Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Between Ideology and Pragmatism

Mert Aslan Assistant, Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Between Ideology and Pragmatism

Osiewicz, P. (2021) Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Between Ideology and Pragmatism. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis. 196 pages.

ISBN: 978-0367863067

Przemyslaw Osiewicz completed his doctorate in Political Science at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan and Södertörn University in Stockholm between 1998-2003.  After his doctorate education, he worked as an academician at Cyprus Eastern Mediterranean University and the University of Nicosia; Taiwan Chinese Culture University and National Taipei University; Turkey Konya University and Mersin University; Sweden Linnaeus University; Belgium Ghent University; Iran the Institute for Political and International Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the United States of the America University of Nevada, Cleveland State University, Texas State University and Georgetown University; Pakistan National University of Sciences and Technology. Specializing in the European Union’s policies on the Middle East and North Africa region, Osiewicz is interested in Iran’s foreign policy and Turkey’s foreign relations. Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Between Ideology and Pragmatism, published in 2021, is the only book of Osiewicz, who has more than a hundred studies in the field of Political Science and International Relations. Osiewicz has been an associate professor at Adam Mickiewicz University since 2015, as well as a non-resident scholar at the Washington Middle East Institute. In addition, Osiewicz is a board member of the Polish International Studies Association and a member of the Polish Political Science Association.

Przemyslaw Osiewicz wrote his book “Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Between Ideology and Pragmatism” in the fortieth year of the Islamic Revolution to explain the basic structure of Iranian foreign policy. Explaining the dilemmas of Iranian decision-makers between ideological factors and pragmatist foreign policy choices in the post-1979 period, Osiewicz included numerous quotes from state leaders and worldwide known Iran experts in the book. Osiewicz has divided his book into three main parts: “Historical Background: Iranian Foreign Policy Under Pahlavi Dynasty”, “The Islamic Republic of Iran: The Framework of Foreign Policy After 1979,” and “Iranian Foreign Policy in Practice: Selected Case Studies”, along with the “Introduction” and “Conclusion” chapters. These sections are divided into sub-headings within themselves. As it can be understood from the titles of the chapters, while the first chapter describes the ideas of Reza Shah and his son Mohammed Reza Shah, who were influential in the determination of Iran’s foreign policy after 1925, the second part deals with the main actors of Iranian foreign policy and decision-making processes after the Islamic Revolution, together with the ideological reflections of the Revolution. The third and last part evaluates the relations of Iran’s foreign policy both with regional countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and with global powers such as the USA, China, and Russia, through case studies. In addition, in the last part of the book, Iran’s relations with the Gulf states, the European Union and the Central Asian region are also explained.

In the “Introduction”, the author mentions that there are different definitions about Iran, such as “an unpredictable international relations actor”, “an aggressive regional state,” or “potential threat,” and claims that Iran’s cultural structure is at the root of these definitions. In fact, according to the author, Iran does not openly express its domestic and foreign policy aims, claiming that it is misunderstood when it is in a difficult situation. In the section, which also includes the impact of the “Twelve Imams” understanding on the Iranian political system, the effects of clerics from daily political decisions to foreign policy determination mechanisms are mentioned. After the Islamic Revolution, the foundations of Iran’s foreign policy were built on maintaining the existence of a theocratic government and ensuring sustainable growth. As a matter of fact, these two issues are of vital importance even in today’s multidimensional Iranian foreign policy. At the end of the chapter, the understanding of the “Iranian Empire” of the Pahlavi Dynasty is mentioned and the other parts of the book are explained.

The part titled “Historical Background: Iranian Foreign Policy Under Pahlavi Dynasty”, which focuses on the years between 1925 and 1979, tells the internal and external developments in Iran through Reza Shah’s understanding of diplomacy and Mohammed Reza Shah’s desire for an “Iranian Empire” idea. According to Osiewicz, to make sense of Iran’s foreign policy after 1979, it is necessary to examine the Pahlavi and Qajar eras. Iran’s foreign policy in the Pahlavi Period was shaped under the influence of its rich Persian history. According to this historical perspective, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan have been accepted as spheres of influence of Iranian foreign policy. In part, in addition to the military, political and economic problems of the Qajar’s Period, it is mentioned that the reform movements of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey were adopted by Reza Shah for Iran and the Shah’s relative liberation of Iran from the Russian and British influence.  In the continuation of the section, the process of bringing Mohammad Reza Shah to power by the Soviets and the British on September 16, 1941, the CIA coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in the 1950s, Iran’s increasing power after the oil crisis in the 1970s, the weakening of the idea of the “Iranian Empire”, and the failed reforms of Mohammed Reza Shah are described. At the end of the first part, the collapse of the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, which was defined as the “Arc of Crisis” by the Carter administration, and the process until the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini are mentioned.

In the second part of the book titled “The Islamic Republic of Iran: The Framework of Foreign Policy After 1979”, the ideological and institutional structure of Iran’s foreign policy after 1979 is explained. The part Ideology and Pragmatism, which are effective in the determination of Iranian foreign policy after the Iranian Islamic Revolution, are theoretically explained with reference to the conflicts between these two phenomena. In the part where opposing views on whether political Shiism is beneficial for society or not, Khomeinism, which emerged as a doctrine within the Shiite ideology, is mentioned. The section, which also includes the effects of Shiism and Khomeinism on Iran’s domestic and foreign policy, also describes the actors who have the capacity to influence Iran’s foreign policy. After the Islamic Revolution, the understanding of “Neither West nor East”, which has an important place in Iranian foreign policy, the impact of Khomeinism on today’s Iranian diplomacy, the realism-idealism conflict that has been effective in different periods in Iran, and the main objectives of Iranian foreign policy are also mentioned. At the end of the second part, it is claimed that after the Iran-Iraq War and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s foreign policy shifted to a pragmatic rather than ideological axis. Rather than directly supporting his own arguments, Osiewicz aimed for the reader to see different points of view by reflecting opposing ideas within the part.

The third part of the book “Iranian Foreign Policy in Practice: Selected Case Studies” can be considered as the most important part in terms of both being the longest chapter and examining Iranian foreign policy through case studies. As a matter of fact, in the chapter, Iranian foreign policy is examined through several different regions and countries. Another important aspect of the chapter, which is divided into separate subheadings for each region and country, is that each subheading has its own conclusion.  Thanks to this method adopted by Osiewicz, it is easier to examine Iran’s foreign policy in different regions and countries. The chapter, which was written with the aim of making sense of today’s Iranian foreign policy on a regional and global scale, begins with the explanation of Iran-Gulf relations. The Gulf region has played a decisive role for Iran in the post-Revolution period due to its political and economic potential. Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia, which it considers as a regional rival, also directly affect its policies in this region. Although Iran’s Gulf policy has undergone significant changes through Iran-West relations and Iran-Arab cooperation during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s term, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain stand out as unresolved problems for Iran. In the section, which continues with the explanation of Iran-Syria relations since the 1980s, it is emphasized that the Syria-Iran partnership will only end with the death of Bashar Assad. Like the Syria section, Iran-China relations were also examined in the post-1980 period. While economic interests lie based on Iran’s foreign policy towards China, Iran has an important place in the Belt and Road Initiative, which is one of the most important China’s global projects. On the other hand, it is claimed that Iran-China relations have developed because of the US-centred international system. Iran-Central Asia relations and Iran’s policies towards Pakistan, India and Afghanistan are explained in this part. The section, which also includes Iran-Russia relations, continues with the explanation of Iran-European Union relations through nuclear policies and economic sanctions. While the part ends with a description of the lack of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, it is fundamental for understanding Iranian foreign policy in different regions and countries.

In the “Conclusion” section, Osiewicz emphasizes that although heavy economic sanctions and many different obstacles are encountered, the multidimensionality of Iranian foreign policy is tried to be preserved by Iranian decision-makers. Based on this, it is claimed that Iranian leaders often try to gain some political gains on the axis of pragmatism rather than ideology in their foreign policy determination processes. Osiewicz cites the Nuclear Deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015, as a key example of this claim. According to Osiewicz, the leaders considered to be the determinants of Iran’s foreign policy in the post-Revolution period - Khomeini, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani - were all aware of the importance of diplomacy. For this reason, it is very crucial for Iran’s foreign policy to have good relations with the West and especially representation in the international arena despite the sanctions. On the other hand, in the conclusion part, it is claimed that the reformist-hardliner conflict seen in Iran’s domestic policy sometimes affects the foreign policy as well. Although Iran’s foreign policy in the post-Revolution Era is Middle East-centred, Central Asia and the Gulf regions, which are considered as neighboring regions by Iran, are also regions where Iranian foreign policy is active. Osiewicz completed his book with possible scenarios against the ongoing US sanctions, which he considers to be the most fundamental problem of Iran’s foreign policy.

The book written by Osiewicz is substantial to understand the fundamental dynamics of Iranian foreign policy, the changes in foreign policy after the Islamic Revolution, and the situations where ideology and pragmatism axes intersect and diverge. The book includes the opinions or quotations of high-level Iranian officials such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Qasem Soleimani, state leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Mikhail Gorbachev, Saddam Hussein, or experts in various fields in Iran such as Afshon Ostovar, Alex Vatanka, Nikolay Kozhanov. Osiewicz has produced a very comprehensive work in terms of literature, reflecting not only his own views but also many different views that are against each other. In addition, the proof of the theoretical information presented about Iran’s foreign policy through real-life examples increases the original value of the book. I think this book, written by Osiewicz, who gave education in many different countries after his doctorate education, will be a reference book for anyone interested in Iranian foreign policy or who wants to specialize in Iranian foreign policy due to its unique writing style and different perspectives