Nuclear Talks: Paradigm Shift in Iran Foreign Policy?

P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland. November 24, 2013. U.S. Mission / Eric Bridiers

by Adnan Tabatabai

During my recent trip to Tehran I had a chance to listen to and participate in discussions on both the political and societal levels about the final stages of the nuclear talks. As I discussed here in mid-February, the level of anxiety in Iran could not be higher.

More importantly, the overall debate about the talks and all its details goes far beyond factional politics. The often-cited (mostly Western) perception that debates in Iran on the nuclear issue run along factional lines is simplistic and misleading.

This debate is not defined by an ideological or programmatic gap between reformists and principlists or moderates and conservatives. Rather, this debate is about Iran’s general foreign policy conduct. In fact, the Islamic Republic is in the process of implementing a foreign policy shift from isolation and resistance towards constructive engagement and cooperation.

If the implementation of this new conduct proves effective and yields foreign policy successes (such as a comprehensive nuclear agreement), it may well lead to an enduring new foreign policy paradigm. But speaking of Iranian politics in factional terms—even after the deal is struck—can harm Iran’s internal dynamics and distract from following up on a promising new foreign policy approach.

Growing Regional Instability

Iran’s foreign policy shift is a logical consequence of the dramatic regional developments since 2010-11 as well as evolving domestic dynamics as early as spring 2011. These changes began to take place long before anyone expected Hassan Rouhani to win the presidential elections in summer 2013.

On the regional front, the post-“Arab Spring” contexts have significantly changed the nature of Iran’s regional security concerns and threat perceptions. Between the early 2000s and early 2011, literally encircled by US military bases, troops, and US-controlled air space, Iran perceived the US military presence in the region as its major security threat.

After 2011, however, the lack of stability, integrity, and security in the region concerned Tehran. With the gradual withdrawal of the US in the region (particularly from Iraq) Iran has had no choice but to act as a responsible actor trying to stabilize this highly conflict-prone region. There is no external superpower anymore that Iran can blame for the region’s insecurity.

Iran has thus put a lot of effort into strengthening the central governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Similarly, Tehran advised Yemen’s Ansarullah movement not to seize the capital Sana’a (but it did not listen). It is not in Iran’s security interest for non-state actors to gain control of capitals in the region. After all, no international conventions, no bilateral or multilateral agreements, and no diplomatic principles apply to such organizations.

Extremism, as Iranian officials well understand, flourishes best in such fragile contexts. The uncontrolled circulation of weapons, the increasing number of refugees, and the negative impact on the overall regional economics all pose a direct threat to Iran.

Hence, the Rouhani administration is seeking to foster regional cooperation. It has made overtures to Saudi Arabia many times and on various levels since Rouhani became president. But this outreach has not been well received in Riyadh. Indeed, the olive branch appears to have intimidated Saudi Arabia.

The already complex relation between the two countries reached a new low during the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen explicitly aimed at thwarting what Riyadh perceives as Iran’s regional ambitions. Western states may therefore have to facilitate rapprochement, according to some Iranian officials who believe in the necessity of improved relations.

Emphasis on National Security

Not only regional developments have made Iran change course in its foreign policy. The eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-13) were defined by a foreign policy that established resistance as an intrinsic value. The idea of resisting US dominance in the region was ubiquitous.

Iran became increasingly isolated regionally and globally. The international sanctions regime significantly exacerbated the already existing economic problems of the country. In addition, the social, cultural, and political environments progressively worsened due to the provocative and polarizing policies encouraged by the dominant discourse.

Eyeing events and uprisings in other parts of the region, however, Iran’s political elite realized this situation was not tenable. Influential clerics and commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, as well as veteran political figures, expressed serious concerns. Two years into the second term of president Ahmadinejad, segments of the elite came to the conclusion that internal divisions and external tensions were starting to undermine national security.

This sense of “national security” became the basis of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. To put it bluntly, Rouhani promotes the idea of regional cooperation and win-win not because he cares for the win of the “other,” but for what he believes is the most valuable win for Iran: national security. Rouhani speaks in favor of opening up Iran socially and politically not because he believes in pluralism and social participation but because he is convinced that a repressive political landscape will lead to conflict and endanger national security.

Link between Foreign and Domestic Politics

Given the urgent need to improve the economy of the country, President Rouhani has thrown all his weight behind the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is the embodiment of the foreign policy shift that president Rouhani intends to implement. The minister is seeking constructive dialogue with regional and global powers in order to explore common ground for cooperation.

This new approach has one big shot to prove itself. A comprehensive nuclear agreement can show that diplomatic dialogue in a multilateral format can break deadlocks. It will further demonstrate that the world powers acknowledge and appreciate constructive diplomacy and have changed their views towards Iran. If the Rouhani administration succeeds in translating this achievement into less economic hardship, a more responsive job market, and a gradual political opening, his strategy will gain him enduring popularity.

Opponents to this approach can be found in all political camps. Some stress their distrust of Western states. Others believe that Iran as an anti-imperialist revolutionary state should not give concessions to world powers. Other voices argue that Iran is able to stand on its own feet and survive economically even with sanctions in place – an assessment some well-established economists share. The hardship, they argue, is worth the independence Iran maintains by not giving in to external pressure.

But the vast majority of people and political figures alike support Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Supreme Leader Khamenei reiterated his support in a recent meeting with high-ranking officials. Given the broad-based support and the political capital invested in the talks by all sides, a deal will likely be struck soon in Vienna.

Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

Adnan Tabatabai

Adnan Tabatabai is co-founder and CEO of the Germany based think tank CARPO – Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient. As an Iranian affairs analyst, he is consulted by European policy-makers and businesses, as well as by research institutions and political foundations. Tabatabai holds an assigned lectureship at the University of Dusseldorf, and is the author of the book "Morgen in Iran“ (2016, Edition Korber Stiftung). Twitter: @A_Tabatabai



  1. Mr. Tabatabai – how does building a nuclear bomb, ICBM missiles and calling for the annihilation of the Jews contribute to Iran becoming a “responsible actor in the Middle East.
    “If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”
    You can fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

  2. This is highly satisfactory to read such objective report from Iran. I like to add that Iranian negotiating team has shown they can wrestle any diplomatic squad of any country or all combine in one. At the end of the day, weather they obtain a deal or no deal, Islamic Republic will stand tall in Iran and the region.

  3. Mr.ruven golan hypothesis of “….. building nuclear bomb, ICBM missiles and calling for the annihilation of the Jews ….”are all wrong and based on Mr.Netanyahu’s latest totally false claims in his desperate efforts(in cooperation with Saudis ) to prevent any agreement between Iran and the west and to convince or rather coerce the US to choose war option rather than negociation and agreement with Iran.
    It is Israel that has built and has stocks of about 200 nuclear bombs, against all international laws,treaties and agreements. Iran has never built or has the possibility of buildind nuclear weapons of any sort.This is testified by Israeli and all western intelligence agencies. Don’t you know that ?!
    ICBM missiles for a country lacking the technology of production or a sufficient stock of war plains worthy of a prolonged defencive combat is a life saving necessity,specially in the light of constant open Israeli threats to attack Iran, even with nuclear weapons. Unfortunately Iran has not yet succeeded to build long range missiles which is an essential means of defence for the innocent people of Iran under threats of American military might and Iraeli nuclear bombs. Perhaps Mr.ruven golan expects Iran to sit defenceless and take all the “gifts” that kind and humane Mr.Netanyahu and Israeli military may wish to send them ??
    As for calling for annihilation of the Jews….IRAN HAS NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER IN THE EXISTENCE OR NON-EXISTENCE OF ISRAEL. But Iran, like the great majority of people and nations of the world, is unhappy with the condition created by Israeli cruel and inhuman treatment of innocent women,children,elderly…of Palestine. The whole world is asking Israel to accept some sort of permanent ,just and honourable solution for the Palestinian conflict. If the the Palestinian problem is settled do you think any person or country can object the existence of Israel or would want “annihilation ” of Zionism ??
    Iran is the last country in the world which could be accused of being anti-Jew. If you are a real Jew sir, and are concerned with the safety of the Jews ,you better read your Jewish history and your Tore once again. Iran has been and still is the safest place on earth for the Jews. Even today the biggest population of Jews in any country in the Middle East after Israel (according to some Iranian Jewish sources,even including Israel) is in Iran.The majority of Iranian Jews refused to leave Iran for Israel despite all the incentives offered by Israeli government and those who chose to go to Israel after taking all that they could from Israeli government came back home to Iran again !! Iran has been the safest refuge for Jews, as testified by over nearly 3000 years of history. It is a safe investment for the Jews to keep Iran and Iranians as their fried for a rainy day !! You never know !!
    I think it would be a great service to Jews if Israeli government and the Zionists ceased to talk on behalf of Jews or in “defence” of Jews – a feeling expressed again and again in small and big demonstrations by Jews all over the world, including in London and Israel itself. The Israeli Government and the right wing Zionists are awakening a new wave of anti-Jew sentiments all over the world,especially in the West.

  4. Mr. Hassan you choose to close your eyes and ears when Mr Rouhani publicly calls for the annihilation of Israel. Or when recently when one of your generals stated “the destruction of Israel is non negotiable”. Can you explain to me what is the meaning of the “Big Satan & Little Satan” Iran’s leaders speak about?
    Palestine was established in 1922 by the San Remo Conference and League of Nations as a homeland for Jews.The Arabs in Palestine before the establishment of Israel were Jordanian or Egyptian citizens. The Arab nations refused the UN partition plan, in 1948 5 Arab nations attacked a fledgling unarmed Israel and lost. I am not going to write a discourse on the defensive wars Israel has fought since then, or when during the Clinton And Bush administrations the Arabs in Judea Samaria and Gaza refused to accept a solution which gave them 98% of those territories. Gaza was evacuated a few years ago as well as southern Lebanon. And what have we received in return? Rockets and terror.
    The indigenous Arabs in Israel are free to leave if they are treated so poorly.
    When was the last time you saw a Jew beheading and Arab in Israel? Or a public hanging, or lashing there? And you dare speak of cruelty? What about the 10’s even 100’s of thousands of people dying in Syria, Irag and Yemen?
    Do you not hear what is preached in the mosques all over the world? Do you not listen to what Iranian financed Hamas and Hezbollah leaders say publicly?
    I suggest you read our Book of Esther to find out what your Haman had in store for the Jews several thousands of years ago.
    I don’t know where you get your information about Israel’s 200 nukes, but never mind only a few of those will be enough in a worst case situation.
    Unless of course Iran’s maniac mullahs disappear. I really hope so because I love Iran’s tasty pistachios.

  5. Netanyahu sends implicit threat to Iran ahead of nuclear deadline
    ‘Israel will always defend itself, and its air force will play a major role,’ prime minister says in comments at pilots’ graduation ceremony.
    By Barak Ravid 21:05 25.06.15 0

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted Thursday that Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, even if Tehran and the powers nail down a historic deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program next week.

    “Whatever happens, Israel will always defend itself, and the Air Force plays a major role in this,” Netanyahu said at a pilots’ course graduation ceremony.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will head for Vienna on Friday to take part in a final phase of the talks aimed at sealing a comprehensive international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

    The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia are also due to join the talks over the weekend, in a push to secure a final deal by the June 30 deadline.

    A senior member in the American negotiation team told reporters Thursday that there are still differences between the sides about how soon the sanctions would be lifted and over the method of supervising the Iranian nuclear program.

    He said the sides may not reach an agreement by June 30 and will have to extend the talks by a few days to solve the remaining differences. “I can see a path forward that gets us to a very good deal. We have technical solutions, but we need political decisions,” he said.

    Speaking at the pilots’ graduation, Netanyahu expressed concern over the agreement being drafted with Iran and said again that the closer June 30 approaches, the greater the powers’ concessions to Iran.

    “These concessions are increasing Iran’s appetite and every day it raises the bar, with the intention of extorting more concessions,” he said.

    “In recent days Iran ruler Ali Khamenei rejected even the most basic conditions in the bad agreement drafted in Lausanne,” Netanyahu added.

    “He said no to the restrictions on the nuclear program in the coming decade, no to conditioning the sanctions’ revocation on Iran’s keeping the agreement, no to [supervisors’] access to military sites. Even if Iran waives some of these demands in a few days, the powers’ basic concession will be huge and it will be a clear withdrawal from red lines the powers had publicly set earlier.”

    Netanyahu said the supervision method the powers are discussing with Iran is “full of holes” and will enable the Iranians to create a nuclear bomb less than 10 years after the agreement’s signature.

    The agreement will bring a flow of billions of dollars to the Iranian economy, enabling Iran to increase its subversion in the Middle East, Netanyahu said.

    “It’s still not too late [for the powers] to come to their senses, to insist on a good agreement and it’s certainly not too late not to advance a bad agreement,” he added.

    “As world leaders always say, no agreement is better than a bad agreement.”

Comments are closed.