. However, continuing the war was judged by the regime to be a threat to its very existence, so Ayatollah Khomeini “drank a cup of poison” and accepted the cease-fire with Iraq.[16]

Finally, Iranian diplomacy is influenced by domestic factors and factions. This may often prevent the government of Iran from presenting a coherent and consistent policy for negotiations. There are numerous factions among the Iranian elite competing for power, and it may work in the interests of various factors to appear tough or conciliatory at various points in order to gain the upper hand in Iran. For example, an attempt made by the United States in 1998-1999 to discuss better relations with Iran went nowhere due to factional infighting within Iran.[17] Iran’s many competing factions and tangled political setup also mean that Iranian diplomacy may often be conducted through bodies or individuals who do not wield the power they might be thought to on the basis of their titles. General policy and final decisions are usually made by the Supreme Leader and not the President.[18] As such, it is important to talk to the right people and not be distracted or influenced by statements coming from people in Iran such as President Ahmadinejad, who despite his title, has limited ability to set policy. Unfortunately, many non-Iranians unfamiliar with Iran’s political system assume that Iran is a dictatorship. However, this is not the case, and laws, treaties, and other decisions often have to get the approval of a parliament (Majlis) or various ministries. Although the course of events is almost always set by the Supreme Leader, Iran’s government still has to go through various channels before a new policy can be implemented, just like American sanctions on Iran would need the approval of Congress to be lifted, even if the President decides to change America’s policy towards Iran.


The more unique aspects of Iran’s diplomatic style come into play when a major issue is at stake, one that is perceived to affect Iran’s political system or prestige, or one related to a historical grievance. These are not the result of stupidity or irrationality but are the product of domestic factors, history, pride, or calculation. It is important for Americans or any foreign power dealing with Iran to move beyond stereotypes regarding the Iranian Furthermore, it is essential to avoid misconceptions of Iran that may arise because of the projection of one’s own country’s style of diplomacy on Iran. For example, Americans might believe that putting economic pressure on Iran will prompt the Iranian government to negotiate or scrap their nuclear program because it is in their rational economic interests to do so. However, putting pressure on Iran is likely to trigger an even more obstinate Iranian position because Iranians believe it is both unjust and weak- Iranians despite weakness- to give in to pressure. It is also important to remember that Iran is influenced by its history and holds grudges longer than many Western countries do. It has become more common in the modern West to work beyond historical grudges when conducting diplomacy but this is not necessarily the case in Iran, or much of the world.

A further misconceptions may arise about Iranian diplomacy is that Iran inherently pursues relations with rouge states such as North Korea or is a natural destabilizer by sponsoring militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. However, this has more to do with Iran’s reduced ability to pursue more respectable options as a member of the international community because of the political and economic risks of conducting normal relations or doing business in Iran. However, Iran is very much able to act like a normal state in its relations with some of its neighbors in that it carries on regular trade without any historical or ideological component with many of its neighbors. For example, Iran recently finalized a plan in March 2013 to build a gas pipeline to Pakistan.


Iran’s style of diplomacy has its advantages and disadvantages. Iran’s style of diplomacy has managed to achieve much of its goals, despite the great constraints facing it. The main goal of Iranian diplomacy and policy has been the preservation of its regime. So far, it has achieved this, despite enduring a war with Iraq and American led sanctions primarily because of its sponsoring of militant groups and alleged nuclear weapons program. Ironically, these sanctions could have been avoided if Iran had maintained better relations with the United States and dealt with the Hostage Crisis in a different manner. Without sanctions, it can be argued that Iran’s government would have a better chance of survival and the lack of hostility towards the United States would enhance its security position in the Middle East. This could be a weakness on the part of Iranian diplomacy- the tendency of the country’s leaders to prioritize justice or rhetoric over long term interests.[19] However, on the other hand, it is quite possible that it is in the interests of the regime to cultivate a sense of siege in order to maintain domestic support. The Islamic, revolutionary nature of the regime could be undermined if the country opens up too much to foreign economic, political, and cultural influences, and that would also cause the collapse of the Islamic Republic. In this case, Iranian diplomacy is also successful in that it preserves the regime and blunts the worst effects of international sanctions while also making it look heroic by being tough.

However, Iran’s style of diplomacy has limitations as well if it is too rigid or too heavily invested in the concept of justice. It would be difficult for Iranians to achieve their other goals such as prestige and increased influence in the Middle East through their present path. Just as misconceptions about Iran abound in the United States and other countries, Iranians also have misconceptions about aspects of the international system and international norms. If Iran wishes to be accepted as an equal member of the community of nations, it must also be prepared to modify some of its behavior and rhetoric and put aside its suspicion that international law is designed to deny some countries their rights. From a more long-term point of view, it would be reasonable for Iran to forgo winning and gaining justice for smaller causes in order to gain victory and justice for the larger cause of finally becoming a respected member of the international community. This in and off itself is entirely compatible with the Iranian tradition of valuing the result more than the process. Iran has shown itself to be flexible and pragmatic at times, and not only at moments of weakness. For example, Iran offered to cooperate with the United States against their mutual enemy, the Taliban in Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks in 2001. Like China from the 1950s to the 1970s, a great country such as Iran, despite its history and civilization, cannot live up to its full potential and earn the respect it craves while it is economically backwards and isolated from the international community. This does not necessitate the change of regime in Iran; it is entirely plausible that the government of Iran will be able to survive an opening, and if this condition is met however its leaders choose to meet it, it would be a lot easier for the Iranian government to move towards the achievement of their own goals. On the other hand, even if the regime in Iran will lose credibility if Iran is squeezed too hard and it fails to provide for its people, which will also be a risk for its survival. Thus, although Iran has played the diplomatic game well enough to avoid making any major changes in its domestic and foreign policies, eventually some combination of factors and the interplay of its goals and diplomatic moves will necessitate a change in some aspect or another in how it pursues its goals.


[1] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 8.

[2] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 9.

[3] Zogby, James. The Rise and Fall of Iran in Muslim Public Opinion. The Huffington Post. March 9, 2013.

[4] Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, 266-267.

[5] Limbert, Negotiating with Iran, 46.

[6] Limbert, Negotiating with Iran, 81.

[7] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 12.

[8] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 12.

[9] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 5.

[10] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 5.

[11] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 13.

[12] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 13.

[13] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 11-12.

[14] Limbert, Negotiating with Iran, 35.

[15] Limbert, Negotiating with Iran, 47.

[16] Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 181.

[17] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2.

[18] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 7-8.

[19] Limbert, Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 13.


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Written by Akhipill

March 12, 2013 at 9:57 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

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